Movements of small tension…movements of great tension: Cutting Edge at Dulwich Picture Gallery

There is movement and movement. There are movements of small tension and movements of great tension and there is also a movement which our eyes cannot catch although it can be felt. In art this state is called dynamic movement.

A quotation from the Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich may seem a little out of place when describing the work by British printmakers in the 1930s. However, it is very clear that the short-lived movement by artists from the Grosvenor School, in London, was greatly influenced by the avant garde of the 1910s and 20s, particularly that of the futurists of Italy, the British Vorticists and Malevich’s suprematism.What this exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery gives us is an overview of how the art form and the subject matter formed a symbiotic relationship; the machine age represented by a new and refreshing artistic technique.The choice of linocuts as an art form began informally through the German Die Brucke group but had been influenced through Japanese woodcuts. Claude Flight was greatly influenced by an Austrian art teacher, Professor Franz Cizek and was appointed to teach this form of print making at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art.

The Avant Garde

Early examples by Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and CRW Nevinson are shown at the start of the exhibition.

Dazzle Ships

Camouflaged ships in dry dock (‘Dazzle ships’) Edward Wadsworth, 1918

The Bomber

The Bomber, CRW Nevinson, 1918

Void of War
Void of War, Paul Nash, 1918

What they obviously have in common is the lack of colour and the way in which they use the woodcuts to simplify the subject matter. Nevinson, in particular, uses a cubist style to portray the movement of the bomber hurling his weapon of destruction, whilst Wadworth uses the geometric shapes designed to distract and to disorientate the enemy as the ship to play with our perspective. Nash, as seen in his oil paintings, reduces the landscape to a shattered remnant of what was once a picturesque idyll.What these artists did with woodcuts, Claude Flight would teach his students to take the technique to another level; to bring colour into their choreographed worlds of the home, the factory, from the burgeoning leisure industry to the pastoral life of the 1930s. Cyril Power uses colour to bring his idea of a Vortex to life:

Vortex

Cyril Power, The Vortex, 1931

Urban Living

The exhibition is divided into four main sections and the artists, who include Claude Flight, himself, Cyril Power, Sybil Andrews, Lili Tschudi, all contributed to the different themes.

Wet afternoon

Ethel Spowers, Wet Afternoon, 1929-30

Hyde Park

Sybil Andrews, Hyde Park, 1931

By the 1930s, London was a thriving metropolis and, of course, artists will always portray what they see combined with what they know about the subject, whether it is personal or in the abstract.The examples in this section focus on the way Cyril Power described the art of the linocut as making its own tradition, “coming at a time like the present when new ideas and ideals are shaping themselves out of apparent chaos”. The busy urban streets were an ideal way in which to employ a sense of movement whether through the sharp vertical lines creating a sense of rain, or the curvilinear abstraction of a crowd of people filling Hyde Park.

At Work, At Play

With technological advancements, manual labour became synonymous with machinery. The Grosvenor School artists were not immune to the beauty of electricity, and Lili Tschudi captures this beautifully in Fixing the Wires from 1932:

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Fixing the Wires, Lili Tschudi, 1932However, there were still enough manual labour to satisfy the artists and their search for suitable topics. In Sledgehammers, Sybil Andrews wastes no space and the rhythmic vigour of the men at work is heightened by the fact that they are so in tune with each other:

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This Power linocut of The Exam Room resonated with me as a teacher. This is still how we run our exams and the reality that we have not moved away from this model in the 21st century is alarming.

exam room

Cyril Power, Exam Room, 1934
Leisure became an important element by the 1930s and a poem by C Day Lewis seems to fit so well with the theme of this section.

Newsreel by Cecil Day LewisEnter the dream-house, brothers and sisters, leaving
Your debts asleep, your history at the door:
This is the home for heroes, and this loving
Darkness a fur you can afford.Fish in their tank electrically heated
Nose without envy the glass wall: for them
Clerk, spy, nurse, killer, prince, the great and the defeated,
Move in a mute day-dream.Bathed in this common source, you gape incurious
At what your active hours have willed –
Sleep-walking on that silver wall, the furious
Sick shapes and pregnant fancies of your world.There is the mayor opening the oyster season:
A society wedding: the autumn hats look swell:
An old crocks’ race, and a politician
In fishing-waders to prove that all is well.Oh, look at the warplanes! Screaming hysteric treble
In the low power-dive, like gannets they fall steep.
But what are they to trouble –
These silver shadows – to trouble your watery, womb-deep sleep?See the big guns, rising, groping, erected
To plant death in your world’s soft womb.
Fire-bud, smoke-blossom, iron seed projected –
Are these exotics? They will grow nearer home!Grow nearer home – and out of the dream-house stumbling
One night into a strangling air and the flung
Rags of children and thunder of stone niagaras tumbling,
You’ll know you slept too long.

Here, Andrew’s again captures the curvilinear aspect of the concert hall. Regardless beings taking in their entertainment :

Sybil Andrews The Concert Hall

This exhibition was the highlight of my UK travels this year. A joy to see some old favourites but also learn more about this particular art form.