Saturday, 31 October 2015

Carl Moser: castles of refinement


We have come to associate Tyrol with colour woodcut. Even if Engelbert Lap was born in Graz, he served with the Tyrolean Kaiserjaeger and settled in Innsbruck in 1910 and later made a career out of the mountainous landscape. Herbert Gurschner was born in Innsbruck and trained at the School of Applied Arts there but married an Englishwoman in 1924, lived in London from 1932 and eventually became a British national even though he remains best known of his prints of Tyrolean farming folk.

Carl Moser was different. He was not only more talented than either Lap or Gurschner, he was born in the Italian town of Bolzano many miles to the south. I say Italian because the town was predominantly Italian-speaking but was surrounded by mountains where most people spoke southern German except for townships to the east where others spoke the old romance language of Ladin - and it is Ladin that provides the key to the complicated nature of this Austrian Lebanon.; it was the old language of southern Tyrol. Italian and German speakers were more recent arrivals. But Moser isn't best known for Tyrolean subjects. Moser is best known for his Breton subjects. Unlike artists who came from regions like Alsace or the Sudetenland or even cities like Prague where German was spoken but eventually moved to Germany itself, Moser adopted another outlying province as an imaginative home, a sure sign of a sensitive and complex imagination.

The subject for his masterly Schloss Runkelstein is only a few miles to the north of Bolzano but by the time he made this colour woodcut in 1922, he had studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Munich and at the Academy Julian in Paris. Sources variously say he was introduced to colour woodcut in 1902 by Max Kurzweil or saw them exhibited at the National School of Fine Art. Either way nothing quite explains the utter refinement of his work. We can only look at it and wonder.

As you can see from the two versions of the print (and there is at least two others) Moser was a colourist. I certainly think the importance of Japanese art to Moser has been overdone. You only need to consider the way the castle sits squarely on its rock and the rock sits squarely beside the river or the peacock in Weissgefleckter Pfau (also from 1922) turns in space to see how much of a Western artist he was. What really is interesting is the way he looked back to the heyday of the Vienna Secession and made Weissgefleckter Pfau a self-conscious summary of its great achievements because it was certainly dead and buried by 1922. I think his imagination was historical. Japan was only another imaginative element in his work.

Look at the way he plays the modern world of silk hats and parasols off against the lace delicacy of the Breton bonnets. Audaciously, he even gives us two versions of the same figure in the one print. An archaic world fades away before our eyes. Folksy it may appear but the irony and the candid glance are modern. But it is the figure that is sensational. The woman on the right is just as solid as Schloss Runkelstein. Moser is not only concerned with surface pattern. The patterns help to describe form.  More than that, as she looks over her shoulder, she reminds us of her ancestry. Manet is there, after all, and farther back, there is Goya perhaps, and certainly Vermeer.


Bretonische Hochzeit comes from 1906 while he was still studying and working in France. No doubt about it, he was an assiduous student and remained at the Academy Julian for six years when he was already capable of work as good as the wedding print and Bretonisches Dorf von Schiff aus (1904). He had begun to learn his trade early on in his father's studio and there is a sense of the studio in the foreground boat with the secondary image acting as subject. The framing devices and the ornate pile of rope are obviously Japanese. But it is the sense of space that he has picked up from Hokusai that is more profound, perhaps even the delicate psychology.

Moser was as tactful in his observation as he was in his use of colour and his borrowings from other artists, close to hand and far away. But he was a rather half-hearted symbolist. Pelikan is just too real to be a lot more than an ironic enquiry into ungainliness by an artist who was incapable of such a thing. But let's face it, the drawing and the colouring, the realisation of the pelican's body are superb. All the rest is froth, isn't it?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Classic colour woodcuts on ebay from Austria and Germany

Christmas has come to ebay in Austria and Germany with an astonishing review of early C20th of colour woodcut, and with nothing more striking than Hans Frank's exquisite tour-de-force Schwartzlilien from 1940. But I warn you, before you go rushing to put in a bid for some of these celebrated prints, the most collectable ones start out at a breath-taking 1200 euros. Included amongst these is a desirable In Ertwartung  by the Austrian artist and designer Carl Moser from 1914 (below).

There are two things that strike me here. What always impresses me about the market in Austria and Germany is how much is still available after 100 years and how much you need to pay for them despite there being so many of them (relative to the British market, at least). If nothing else, it says a good deal about the good sense of collectors in both countries. So far as I can see neither Germany nor Austria have John Hall Thorpes and Eric Slaters where people are prepared to pay £1200 (in the case of Slater) for work that cannot begin to compare to the prints you see here. Of course there are Anglophiles in Germany who like to buy English prints, Slater included, but not at that price.

