MetCollects Episode 10 / 2020
MetCollects is an online feature that highlights works of art new to the Museum's collection through the fresh eyes of photographers and the enthusiastic voices of leading scholars and artists. Discover a new work each month.
During the tumultuous decades of the early twentieth century, graphic arts flourished in Great Britain as artists sought to portray quotidian life during the machine age with suitably modern techniques and approaches. Despite their innovation, however, the artists and their works are not as familiar as other modernist figures from this period. The Met's recent acquisition of more than 700 rare and important British modernist works from the collection of Leslie and Johanna Garfield, establishes the Museum as a global center for works on paper from this dynamic period.
The collection is unparalleled in its holdings of colored linocuts by artists associated with London's progressive Grosvenor School of Modern Art, active between 1925 and 1940. The most popular and important course offered at the Grosvenor School was Claude Flight's seminar on linocut, a relief-printmaking technique much like the traditional woodcut, in which an artist uses a sharp metal tool to carve directly into a block of linoleum. The use of this cheap and readily available synthetic material reflected the artists' desire to create works that would reflect the modern era in their construction as well as their imagery of everyday experiences.
In The Eight, Cyril Power depicts the swift movement of rowers racing along the Thames from a disorienting overhead view. He cropped the image and eliminated details to focus on the simplified, repetitive forms of the rowers, their paddles, and the boat.
The Grosvenor School artists were interested in the speed, power, and force of modern life as symbolized by leisure activities but also by the machines and networks that remade it. In Brooklands, Flight depicts the dynamism and rhythmic movement of three race cars. The flame-like strips of color and curving forms amplify velocity, mechanical force, and the exhilaration of the spectators.
Women were key figures in the Grosvenor School and were well represented in exhibitions and publications, a reflection of Flight's promotion of women artists and the greater access women had to educational institutions in the interwar period. In Sledgehammers, Sybil Andrews drew on her experience as a welder in an airplane factory during the war and her memories of the rhythmic movement of blacksmiths at the forge. The six figures' taut bodies, extended into monumental curvilinear forms, pulse with dynamic force and create a sense of rotating movement. Arms and hammers appear as a single instrument of power and the sensation of repeated blows radiates across the paper's surface. Andrews used three linoleum blocks, each for a different ink—red, viridian, and blue—which she layered and applied with various levels of pressure to create different tones and effects.
The Grosvenor School artists aspired to create a more democratic art, one that is made in multiples and priced for a wider public. Their goals were shared by the visionary transportation executive Frank Pick, who, in his belief in "Art for All," commissioned artists to create modernist posters promoting public transportation throughout London. Andrews and Power collaborated on eight posters under the name "Andrew Power." To Hire a Bus or Coach shows city and private buses and has the same spare, modernist vocabulary found in the artists' linocuts.
The visual power of the Grosvenor School works and the artists' interests reflect the influence of earlier British and European movements. Christopher R. W. Nevinson, who was closely aligned with the Italian Futurists, had contact with Flight while both were art students. For Column on the March, he extends a seemingly endless line of French soldiers determinedly marching to the front beyond the limits of the composition. The monotony of the mass and the extraordinary rigor displayed by each soldier create the impression that individual figures, when combined in such a group, became a kind of automated form, a charging human tank.
Nevinson's contemporary, Edward Wadsworth, applied the graphic aesthetic he developed with Vorticism, a British prewar avant-garde art movement, to striking images of Dazzle Ships. During World War I, Wadsworth designed and supervised the application of colorful camouflage patterns onto warships and in this print, he uses black and white and an elevated vantage point to flatten the image and mimic the visual confusion intended by the ships.
While the majority of Grosvenor School works are vividly colored, in Tour de Suisse, Lill Tschudi reduced her palette to just black and white to dramatic effect. She compresses the cyclists and emphasizes the undulating Alpine path to convey the physical endurance and strength necessary for this endeavor. A decorative border mirrors the interior patterns, a reference to the artist's plan to print the image on fabric.
These powerful works capture the optimism and anxiety of the turbulent and dynamic decades of the early twentieth century in Britain. Their acquisition complicates the narrative of a male-dominated high modernism and expands it to include decorative and representational elements, democratic principles, and women artists.