Friday, 26 February 2021
Gertrude Brodie's 'Castle Hill, Settle'
Saturday, 20 February 2021
King of the wild frontier: the colour woodcuts of Gustave Baumann
Gustave Baumann has an ambiguous place in the history of modern American printmaking for two reasons. Firstly, he arrived in Chicago from Germany at the age of ten but returned to train in Munich as an adult. Secondly his principal training in the US was as a commercial artist and in Munich he trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule, which is usually translated into English as the School of Arts and Crafts or as the School of Applied Arts and Baumann only gradually moved away from a folksy, commercial idiom to the classic American Arts & Crafts prints he made depicting New Mexico and California that is celebrated for. In this respect, he reminds me of the Australian artist, John Hall Thorpe, who left Sydney for London in 1899 and eventually achieved considerable success by making colour woodcuts on a semi-commercial basis without ever learning how to print.
Hall Thorpe trained as an old-style wood-engraver on Sydney newspapers but never learned to print because all of that was done at the press. Baumann also worked as a commercial engraver in Chicago and took evening classes at the Art Institute before deciding to take further training in Munich in 1905. Training at the state schools was often conventional but Baumann was fortunate to study under Maximilian Dasio and Hans Neumann. Dasio had made an impact with a series of etchings, although the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco say he was also experimenting with lino, something that strikes me as unlikely. We are on safer ground with Neumann who is best known for refined colour woodcuts that depend on areas of shadow or other solid colour rather than a conventional keyblock. Neumann was thirty-two and had only begun making woodcuts in 1903 after being encouraged by Otto Eckmann, but most were were lacking in dynamism and his best prints were not made until 1907 and afterwards. (See the Index for the relevant post about Neumann and Eckmann).
Neumann was by no means a master at that point but he was a contributor to the glorious Munich art periodical, Der Jugend, notable for its vivid promotion of the great themes of modern life - fashion, design and travel. (Vol. 22, 1903, above, shows the entrance to the old port at La Rochelle). On the broader front, in a theatrical gesture, Eckmann had sold all his paintings at auction in 1894 and devoted himself to applied art. Even Dasio gave up printmaking and began designing coins and medals as a member of the civil service. This was the radical applied arts environment Baumann found in Munich in 1905, but when he returned to the States a year later, he continued working in commercial advertising studios as if nothing had happened and when he produced images for a calendar in 1910, the style was conventional and the prints relied heavily on a key-block.
He spent the summer at the artists colony of Nashville in Brown County, Indiana. The woodcuts he began to make that year of Brown County were much less dependent on caricature and when he published a portfolio of twelve prints in 1912 he called In the hills o' Brown (above) modern Munich/modern Vienna wasn't all that far away and this made them obviously better so long as you liked your prints in shades of brown and orange with dominant shadows. The difference was Austrian and German artists would sometimes produce different editions, printing some by hand and sending others to be printed at a press. All the prints from In the hills 'o Brown were produced at the press of The Brown Democrat, a newspaper still in operation today. The impression I get is that Baumann was still not a professional artist but spent time working in Chicago until he left Nashville in 1917.
He visited various places that year, including Provincetown (above in 1917). After the outbreak of war in 1914, Ethel Mars and Maud Squire had left France, settled there and with Bror Nordfeldt and a small number of others founded Provincetown Printers. Edna Boies Hopkins (who had known the other two women when she was working in France) arrived from Cincinnati the following year. This meant many leading American colour woodcut artists were all in one place for the first time. Baumann then began to organise a touring exhibition of his work and went down to stay with Chicago friends in Taos in 1918 so that he could attend the opening of his show in the new state capital of Santa Fe. Offered studio space in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts and a $500 loan to start him off, Baumann decided to stay.
By then his style had begun to change and Nordfeldt arriving at Santa Fe in 1919 was probably beside the point. Having led himself up a blind alley with his development of a white-line technique, Nordfeldt had given up woodcut entirely. The sources for Baumann's change of style are not hard to find. Mars' curious mottled printing, Hopkins' glorious use of bright colour and Neumann's use of blocks of colour were all adapted in a way that was typical of commercial printmaking where style was one of the selling-points. But once he was in Santa Fe, it was the country and its people who set the tone and Baumann proceeded to make a long series of accomplished prints of the south-western landscape. Strong on atmosphere and stylishness, they are often short on detail in a way that Mars and Boies Hopkins never were. Mars, in particular, could be an attentive and witty observer of social manners and it was much the same with Hopkins. Her flower prints were always stylish but gave a real idea of the plants and their colour. By comparison, Baumann often lacked the details that gave a picture meaning and depended more on sumptuous colour and characterful buildings.