But not everything is expensive and Walter Helfenbein's Zwei Prachtfinken (above) should fit under the Christmas tree without making too large a hole in your bank account and is also well worth having. But then much the same could be said for Carl Thiemann's Birken im Herbst. Made in 1907, it comes from the period when Thiemann was using brighter colours and a more decorative approach to printmaking in general. It also has the great advantage of being from the signed edition. (Others were printed on a mechanical press).

Also in the mix is Thiemann's Late autumn. Utterly classic early Thiemann when he was still in the vanguard of colour woodcut, it isn't illustrated here because the image was so badly skewed. It will still set you back at least 1200 euros but console yourself with the fact that prints of lesser quality by German-born artists in the United States will cost you even more.

Also from the signed edition is Walther Klemm's well known print Junge Hunde. More out of the way is something very nice by Christian Ludwig Martin. Beautifully made and very pleasing, Boehmerwald dates from 1917 and looks back both to the days of the Vienna Secession and forwards to more popular work of the post-war years. It may not make the pulse race but it will leave you enough to spend on Christmas dinner.
Never really an artist to have much appeal for me and certainly not in the top rank, Leo Frank's Adler im Hochgebirge has all the emptiness of his twin brother at his weakest but with none of the decorative thrill when he is at his best. It's quite acceptable nevertheless as part of the general festive generosity.

I could go on. There is also a Helene Mass, Englebert Lap's Abend, Hans Frank's Tulpen, a simple but very pleasing Fritz Lang and Thiemann's potent Late autumn from the classic early period. But that comes in at a discouraging 1200 euros, too. We have to finish with an unnamed Oscar Droege. Frankly, not an artist that excites me. I would only buy one if it came up cheaply. So, which one would I buy if I had the euros to spare? I think it would be the Hans Frank for me. But at the end of the day, my own modest collection has work by German and Austrian artists I have picked up along the way while a subtle Arthur Rigden Read or heroic Ian Cheyne or virtuoso William Giles is what I really hanker after. It's finding them is the problem.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Emil Orlik and a Colnaghi wash mount on ebay


This is something by way of a public service announcement. I certainly don't think the dealer who currently has the Emil Orlik portrait etching for sale on British ebay deserves it. But take a look at the wash-mount round the etching, which the seller thinks needs replacing. This is certainly the type of mount that was used by the Bond St dealer Colnaghi before the first war and as such I think needs looking after and not destroying. Instinct told me to preserve a similar mount round a Verpilleux colour woodcut even though my framer wanted to replace it with the same kind of thing. It was only years later I discovered that Colnaghi had them made. Not very important perhaps and obviously I cannot be certain about this particular mount but I also own a portrait etching by William Strang with exactly the same kind of mount. What's not to like? I haven't checked to see whether Colnaghi was also Strang's dealer, and it hardly matters. What I am saying is this: apply caution when dealing with nice old mounts. They have history, too, and may be worth restoring not chucking out.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Edinburgh School

The one thing I did not want to do in the last post was to give the wrong impression about Mabel Royds herself. I suspect the reason she was willing to help Norman Bassett Hall was because she had always learned from other artists throughout her own working life. But then there are so many misconceptions about Royds, it is hard to know where to begin. But one person that was right about her was Malcolm Salaman when he described her work as synthetic. It was not only a matter of how much she assimilated from other artist, there was also something premeditated about her use of colour.

The Indian notebooks are also misleading. It has also struck me as odd that notebooks that were sometimes ten or more years old could provide the basis for new work. But you only need to compare Elizabeth York Brunton's colour woodcut 'The pergola' from 1922 and Royd's 'The musicians' from 1927 to see how far Royds could synthesise her drawings made in India and work made by her contemporaries after she had returned.

Royds and her husband had moved back to Edinburgh in 1919 while York Brunton had been born there and had trained at Edinburgh College of Art amongst other places (but almost certainly before it became a college under Frank Morley Fletcher in 1907). Like Royds (who was six years older) she had also trained in Paris and had spent time working there. She was a sculptor-printmaker like Eric Gill and to a lesser extent Robert Gibbings. She had a strong interest in structure, texture and light. Her prints are far from technically perfect and often have a scrappy look to them but they were also spontaneous and exploratory and again I suspect this was what attracted Royds who after all was quite a literary and cerebral artist. But then York Brunton was no slouch herself when it came to lifting ideas from others. Take a look at William Giles' 'At eventide, Rothenburg am Tauber' from about 1905.

