Rothenstein at the Frontiers of Printmaking

Michael Rothenstein described his workplace as a ‘studio-laboratory’, and nothing comes through more strongly from the diverse, sometimes startling images on show in the Fry Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention (27th May to 3rd September 2017) than the artist’s desire to experiment in the print making process.  Complementing the large, major pieces in the exhibition are objects that further evidence Rothenstein’s range: youthful drawings, mature sketchbooks, ceramics, book illustrations and two of his own books on print making technique, Linocuts and Woodcuts from 1962 and 1966’s Frontiers of Print Making.  Both books are fascinating, and Frontiers of Print Making in particular gives an insight into Rothenstein’s thinking as, during the 1960s, he moved away from recognisable imagery and conventional print formats.

Michael Rothenstein, ‘The Bull’ (1956, linocut, detail)

A large, quite dark presence in Sustained Invention is The Bull, a linocut from 1956. In Frontiers of Print Making Rothenstein describes how the particular textures in the image were achieved, but, perhaps more intriguingly, also discusses why he felt this experiment to be a dead end. His initial insight was that printing blocks could be made by building up the surface of the lino quite as legitimately as by cutting it away.  Thus in The Bull sand was added to the lino corresponding to the roadway before inking it up in a dark brown.  This area was then printed again, slightly out of alignment (or ‘off-register’) with a lighter brown.  The aim was to give the road surface ‘movement and density without emphasis’.  On reflection, however, Rothenstein was dissatisfied; not with the results, but with the very concept of this technique. He felt that it had allowed him to gain in printing something of the textual effects of brushstrokes in paint, but as such it was not an effect unique to printmaking.  It was the search for just this uniqueness which then led him to print with found materials, such as wood and man-made metal objects, where the printed texture itself became the subject of the works.

Such a use of found objects was linked with the development of the process Rothenstein called ‘open-block printing’ (a process devised, he says, ‘in the graphic workshop at Great Bardfield’).  In Frontiers of Print Making Rothenstein gives an extensive description of the making of Black, Blue and White, a companion piece to the Fry Art Gallery’s Radial Shakes.  It would be difficult to reconstruct the precise sequence of events from the text, but his primary intention is, perhaps, more to show how thinking about materials and problems can lead to new styles of image making.  He discusses how the final arrangement of different elements was fixed by drawing their position on a register sheet, how separate proofs were taken to allow the use of objects of different heights, and how he had allowed the thin cross-section of tree used in the design to dry and crack, giving the radial pattern which characterises the whole.

Michael Rothenstein, ‘Radial Shakes’ (1965, woodcut, linocut and metal relief plates)

Frontiers of Print Making is, above all, a book encouraging artists and print-makers to think innovatively.  Yet there is also a degree of defensiveness to it, a defensiveness about a tradition that is seen to be under threat.  It was written at a time when screen printing, and in particular screen prints that incorporated news and magazine photographs, had moved quickly from America, and the work of Rauschenberg and Warhol, to international dominance in the world of art-prints.  By advocating experimentation with older forms of relief printing Rothenstein was going against the grain.  In the book he acknowledges the potential of the American-style photo-images, but also notes that their characteristics – what he identifies as a ‘curious stillness’ – can destroy the connection between an artist and the viewer.  He worries that the use of commercial methods will turn art into ‘a public address system’.

Rothenstein is much more positive, however, about the potential to use photo-images as one element in a combine print.  Here the visible human gestures of the artist and the mechanical, reproduced photo-image can play off one another, enhancing the ‘communication’ of the whole.  With these comments Frontiers of Printmaking once again illuminates Rothenstein’s own practice as a print maker since, as Sustained Invention shows, this type of combined print was precisely the direction his own work was to take in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Michael Rothenstein’s Sustained Invention

For Michael Rothenstein printmaking was his ‘real creative life’, and whilst the Fry Art Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention (27th May to 3rd September 2017) features some of his early drawings and watercolours, at its heart are the radical, sometimes startling prints that gave him an international reputation.

