Sunday, 21 July 2019

'Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking' at Dulwich Picture Gallery

The latest exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is 'Cutting Edge' that focuses on the works of former students at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London in the 1930s and their exploration of the potential of linocut printmaking, hence the title of the exhibition. I've seen some of their works on greetings cards in the past and bought them so visiting the exhibition was an obvious next step. The tutor at the Grosvenor, Claude Flight, apparently championed the art of linocuts since he saw it as an egalitarian form of art and method of printmaking that anyone could practice. I've never done linocut printing but I'm tempted to have a go now (and the Gallery shop sells linocut kits).

One of the things that attracted me to the prints was their simplicity and colourfulness. For an ostensibly simple form of print-making they are, actually, quite complex, using different linocuts for each colour. They are, clearly, decorative but they're not just pretty pictures, these are works of art. This print by Ethel Spowers ('The Gust of Wind') really caught my attention. One of the signs in the exhibition, if memory serves. noted that the prints were so popular their cost soon outstripped the pockets of the 'ordinary people' who Flight had originally thought would benefit from the art form.

That's a bit sad, really, since this is an egalitarian form of art, as opposed to the giant canvases other artists were producing at the time and ever since. Most of these prints were around A4 size and suitable for any wall, not just for the rich or corporate collector.

One of the joys of the exhibition was seeing such a wide variety of approaches to printing, sometimes single images like a painting and other times multiple repetitions of the image. It also seemed to generate new approaches to depicting the figure to fit multiple figures into a small space and that clearly suggests that thees artists were accomplished in their art and were experimenting and pushing forward the accepted boundaries. Look at 'Hyde Park' by Sybil Andrews from 1931 where the bodies suggest leaves and the heads and hats are flowers or fruits. How effective is that and how appropriate for Hyde Park?

This is something that continues throughout the exhibition, the simplification of forms, not only to fit the area to be printed but for the sake of it. How simple can they make it and still make sure it's recognisable in whatever format it's reproduced?

Another Sybil Andrews print I was taken with was her 'Fall of the Leaf' in which everything is curved, the tree tops, the trunks, the land around the trees. That isn't how the English countryside looks but she unifies it to make it work. Another simplification of the form but still recognisably as trees in a farming landscape.

The artists tried their skills in familiar picture-making, making the picture fit the format. Cyril Power's 'Monseigneur St Thomas' from 1931 fits the bill with it's simplified shapes and colourful repetitions. Is there a straight line in this print? The arms curve into the swords that attack the saint while his body shrinks into curves to protect himself. The colours are also very clever, with the yellow background and the orange tunics of the murderous soldiers. There's also a lot of detail in this print, like the shape of the helmets (with nose-guards, of course), the belts to break up the orange of the tunics and the brown shields, each soldier dressed identically but in different positions. It's small but effective.
I think that's one of the things that really made it's mark on me, that small and simplified shapes can still be powerful irrespective of the topic of the work.    

There was a  series of prints about sports and motion that were really very effective with the use of repetition and restricted colour palette. Cyril Power's 'Skaters' from 1932 and his 'The Eight' rowers from 1930. Again, the repetitions of shape and colour giving the impression of speed and movement, the restricted colours and the simplification of shapes while still being recognisable, all of this is very effective. The other members of the group also created sporting prints including Lill Tschudi and Sybil Andrews.

I was very taken with a series of prints by Cyril Power focusing on movement and transport using London buses and tube trains, scenes of tube stations and commuters into small spaces to get to work.  His 'The Escalator' from 1929-30 is a great example and reminds me of one of the escalators at Oxford Circus tube station today (without the colour, of course). The glorious oranges and reds speed you to the far away surface and work or home, almost the reverse of the descent into hell with a single passenger on a desperate journey into who knows what might be at the top.

The drudgery of modern mass transport is shown in 'The Tube Train' from 1934 with passengers sitting in rows, all with their newspapers to avoid having to look at or interact with other passengers, almost the same as today except most of today's passengers would be looking at their mobile phones. Things change but stay the same. The print has a claustrophobic feel to it, so many people crammed into a small space as they move onwards in a dark tunnel. I particularly like the detail of the straps hanging down for those unfortunate enough to have to stand and the passengers' feet not quite touching.

Another great print by Power is 'Whence and Wither?' from 1930 with the unknown hordes going down on an escalator, standing on the right, walking down on the left while no-one uses the stairs beside the escalator. How true.

A final print I'll show you is more cheerful and very still, 'Corner of the Garden' by Dorrit Black from 1936. All sorts of subjects and themes can be tackled using linocut techniques and I like the stillness and charm of this print, no rushing round like a mad thing, just the simplicity of a well tended garden.

It's a lovely exhibition and I'd recommend a visit. Because the prints are relatively small then there are a lot on show with a wide variety of subjects. The colours are quite often more vibrant than my photos suggest and the curators have arranged them very well to show them off properly. Well done Dulwich Picture Gallery on a really enjoyable exhibition. 

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