Giles had a wayward originality and commitment to his trade that was beyond the reach of many artists and York Brunton's inclusion of his outlandish orange rooftops in her own print shows exactly the kind of example he had set for artists who were making colour prints. His work is seminal, it is as simple as that. I had always assumed that York Brunton had used a French subject for her print. Looking at the all together for the first time, I can't really avoid the coming to the conclusion that her woodcut shows Rothenburg as well! She did work in Germany as well, after all. What is fascinating is the way the combination of deviant purple and warm sand was first transferred by York Brunton into her own woodcut then taken up by Royds along with Brunton's use of shadow.

All this strikes me as productive and not at all inbred. All three prints have something different to offer us. York Brunton's may be the weakest but it also has the kind of nonchalance and vigour we have come to expect from good modern prints. Royds' woodcut was masterly in a more obvious way. The use of western conventions - the sense of light and space and the study of the human figure - are plainly obvious. Less apparent is the subtle use of double framing to enhance the intimacy of the scene and her constant sense of crowded space was perhaps never bettered than it was here. Giles' print is of course superb printmaking. No British artist, before or since, did it quite like him. Beyond that, the imagination was at work. It's those quirky white railings that give away how fascinated he was by what he saw but the way he re-imagined those things. If Royds synthesised then as someone once said about Giles, he transposes his feelings.


Saturday, 10 October 2015

The road to the isles: Norma Bassett Hall in the Highlands


Colour woodcut is more of an industry in Germany and the United States than it is here in Britain (where it remains in the shadow of the modish contrivances of the Grosvenor School). This even comes out on Modern Printmakers which now has fewer British readers than American and German ones. There have been a fair number of books published in the US, mainly about individual artists, including William Seltzer Rice, Walter Phillips, Edna Boies Hopkins and Arthur Wesley Dow. Alongside this there are learned articles by Nancy Green from Harvard. All to the good but lacking in any real knowledge of what was happening in Europe, surprising because a number of these Canadian and American artists became friends of British artists and Boies Hopkins even visited Britain before the first war. But what do American scholars know about that?

It is not the same kind of blank with Norma Bassett Hall. We have some details but they only make us want to know what really went off. Over at The Linosaurus, Gerrie Caspers made a reference to Rice's trip to Scotland. This was something I knew nothing about but it immediately struck me as significant. And you only have to compare Hall's A Highland Croft (above) and Rice's Cottage, Melrose, Scotland (below) to see why.
They all pinched ideas from one another as artists always do. As Alphonse Legros used to tell his students at the Slade, 'If you're going to rob anyone, rob the rich'. What strikes me about Hall is the way she assiduously made use of other artists and the way she went about it. She and her husband made a small book of linocuts together before she discovered Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock printing and began making colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner. But this was hardly novel and going all the way to Edinburgh to work with Mabel Royds seems an odd thing to do by itself. Admittedly, her husband Arthur William Hall also studied etching with Royd's husband E.S. Lumsden who had just published an important book on the technique. But I think it's the way the story has been told (and re-told) that has made it seem more important than it was. Who knows? Because we know so little about it all.
The Halls arrived in Glasgow in June, 1925, and went over to meet the Lumsdens in Edinburgh. Then in August, they went on a trip to Skye by way of Crianlarich. Apparently while on Skye they stayed for about a week at Portree and then over a number of years, Hall made four colour woodcuts of Highland scenes, including Portree Bay (top)  and A croft at Crianlarich (1929 - 1930). Unfortunately, I can't seem to find an image of A croft at Crianlarich and the one above is Cottage on Skye which she made as late as 1940. But it was Gerrie who discovered that Rice had made a woodcut called Aberfoyle, Scotland and, as it happens, Aberfoyle and Crianlarich are only about twenty miles or so from one another.

Hall was a magpie. You only need to look at the work Helen Stevenson was doing by the time Hall visited Scotland, especially The hen wife (1924) to see where some of Hall's ideas for A Highland Croft (1927-1928) came from. Not only that, there are some obvious similarities between Hall's print and Kenneth Broad's A Sussex Farm (1925) exhibited at Los Angeles in February, 1926. But her borrowing worked because  the colour woodcuts she made in the States based on the trip to Scotland are the best things she ever did, certainly a lot more lively than the woodcuts that drew their inspiration from trips to France. Hall was a rather repetitive and unoriginal artist as you can see from the basic sameness of the buildings and their similarities to the work of Rice (who had cabin-fever) but as an American she could ignore the British conception of things and made the Highlands look like a cross between the Rocky Mountains and Pont Aven. OK, it's easy enough for a European like myself to snigger but by comparison, Rice looks merely craftsmanlike. The question is, though, was he there as well?