Sunday 27 December 2020

The studio at Liboc: Walther Klemm & early colour woodcut


Walther Klemm enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna in 1902. This was the year a number of Austrian artists associated with the Secession began making colour woodcuts. In the spring a colour woodcut workshop had been set up at the Secession exhibition halls where artists worked together making prints and sharing techniques. The most important of them so far as knowledge of technique went was Emil Orlik. He had not only been to London where he had met both Frank Morley Fletcher and William Nicholson, he had also been to Japan and studied colour woodcuts methods there. This had created enough interest for Orlik to have a touring exhibition of the work he had produced during his stay. It also included work by the ukiyo-e artists he had collected (a collection that remained intact until it was sold by Sotheby's in London when the Museum of Fine Art in Prague bought a small selection). This had begun in Berlin and moved on to Dresden, Prague and Brno. 

Orlik was very interested in going to source wherever it happened to be and after his visit to London, made The English woman (1899) one of his first larger woodcuts and a seminal print but using only two colours. (I will illustrate this in another post). But there was always something uneventful about Orlik's colour woodcuts. They could be documentary and unexciting while and the peacocks and turkeys made by Klemm and Hans Frank had verve and vigour. According to Gustav Mahler, Orlik was talkative, a strength when it came to dealing with students and other artists but he was also academic, a side to his character that came out when he included work from his collection in the 1902 exhibition.

The other main participant at the 1902 exhibition was Carl Moll. He was editor of the Secession magazine Ver Sacrum and apparently showed woodcuts that year. His prints were bigger than Orlik's but had a similar understated, documentary feel to them and never made dramatic use of colour. 1902 was also the year that Hans Frank enrolled at  the Kunstgewerbeschule and, as I said in the recent post about him, he had begun to make his peacock prints in 1904. A year later Klemm was back in Prague where he met Carl Thiemann in the street one day. Both were natives of the spa town of Karlsbad (which David Hockney visited in the 1970s) and took a studio together in Liboc on the western side of the city and where Klemm introduced Thiemann to colour woodcut.

Klemm was twenty-two and Thiemann twenty-three and over the three years they spent at Liboc  the two artists worked together on the first great collaboration of modern colour woodcut. Their common starting point should be fairly obvious. Nicholson's The square book of animals (above) published by William Heinemann in London in time for Christmas 1899 was by and large pastiche. The blocks he used were box and he only once printed the colours by hand (for A fisherman in The Dome magazine). Hans Frank's peacocks also appear to be forerunners by a year while it is generally considered that Orlik showed Klemm the technique (though I have yet to come across any documentation in English). Orlik had previously made a series of woodcuts that included views of old Prague. I also believe Klemm and Thieman then worked together on a portfolio of colour woodcuts of the old city which were very different from the work of Orlik. Enhanced by powerful and vigorous cutting and subdued colour, Thiemann's in particular were the work of a sensitive painter while Klemm used the architecture to organise the picture plane (below).


The best collection of these early prints by Klemm is held by the Museum of Fine Art in Budapest where an astute curator acquired prints it seemed almost as soon as Klemm had made them. Notable amongst them is 'Fishing boats on the Spree' (second from the top) made in 1906 presumably after a trip to Berlin. Here like nowhere else you see how original Klemm could be. Thiemann was a greater stylist than Klemm but the huts and wharves and their rough reflections on the Spree are the source for every one of Thiemann's later Venice woodcuts. If Thiemann had feeling, Klemm had ideas. Both needed each other for a time because both were very different but not yet different enough to go their own ways and during 1906 both artists worked on a second collaboration. (I' m assuming Old Prague came first.) This was a calendar for 1907 with twelve colour woodcuts and a black and white image on the front.

