British Linocutters Make Their Mark In an Industrial Age



By Stephen Coppel

Scolar Press

Ashgate Publishing Co.

205 pp., $125

PRINTS made from wood blocks have a long history in various cultures. Little wonder, then, that in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s, when the craze for making prints from linoleum - a mere floor-covering material - was at its height, the English makers of woodcuts using traditional Japanese methods were vocal in their opposition. To them, the linocutters looked like upstarts.

Stephen Coppel, in a new book, "Linocuts of the Machine Age," describes this confrontation.

Coppel is assistant keeper of prints at the British Museum. His book - subtitled "Claude Flight and the Grosvenor School" - is the first serious study of seven linocutters who made this medium their own, with strikingly powerful results, in the inter-war period.

Flight was the driving force. It was he who initially taught and inspired the other six (among others) in classes at London's Grosvenor School of Modern Art.

Coppel introduces this phase of British printmaking to a world that is virtually ignorant of it. He also provides a catalog raisonne.

It was a proponent of the traditional Japanese-style woodcut, Frank Morley Fletcher, who identified the "dangerous challenge" of the linocut. He wrote in 1924 of "the flood of coarse work that has appeared under the name of wood-block printing, most of it printed from linoleum, or by crude and coarse methods." He suggested that the linocut was best for children. His chief objection was that linoleum was "not suited for printing a beautiful surface of colour nor for giving the finer qualities of line."

Flight's spirited defense of his medium is concerned with its specific - and modern - qualities rather than its perceived defects as a substitute for traditional woodcutting:

"The Anglo-Japanese wood-cut colour printers," he wrote, were influenced by the Japanese "so strongly that the colour prints which they create with such cleverness.... [lack] any vital motives of expression in keeping with the age they are living in."

Flight also pointed out that the linocut was not an "imported technique" but a "European" one. And he advocated simple, "democratic" tools and materials rather than the exquisite specialist ones of the woodcutters. To cut his ordinary linoleum, he used gouges fashioned from umbrella ribs. Inks were applied with a roller. Instead of a press, the paper - placed over the block - was rubbed, with varying degrees of pressure, by "a homemade baren" (a wooden disc wrapped in bamboo leaves), by "hand" or with the "back of a dessert-spoon," or even with a "toothbrush handle."

Two of the linocutters following in Flight's path were Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews. With relish they collaboratively took up his modernist aesthetic.

Broadly speaking, the characteristic style of these linocutters was a late development of Italian Futurism that had, before World War I, anarchically stormed the aesthetic bastions of traditional academic art by preaching the "beauty of speed." The dynamism of the city and the motion of machines were to be the proper stuff of 20th-century art.

In Britain, resistance to such iconoclasm was largely stolid and solid.

By the time the linocutters began to preach and practice a not dissimilar philosophy, Futurism was actually old hat. But Power and Andrews clearly felt that English art still needed some waking-up stimulus. They produced their own kind of "manifesto." What they wanted was modernism. But at the same time, they sideswiped two contemporary tendencies: "the cult of the crude and ugly," epitomized by the Campden Town School of painters who depicted "bohemian squalor" and the "cult of sugary prettiness," represented by the Royal Academy. Neither suited them.

Their modernism echoed the philosophy of the erstwhile Futurists: "[O]ur factories and industrial building[s] have majesty all their own, a titanic, savage, satanic strength, that calls for simplicity and sterness [sic] of treatment and cannot be properly represented by prettiness and picturesqueness of handling."

Power had been an architect until his late conversion to art, and many of his linocuts transform architecture (the London underground was a particular favorite) into dynamic, spiraling, deeply perspectived images.

Both he and Andrews were fascinated by the aggressive propulsion of cars and buses, lurching through space. Andrews was also a devotee of the muscular rhythms of manual labor. Their picture-spaces were composed of an almost musical interweaving of sweeping arcs and propellant curves.

Coppel'S book shows how both Andrews and Power, contrary to the accusations of the woodcutters, applied sensitive and subtle standards of craftsmanship to their color-printing methods. Their respect for technical finesse is, perhaps, in line with a dichotomy in their subject matter: For despite their modernism, both made prints of religious subjects - an interest fostered by a passion for the medieval. This passion had been an ingredient of the British Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century and was also involved with the ideal of artists and craftsmen working by hand.

So the linocutters, however modernist, still hung onto traditionalism in a characteristically British way.

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