Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Images of the Land: Canadian Block Prints, 1919–1945 by Patricia Ainslie

A thoroughly detailed history, gorgeously illustrated
Images of the Land is a catalog of fine art prints that was published in 1984 in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. A second edition of the book was published in 1985. Author Patricia Ainslie provides an excellent, authoritative overview of the art form of relief printmaking in Canada during the years between the World Wars. The book is packed with stunning and beautifully reproduced images of woodcuts, linocuts, and wood engravings from this important, transformative period in Canadian art.

When comparing the 20th-century art histories of Canada and America, one thing that sets the former apart from the latter is a greater respect for the landscape as subject matter. Most of the works in this book are landscapes, though there are many examples of figurative work as well. Another characteristic of Canadian art from this period is an emphasis on representational style over abstraction. The vast majority of the works reproduced in this book are executed in the style of traditional realism, many with a hint of art nouveau, but a few of the prints show the burgeoning influence of European modernism, particularly cubism and expressionism. Unlike in America, where New York City dominated the art world, the Canadian artistic scene was divided between several isolated urban centers which developed in parallel and interacted on a somewhat limited basis. Though Toronto, as the population center of the nation, staked its claim early on as the fine art center of Canada, it received plenty of competition from Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. The text of the book is divided into geographic sections by province, for the most part moving from east to west. Ainslie gives an overview of the development of block printing in each region, and provides brief biographies of every artist represented. To read the book from beginning to end can be a bit dry, like reading a stack of resumés, but Ainslie has certainly done meticulous research, and the book is an excellent reference on its subject.

Among the key players in block printing in Canada were members of the famous group of early modernist landscape painters The Group of Seven. Edwin Holgate, Franklin Carmichael, A.J. Casson, and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald were all active in printmaking, and J.E.H. MacDonald produced a few prints as well. His son Thoreau MacDonald went on to work extensively in wood engraving and became sort of Canada’s answer to Rockwell Kent. Toronto’s Laurence Hyde, another excellent wood engraver, would eventually go on to produce a beautiful novel in woodcuts, Southern Cross. In Montreal, Cecil Tremayne Buller created startlingly powerful, modernist figurative works. Winnipeg was home to Walter J. Phillips, a master of the Japanese-style color woodcut, while in Saskatoon, Ernest Lindner produced exquisitely intricate black-and-white wood engravings of the lush Canadian forests. This sampling only scratches the surface of the dozens of artists included, who range from the renowned to the obscure.

There are only eight color plates, but most of the works were originally created in black and white anyway. In addition to the large images scattered throughout the book, this catalog has the added bonus of an appendix featuring small black-and-white images of all 179 prints in the exhibition. This makes Images of the Land an invaluable resource for printmakers. As a block printer myself, I continually refer to this book for examples of how to represent various natural textures like water, mountains, trees, or sky. Unfortunately, this book went out of print long ago, and copies are hard to find. However, if you practice the art of block printing or just love woodcut prints, it is worth seeking out a used copy and paying a significant sum for it. It will soon become a treasured book in your collection, as it is in mine.

Walter J. Phillips, York Boat on Lake Winnipeg, 1930, color woodcut, 26.1 x 35.2 cm

Eric Bergman, Still Life, 1931, wood engraving, 16.6 x 14.2 cm

Edwin Headley Holgate, Totem Poles, 1926, woodcut, 15.0 x 12.3 cm

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