To be truthful I had forgottten all about this but to make amends I finally found four colour images including January and October (both above) by Klemm. A facsimile was produced by Thiemann's wife, Ottolie, in 1981 and these are both from that edition and once agaib make it plain what Klemm's strengths were. Thiemann's work was small scale and decorative. For all the small size, Klemm thought big and objective. The girl on the sledge is wonderfully depicted, with a strong sense of light, three dimensions and expression. I am in no doubt that Thiemann's print of a cockeral was the best of all the Liboc period by either artist but I suspect the idea came from Klemm. Thiemann never did a bird before and never did one again.

The two artists left Liboc in 1908 and moved to Dachau near Munich but the collaboration was at an end and some time afterwards Klemm took up a position as head of graphic art at the Weimar School of Art. There had been collaborations before in recent times - for instance between Nicholson and James Pryde as the Beggarstaff brothers and John Dickson Batten and Frank Morley Fletcher in London in the 1890s, but Klemm's introduction of Thiemann to new ideas marked the beginning of one of the best loved of all the series of prints made in central Europe early in the C20th. But it was Kleem who constantly invoked group effort with his wandering turkeys and it is Walther Klemm and myself who wish you a happy and prosperous 1907.

Saturday 12 December 2020

Road to the isles: Helen G Stevenson & Norma Bassett Hall


On 16th June, 1925, the American artist, Norma Bassett Hall arrived in Glasgow after sailing by ship from the United States with her husband, Arthur William Hall. The Halls immediately travelled on to Edinburgh to meet Mabel Royds and Ernest Lumsden who had respectively distinguished themselves as a colour woodcut artist and an etcher. Lumsden's The art of etching had only just been published in London and Philadelphia and since 1919 Royds was had been working on a series of woodcuts of India that remain unique in modern British printmaking to this day.

It goes without saying the Halls believed they had something to gain by coming so far and that Edinburgh might be an important staging-post in their common journey as artists. During their honeymoon in 1922, the Halls had put together Some prints of Cannon Beach  in book form. (I was under the impression these were linocuts though Jody Patterson in her book about Bassett Hall only describes them as block prints.) While William concentrated on etching after that, Bassett Hall read Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock printing and began making colour woodcuts in the way that he described.

This is the story that has been told about the journey, but looking at it with a dash of scepticism and a good deal of hindsight, it is difficult to see what the young artist from Oregon and the unconventional upper class Englishwoman might have in common apart from an interest in colour woodcut. Royds had attended at least three art schools, she had relatives living variously in manor houses in Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire, Allington Hall in West Derby, Liverpool, and a castle in Co. Louth, she had travelled widely, she was on the staff at Edinburgh College of Art, she had lived in Paris, she belonged to a fairly bohemian circle of friends and, more decisively, she had no interest in landscape or in depicting the country she had lived in for nearly twenty years. Hall, on the other hand, came from the backwoods and could tell a mean story by way of mountains, trails and trees. Or at least that is what she began to do once she and Arthur had taken the road to the isles.

In mid-August the Halls spent a week at Portree on the Isle of Skye and going by prints that she made after their return to the United States like A Highland croft (below, 1927 - 28) and Croft at Crianlarich (sixth image down, 1928 -29) they stopped off in Perthshire on the way to Skye. Hall made only four Highland prints, the other two being Portree Bay (seventh image down 1929) and Cottage in Skye (eighth down, 1941 - 42).  All of them prominently feature crofts like the ruined one above in Lochranza (1927) but none of them include a lonely tower. Highland redoubts, like the one in Lochranza, were prominent in the work of Helen Stevenson who understood that a ruin and a castle so often meant clearance of people from the land and emigration.

