Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914–1939, edited by Clifford S. Ackley

English linocuts, etchings, and lithographs that evoke Italian futurism
The period between the two world wars was an era of rampant creaative experimentation as artists searched for new formal, technical, and theoretical means of expressing a modern life transformed by industrialization, science, and technology. Painting gets most of the attention, but printmakers were equally restless, inspired, and innovative. Modern industrialization also spawned the new medium of the linoleum cut print, or linocut, a more economical and egalitarian successor to the woodcut. Artist Claude Flight was a staunch proponent of this new modern art form, and the artists associated with his Grosvenor School of Modern Art made great strides in exploring the possibilities of the medium. Published in conjunction with a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Rhythms of Modern Life, edited by Clifford S. Ackley, examines the futuristic prints that came out of Britain during this era.

The British artists covered in this book were strongly influenced by the visual aesthetics of the Italian futurists, as exemplified by the poetry and philosophy of F. T. Marinetti, the paintings of Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, and the sculpture of Umberto Boccioni. The Brits shared the futurists’ fascination with modern technology and the accelerated pace of modern life but did not necessarily agree with their Italian counterparts’ ideas on politics and war.

The prints reproduced in the book include some etchings and lithographs, media favored by artists C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash, but the Grosvenor school was particularly known for its linocuts, so most of the images presented here are examples of that technique. Rhythms of Modern Life features the work of a dozen artists, but some of those are only represented by one or two images. For the most part, the book focuses on Claude Flight, Cyril E. Power, Sybil Andrews, Edward Wadsworth, and Swiss-born Lill Tschudi, all of whom predominantly worked in block prints (Wadsworth using wood, the rest linoleum), as well as Nevinson and Nash.

The book is divided into thematic chapters emphasizing particular areas of subject matter: images of war, speed and movement, industry and labor, and sports, for example. The text that accompanies the images in these categories is not terribly informative. There isn’t a whole lot of biographical content on the artists. There is some discussion of how they were influenced by the Italian futurists but differed philosophically from them. Mostly, however, the text consists of curators pointing out the angular forms and swirling vortices that you can clearly see with your own eyes. The book’s appendices are far more educational than its essays. The back matter includes a history of the linocut medium, an examination of the materials and processes used by the artists featured in the book, and a brief biographical sketch of each artist.

Another book was published on this subject in 1995, Linocuts of the Machine Age: Claude Flight and the Grosvenor School by Stephen Coppel. That book, part catalogue raisonné, is a more comprehensive text on this subject, and the authors of Rhythms of Modern Life often refer to it. I prefer the choice of artists and artworks featured in that earlier book, but Coppel’s book was published over 25 years ago, and most of the images are printed in black and white. Printing technology has advanced much since then, and in terms of sheer beauty, Rhythms of Modern Life, loaded as it is with fine color reproductions, is the more attractive book. The text falls short of a satisfyingly comprehensive study of this movement, but for those who really appreciate this art, the collection of images is worth the cover price.
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Cyril E. Power, Air Raid, linocut, c. 1935

Edward Wadsworth, Black Country, woodcut, 1919

Claude Flight, Brooklands, linocut, c. 1929

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