This meant American artists like Baumann didn't necessarily have it all their own way. Four years after Baumann's move to Santa Fe, John Platt swept the board in Los Angeles with The giant stride and, what was worse, in 1926 Baumann's Summer clouds was awarded the Storrow Prize for best block print only to have Arthur Rigden Read's colour woodcut Cite de Carcassonne receive the gold for best print in the show (as was only right). It was all very well praising the glories of art colony life in New Mexico, Read had tapped into the great American virtues of self-confidence, flair and showmanship to reach the top and, being a Londoner, he knew all about such things.
Saturday, 13 February 2021
Some classic British colour woodcuts on ebay
At last something has turned up on British ebay that I am sure is the kind of thing collectors will be looking for. I mean one of the two images Allen Seaby made of magpies in the classic bird print years roughly between 1903 and 1910 when he turned out masterpieces like Heron, Bittern and Ptarmigan. This is not up to that standard (but then few British colour woodcuts are) and does not have the same impact as his other magpie print. The paper is wrinkled at the edge which probably means it isn't laid down - one of my bug bears.
The print was probably made in the first five years of his career as a colour woodcut artist and (but not necessarily printed then) and before he had the additional responsibility of the post of professor at Reading and before he embarked on his book Birds of the sea and air. I never thought Seaby regained the freshness, creativity and distinction of this period. The blacks are superb, especially in Heron, and the keyblock never dominates.
By comparison with Arthur Rigden Read's Night wind, which maintained current prices for that artist and sold for £1,1170 only last night, this is by far the better print. Seaby had the advantage of studying woodblock with Frank Morley Fletcher while Read could only work from his book Woodblock printing and although Seaby suffered from Fletcher's rigorous teaching in the early stages and struggled with the Japanese method, by the time he made this print he had adapted what he had learned from Fletcher and developed his distinctive manner.
Another little masterpiece but of different kind coming up is John Hall Thorpe's Forget-me-nots from 1922. For all the easy appeal of Hall Thorpe's prints, his economy of means in this particular one is startling. Hall Thorpe was quite clear that these prints were intended for home decoration and he was careful to introduce a variety of colours and give buyers the chance to adapt the prints to their colour schemes and although he said they were suitable for both a London flat or a country cottage, it seems plain he was providing pictures for people who had both.
Whether we should consider them as works of art is another thing. Hall Thorpe took a pragmatic approach to making prints - not surprising if you consider he had no success until he began exhibiting prints in 1919 at the age of forty. He had originally worked as an engraver on Sydney newspapers where all the images were printed at the press and he always had his colour woodcuts printed at a commercial press. No one has ever said where (and he certainly didn't) but I have a good idea, I think. Printing by hand would have meant two things: the prints would not have looked so polished and it would have entailed a lot of work because large numbers of prints were made.
Also up for sale is The Chinese vase (which I think goes tomorrow) and The caravan. Personally, I don't think either have the appeal of the classic series of flower prints. The Chinese vase has an oriental-looking key-block. What is striking about Forget-me-nots is the way he pulled it off without using a key-block and instead arranged contrasting shapes and colours to define the flowers. The black backgrounds were also an important part of the effect, another reason why I don't think The Chinese vase comes off as well.
Finally, there is Rigden Read's Strangers at the gate, back on after failing to sell with a starting bid of £300. I can't say I am surprised. If you are going to give a woodcut like this the remorseless hard sell, you have to know what you are doing. It is one of the many prints Read produced using a limited palette, an approach that went against the basic tenets of the colour print movement. The founding fathers all put colour first so how did Read come up with dowdy prints like Strangers at the gate? The answer is he read about C16th chiaroscuro woodcuts in the introduction to Woodblock printing and took it from there. The sweep, which was the first one in 1924, was the best, but after that almost all of them were less accomplished, mainly because the thinking behind them was conventional.
I need to add that none of the images you see here are the ones currently for sale on ebay.