When the Halls arrived in Scotland, Stevenson had been teaching art for three years and had exhibited probably no more than half a dozen colour woodcuts. During her first year as a student on the applied art section at Edinburgh College of Art, the designer Charles Paine was head of the department, John Platt took over one year later but no two artists could be less alike than Stevenson and Platt, something that makes the common ground between Stevenson and Bassett Hall more intriguing. Only compare Stevenson's frazzled keyblock and over-printing for the thatch in The hen-wife (second from the top) and Bassett Hall's use of the same techniques in Croft at Crianlarich  and you will see what I mean. And it doesn't stop there. The way Stevenson handled the light and shade on the tree behind the croft is repeated by Bassett Hall. It is always possible that the woman looking down at her hens in Croft at Crianlarich is the same person as Stevenson's hen-wife. No one knows. The fact remains Bassett Hall learned more from Stevenson than she did from Royds.

As a reader has only just commented in an email, Bassett Hall's work could be flat, but her Scottish subjects brought out the best in her and I think the Highland prints are the best things she made. They had an intensity and drama that was beyond the means of Stevenson who would not have had the gable-end of the cottage echoed by the mountain peaks. Stevenson was true to what she saw around her; Hall turned the hen-wife into a frontiers-woman and the Highlands into the Rockie Mountains, substituting a feeling for place with an uplifting message. Hall could be samey. There were too many shacks, too many trails, too many mountains and after a while you are not sure whether she is in Oregon or Provence.  There are not just too many different places, there are too many influences, including the engravings of Noel Rooke and the colour woodcut arches of Elizabeth York Brunton.

This is something you could never say about Stevenson. From early on, the Appin Peninsula, Argyll and its islands were the main focus of her work. England appears only once in Bamburgh Castle and Edinburgh twice in Edinburgh Castle  and Braid Burn. The burn was not far from her home in Morningside, but nearness didn't make it into a better print. Both were some of the weakest things she ever did. In this respect, she is the Highland Boxsius, a holiday artist who needed to get away from her job as an art teacher. Boxsius was a Londoner and occasionally depicted London with sensitivity. Stevenson reinvented herself in Argyll. She took what she had learned about poster design, illustration and stained glass from Paine and Platt, and turned it to good advantage. This was exactly the kind of training Hall never had and that no amount of visiting Edinburgh or the Central School or St. Paul de Vence would quite make up for. Her only consolation was the Highlands and her Highland guide.

Monday 7 December 2020

A Christmas card from Ernst Stoehr


A reader in Scotland has out me on to some prints by Ernst Stoehr (1865 - 1917) that made use of lino for the very first time between 1904 and 1908. At first sight none are obviously linocuts in the way that Hugo Henneberg's Der blaue Weiher (1904) is and the final print of the series has been properly described as mixed technique. All were sent out as Christmas cards by Stoehr and his wife, Frederike, and were dated on the back. Unfortunately when Dorotheum sold them last year in Vienna, they failed to give the dates. At a guess, the earliest cards are the ones that look most like lino though even there Stoehr was experimenting and as he went along, he tried different kinds of paper and different ways of applying ink.

Stoehr was a leading figure of the Vienna Secession which he helped found in 1897. He can be seen sixth from the left leaning forward in the homburg hat in the famous photograph taken at the 1902 Beethoven exhibition. Others included are the designer Koloman Moser, dapper and unmissable in front of Gustave Klimt seated in the chair and also Emil Orlik sitting cross-legged immediately to the right of Stoehr. Note the two painters who have left their paint-pots on the floor.

The Albertina give a date of 1904 - 1905 for the top print which they call Seelandschaft. The date makes sense because the fluid line that lino is so well-suited to can be seen along the left margin of the lake and in the brown shadow on the rock. As an image it is close to an oil, Abend am Weiher showing a winding path beside a lake made by Stoehr in 1903. What is surprising was the way he had identified two of the great strengths of lino as a medium. It is easy to work and made sense to use when making Christmas cards and it is soft and makes it easy to produce a sinuous line of the kind widespread among designers and artists of the period.

