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.