Sunday, 7 February 2021
Isabel de Bohun Lockyer: a pioneer of British colour linocut
Isabel de B. Lockyer was the first British artist to make exceptional colour linocuts wothout trying to ignore the colour prints other artists had made. She began exhibiting them in 1923 the same year that Claude Flight did. Flight made his first colour prints in 1921 but gave up conventional picture-making after visiting an exhibition of Austrian child art in London and based his and radical modern style. De B. Lockyer concentrated on colour and form and, so far as I am concerned, no British artist ever made more interesting and imaginative linocuts than she did between 1924 - the year she made her view of the Italian Riviera coast, Afterglow, Bordighera, (below) - and 1928 when she made The ship of Ulysses, Corfu (above). These were some of the the first and remain some of the best.
The first prints we know about are a couple of woodcuts (which I have never seen) and the black-and-white linocut San' Abbondio. Here she used used lino in the same way an artist would cut on wood. Up until then most of the work we know about were book illustrations, one book of illustrations from the Ballets Russes in colour but with the strongest ones in black-and-white. Like many illustrators, she drew on different styles, including the designs of Edward Burne Jones, Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Gordon Craig. She even visited the same places the figures of the nineties liked to go, including Dieppe and Riviera towns like Rapallo and Villefranches-sur-mer. But they were Burne Jones and Beardsley with a twist and always modern - meaning they were exploratory, topical, witty and observant (below, from The life of St. George,1920).
So far as colour went, she owed her biggest debt to William Giles simply because he believed that colour came first and the materials an artist made use of came second. So long as an artist obtained a good image, it didn't matter whether they used steel or lino and when it came to woodcut, he abandoned cherry (or pear) in favour on Kauri pine from North Island New Zealand. This meant it was easy for Lockyer to gain early acceptance for her colour linocuts and she and Geraldine Maunsell became the first artists to exhibit linocuts with the Graver Printers in 1924. (Giles became president two years later). Afterglow, Bordighera was in the manner of Giles. Even the title was like one of his. This doesn't simply make her a follower of Giles and what is interesting was the way she took older artists seriously, particularly the stylists of the nineties. Near Vevey (1924, below) was already moving away from Giles Edwardian eloquence, but her use of Giles' rose du Barry took him on an unexpected art deco ride.
But form in the end began to matter more, something you can see in the way she piled up shapes of different kinds in Chateau de Blonay (1924, below). This was the first time she made use of lino great strength and played off expressive cutting against broad planes of colour. Flight had begun ti do the same thing with abstract-looking planes of colour, but Lockyer wasn't a technical artist in the way he was. From bushes to buildings, everything pies up, suggesting a vivid and fertile imagination that provided with the energy to apply old lessons to modern circumstances.
When people write about the early history of linocut, they tend to talk about the way lino lends itself to flowing lines and to under-printing. Lockyer was the first artist to show how it good it was at expressing texture and mood in the way that a classic technique like mezzotint can. Few people have followed the kind of example she set with La Torre, Rapallo (1926, below). Not surprisingly, perhaps, she made two different versions expressing two entirely different moods. Admittedly, this was not a way everyone could go. Unlike many lino-cutters, Lockyer made use of powder colour not printer's ink which accounts for the brightness and delicacy of the impression. I am not saying she was alone in this. In the United States, Gustave Baumann was applying a thick, water-based ink over another colour, leaving only a artial impression of the block behind. Where I think Lockyer was better than Baumann was the way she didn't let all the forms dissolve but let them do some of the talking.
Unless you were going to make a habit of it the way Baumann did, there was only so far anyone could go with that particular approach. Not that she lost interest in surface texture; she only turned back to monochrome and made sure the forms she was using remained distinctive. The cheese-seller (1930, below) is the best example of that approach and above all shows how far she was finding out what the medium was capable of as she went from print to print. Very few people have ever had that kind of opportunity with a relatively new medium. You only have to compare the conventional techniques employed by Norbertine von Bresslern Roth and Carl Rotky in Austria at the same time, to appreciate how ground-breaking Lockyer's experiments with the medium were. The towers and isolated chateaux she opted suggest she enjoyed the isolation but it was based in the experimental approach adopted by the previous generation of British and American printmakers. Claude Flight liked to emphasise the uniqueness of lino as a medium, partly because Frank Morley Fletcher had wanted to insist on the superiority of wood over lino. Lockyer went her own way and, as Allen Seaby had done with wood, she made the lino speak.