This all suggests to me how much all these artists were picking up from one another and trying out new approaches and how much making prints was a real part of the process. Only consider the way Stoehr has adapted the action of the roller to make suggestions rather than apply the ink evenly. He was obviously more interested in producing blocks of colour rather than hard lines and even-looking surfaces. Wisely he limited himself to grey and blue ink and achieved varying tomes either by putting less pressure on the block when printing (the leaves) or under-printing (the ground round the lake).

Under-printing was not unique to linocut. Ethel Kirkpatrick in Britain was using the technique with great subtlety on he Cornish prints about 1906 or 1907. But in order to appreciate what Kirkpatrick was doing you need to see successive proofs. Stoehr realised that with lino the technique could be used far more directly. Bear in mind nthis has become a standard approach when making lino prints and when he made his Christmas cards this was possibly the first time it had been applied so effectively.

By the time he made the lake-scene above, the techniques he used were much less obvious. Presumably the mountain and its shadow were printed over a basic stippled background partly. Only one of the sets if initials of the five sold last year in Vienna was printed. It may have been this one, but it is very hard to tell from a photo. Stoehr had a press at his home in Slovenia and this made it possible for him to experiment with effects.

You will not be surprised to read that Stoehr used pastel but printing colour impressions using lino blocks not only meant he could reproduce images for cards, he could achieve depth by conrasting the trees with the reflections of the woods and mountains.  Very few linocutters ever really both about the effects of light in their prints. Gertrude Lawrence was one of the few British artists to do so. What she had in common with Stoehr is that both were mainly painters and both of them understood the greater possibilities. So far as that goes, I think the print above is pretty good and certainly well-thought out.

The landscape above seems to be the last of the series and is dated 1908. Of all of them this is the one that is farthest from lino and closest to sablonenspritztechnik or stencil spray used by L.H. Jungnickel about the same time. Long-term readers might remember a series of posts about Jungnickel, including his use of stencil. This looks like Stoehr used blocks as a basis but no-one so far as I know has said exactly how the inks were applied. This uncertainty only goes to prove (if further proof were needed) how far Austrians artists were putting graphic art, including photography, not only at the centre of the modern movement, but making it a cornerstone of modern visual experience. The innovations made in France at the same time by Matisse, Derain and Picasso were far-reaching, but the Secession artists and designers in Austria moved beyond the easel tradition of the old masters to break new ground that left artists in France looking conservative. These are only Christmas cards, yes, but occasional, no, not never.

Friday 4 December 2020

Forthcoming books on colour woodcut


Readers will be interested to know that the cause of modern colour woodcut is advancing both in the United States and in Britain, with major books expected on the subject in both countries. The history of the subject remains little known despite often intense interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Contact between American and British artists was sometimes close and probably reached its zenith in the 1920s when Frank Morley Fletcher left Edinburgh College of Art to teach at the new Santa Barbara School of Arts in California and British artists won a succession of prestigious prizes at the California Printmakers annual exhibitions in Los Angeles.  

There is little doubt in my mind that it was a combination of professionalism, verve and showmanship that attracted Americans to The giant stride by John Platt (above, in his studio at Blackheath) in 1922. Arthur Rigden Read took another gold medal in for Cite de Carcassonne (top) in 1926 and for much the same reasons. By then the Californians had instituted the Storrow prize for best block print, taken by Allen Seaby for The trout in 1927 and Read for his study in affability, Nice weather for ducks, in 1932. The third gold was won by Eric Slater for Seaford Head (below) in 1930.

The British book on the subject is already with the Fleece Press, though I understand the publisher has yet to finish reading it. Not that it is long and tedious, but like Christmas pudding, it is probably best approached in modest amounts. Its joint subject is British colour woodcut and colour linocut from the very first small print made by John Dickson Batten in January, 1894, to the final masterpiece, Normandy beach (below) published by Ian Cheyne, the best of them all, in 1947. A roller coaster ride of history and artists, all the known favourites of readers are included and it promises to be as indispensable to collectors as it is to curators. If I am allowed further updates about either book, readers of Modern Printmakers will naturally be the first in the know.