Exhibition Review: The Cutting Edge Women of British Modern Printmaking

With bold colours, pulsating patterns and dynamic figures, the works of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art exude the great vitality and rhythm of modern life in 1930s Britain.

This little known group of artists is the subject of the current exhibition Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Taking place 90 years after the first exhibition to showcase British linocuts in London, it celebrates the innovative work made by ten artists affiliated with the Grosvenor School during its short but intense period of activity between the world wars.

The Grosvenor School of Modern Art’s contribution to British modern art has largely been forgotten and under-researched. Yet, the over 120 prints, drawings and posters on display illustrate why these artists deserve to have their moment in the spotlight. Founded in Pimlico, London in 1925 by the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab, the Grosvenor School of Modern Art was dedicated to the production of modern printmaking during the interwar period. At its heart was Claude Flight, the artist and teacher is credited as a champion of linocut printmaking and the force behind the school’s promotion of this modern technique as a serious art form. 

Developed in Germany in the early twentieth century, linoleum colour print (linocut) was a new art form that involved an accessible making-process and affordable materials (linoleum is a mixture of cork and linseed oil on a canvas backing that was invented in the 1860s as a cheap and easily cleaned floor surface). The democratic nature of this medium offered fresh opportunities for experimentation and expression. Flight promoted linocuts as ‘an art of the people’ since it allowed a great range of people to appreciate modern art and practice it themselves.

Cyril Power, The Merry-Go-Round, c.1930, © The Estate of Cyril Power. All Rights Reserved, [2019] / Bridgeman Images/ photo The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The exhibition’s opening room thoughtfully introduces this unique school, displaying archival materials and prints by members of the British Avant garde such as Paul Nash and Christopher Nevinson – the latter whom Flight studied alongside at art school – to illustrate its contextual groundings and modernist approach. Displayed in dialogue on opposite walls, it is clear how Flight’s own work and that of his students were influenced by international Avant garde movements such as Vorticism, Futurism and Cubism: their use of stark contrast, harsh lines and abstracted forms to emphasize speed and mechanics when capturing the horrors of the modern world as witnessed during the First World War.

However, as evident in the following room and throughout the exhibitions, the Grosvenor School group draw upon these styles to present a more positive view of life in Britain during the interwar period. The progressive aims of the Grosvenor School artists – which included staff and students – is also seen in the subject matter their linocuts present. Gordon Samuel, the exhibitions curator, divides the works into themes across six rooms: labour and leisure, sporting life, the pastoral, London and transport. The works wonderfully capture the bustle of life in the 1920s and 1930s, turning every day scenes and relatable subjects into vibrant, captivating works of art. 

Sybil Andrews, Speedway, 1934. Photo Osborne Samuel, London/ © The Estate of Sybil Andrews.

It is the women of the Grosvenor School artists who steal the show. Outnumbering their male counterparts on display, these innovate women illustrate a full mastery of the art forum with seemingly great ease and flair. Central to the group was Sybil Andrews, an artist recruited by Macnab to be the secretary of the Grosvenor School. Her works feature in each room, but two that especially highlight her extraordinary skill were Speedway from 1934 (pictured above) and Straphangers from 1929 (pictured below). Considered to be her most successful print, Speedway depicts motorcyclists racing along the bend of the road as they make their turn around the speedway. Andrews used multiple blocks to craft her composition by building up the layers of colours to form her figures and give texture to the landscape, seen in the top left corner, as well as brilliantly utilising curved lines to illustrate the drivers great speed. Whereas in Straphangers, the curved lines of the block mimic the swaying of passengers as they hold on to the straps from above whilst riding the tube. It is almost as if one is looking through the window from another train carriage to where Andrews has paused the unique moment in which the commuters are suspended to one side as the train hurtles down its track. Erase the top hats and it could a contemporary view of the District line today.

Sybil Andrews, Straphangers, 1929. Linocut, 25.3 x 33 cm. Private Collection.

Inspired by Flight’s teaching and books on linocuts that were printed globally, international students came to study at the Grosvenor School. A majority of these students were middle class women traveling throughout Europe studying art, although the wall labels give no distinct explanation for this particular trend. Three Australian artists – Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers – and Lill Tschudi, the Swiss student who first came to Grosvenor at the age of 17, feature prominently in the show and exhibit their great command of linocuts. For example, Dorrit Black’s Dance from 1927-28 (pictured at top) is inspired by a night out at a jazz evening in London. Black translates the energy and joy of jazz music through her use of bold colours segmented by black lines across the flat surface, resembling stained glass. With no differentiation between the floor and ceiling, her figures dance across the page seemingly with the rhythm flowing through their limbs, one can almost hear the hiss and tap of the drums with the crooning of a saxophone.

Lill Tschudi, Gymnastic Exercises, 1931. Photo Bonhams/ © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. 

The work of female artists within the Grosvenor School group show the full range of possibilities and potential of linocuts by taking everyday subjects and turning them into masterpieces of modern art. Their innovative use of colour, form and composition present a positive and celebratory view of daily life in Britain in the 1930s.

The exhibition concludes with a large display of the posters Andrews and Cyril Power – an artist and Grosvenor teacher of architecture – created together under the name ‘Andrews-Power’ for the London Underground, highlighting the mass appeal of the Grosvenor style at the time. It further emphasises how peculiar that these artists have remained largely unknown for so long given the high number of women artists, the group’s progressive aims and success in advertising. It is rare to come across a modern art group and more generally art school from this time that involved many women, and the lack of information specifically acknowledging this was clearly lacking. What were the motivations of international and middle class women being drawn to the Grosvenor School to pursue linocut printmaking as their chosen craft?

Regardless, it was refreshing to see modern women artists prominently featured in both the group’s activities and the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The work of Andrews, Tschudi, Black and their fellow female artists demonstrate the innovative ways in which they utilised linocuts to craft unique yet accessible and exciting reflections of work, play and modern life around them in abstracted form. Their images seem so familiar and simultaneously completely new. Their work and their stories illustrate why this exhibition on the Grosvenor School of Modern Art is relevant and important to people, and especially artists, today. Hopefully, as this thoughtful and elegant exhibition at Dulwich Gallery successfully argues, people are inspired further research and delve into the work of the cutting edge women and their contributions to modern art and design in Britain and beyond.

Suzanna Petot is a curator and writer based in London.

Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, open until 8 September 2019 (Book tickets here). All images courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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