Figure with Cockerel, Watercolour '48 (Detail) small
Michael Rothenstein, ‘Figure with Cockerel’ (1948, watercolour, detail)

Too ill for war service, Rothenstein arrived in Great Bardfield in 1941, initially renting Chapel Cottage from the painter John Aldridge, and he went on to be a central figure in the Essex village’s famous Open House exhibitions of the 1950s. Yet if Rothenstein is fundamental to the idea of Great Bardfield as a centre for co-operating artists, he also retains a strong, independent identity. In part this is because he is also important in other stories, notably that of the Rothenstein artistic dynasty. His father, Sir William, was an established painter while his brother, Sir John, was Director of the Tate Gallery (Sir John politely declined Edward Bawden’s request that the Tate display a Great Bardfield exhibition poster on the grounds that, with the name Rothenstein prominent, there would be complaints of nepotism). However in part, too, it flows from his determined alignment with a wider, international avant-garde of printmakers.

Amongst his early lithographs, Rothenstein produced The Cockerel for a series distributed to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951. However it was the following year which saw him commit to printing and to the course of restless innovation which marked out his printmaking career. The defining event was an extended visit to Atelier 17, the Parisian engraving studio of Stanley William Hayter. Looking back on this visit Rothenstein was to say, ‘It simply transformed my life’, it was ‘a psychic turnaround, and when I got back to England I began to dedicate most of my energies to print’.

Rothenstein was less interested in Hayter’s work – and he never followed him into engraving – than in his experimental methods. He embraced Hayter’s emphasis on movement and surprise to counter predictability and harmony, making prints that emphasised texture and colour over drawing, so that his prints are objects to be seen first-hand rather than in reproduction. Rothenstein was certainly deeply impressed by Hayter himself, as an Englishman who had made himself indispensable to the Parisian avant-garde. For Rothenstein the attraction was in taking this approach back home. Thus, by turning to experimental printing he was able to give himself ‘an absolutely fresh start’ in a medium which he saw as unburdened by English tradition, and establish himself as a Parisian-influenced modernist in rural England.

Fireworks 1952 (Detail)
Michael Rothenstein, ‘Fireworks’ (1952, lithograph, detail)

Already by 1952 he was producing strongly abstracted images such as ‘Fireworks’, created for a series of Coronation lithographs that followed those for the Festival of Britain. Soon he was making relief prints by inking found objects like wood off-cuts and machinery parts. These reinvented the relationship between a picture and the stuff of reality and led Rothenstein to create images which abandoned the traditional rectangular format. Reflecting on this innovation later in life, Rothenstein neatly, and surprisingly, paired the influences of Essex and Paris: the idea occurred through ‘a series of personal revelations. One of the most striking was when I had settled here in Essex. I had a young family and took them for a picnic by a river. Unpacking the sandwiches, and looking round, behind us, on a rise, was a big timber yard, walled with big off-cuts of Elmwood. Elmwood has this wild grain – and this revelation was also to do with my contact with Paris, with knowing something of Dubuffet and Tapies’.

As the mantle of the avant-garde shifted across the Atlantic in the 1950s and 1960s Rothenstein’s influences evolved. From the later 1960s he began to investigate screen-printed photographic pictures, often combining these with relief printed elements so that in a work like Green Pagoda the clash of images sets off an elusive chain of symbolic associations.

Green Pagoda
Michael Rothenstein, ‘Green Pagoda’ (1969, colour woodcut, screenprint, half-tone blocks)

In this later phase of his career, Rothenstein and his new works were increasingly embraced by international art institutions. A large number were acquired by the Tate and examples by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1984. Ironically, Rothenstein felt that his commitment to printmaking, the form which had liberated his imagination, had also delayed this recognition because ‘print-making is accorded second place’. Sustained Invention demonstrates his determination to show that printmaking could indeed be a high-art form.

Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention, runs from the 27th of May to the 3rd of September 2017. It will be accompanied by a new book, Rothenstein at the Fry, by Gill Saunders, head of prints at the V&A.

All quotations from Michael Rothenstein in this post are taken from: Gill Saunders, ‘Michael Rothenstein’ in Gill Saunders and Malcom Yorke (ed.), Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield (London: V&A, 2015); and Duncan Scott, ‘Hayter’s Legacy in England’, The Tamarind Papers, vol. 14, 1991/2.