Exhibitions/ Rhythms of Modern Life

Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914–1939

September 23–December 7, 2008
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Rhythms of Modern Life explores the impact of modern artistic movements—particularly Italian Futurism—on British printmakers between the outbreak of World War I and the beginning of World War II. The Futurists were fascinated by the accelerated pace of modern life—the dynamism of machines and the sheer exhilaration of speed and motion. The British artist C. R. W. Nevinson was for a time a follower of Futurism, as may be seen in a number of his wartime images. Futurism produced, by reaction, the short-lived but uniquely British style of Vorticism, which stressed not motion but rather geometric abstraction and the hard-edged precision of mechanical forms. This avant-garde style is represented here by the elegantly austere and crisp geometric woodcut abstractions of Edward Wadsworth.

In the 1920s and 30s Claude Flight of London's Grosvenor School of Modern Art introduced a colorful "pop" version of modernism, using the new block-print medium of the linoleum cut. Paralleling Art Deco design and streamlining, these color linocuts by Flight, Cyril Powers, Sybil Andrews, and Lill Tschudi focus on the contemporary urban scene, with its anonymous crowds, and on modern diversions: speed trials, sporting events, and other amusements. While the imagery of these linocuts is distinctly Machine Age, they were in fact lovingly hand-crafted, printed by hand-rubbing on thin translucent Japanese papers.

The prints in the exhibition are organized around themes that profoundly preoccupied these artists and dominated their imagery during this period: Vorticism and Abstraction, World War I, Speed and Movement, Urban Life/Urban Dynamism, Industry and Labor, Sport, Entertainment and Leisure, and Natural Forces.

The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Led by the charismatic painter, Wyndham Lewis, and encompassing the paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures of rebel artists Edward Wadsworth, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and David Bomberg, Vorticism erupted on the scene just one month before the outbreak of World War I. The movement's provocative manifesto published in their aptly name journal, Blast, vigorously condemned Victorian art and culture and promoted a new, mechanized world. Lewis and his band of artists united against the Futurists and their English ally, C. R. W. Nevinson, in their attempt to establish an outpost of the Italian movement in London. Sharing a similar reverence for the city's bustling street life, modern transportation system, and surrounding industrial centers, the Vorticists distinguished themselves from the Futurists in their austere visual vocabulary borrowed from the hard-edged mechanical forms found in their country's many factories and shipyards.

Like artists such as Kandinsky, Léger, Mondrian, and Malevich working in Europe at this watershed moment, the Vorticists embraced abstraction as the basis for overthrowing "the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism." Their attempts to develop a cohesive and lasting movement, however, were thwarted by the war. Two of its leading advocates, Gaudier-Brzeska, a talented, young sculptor, and T. E. Hulme, an influential critic, were killed in battle, which made it increasingly difficult for their surviving colleagues to promote the virtues of the modern machine. In the eyes of many, the machine had swiftly and brutally been transformed into an agent of destruction.

A great many Vorticist paintings were lost during the War. As a result, the prints, also quite rare, remain the primary document of this brief but vital movement. The grouping on view in this exhibition represents a cross section of Vorticist printmaking with a number of prints approaching pure abstraction. It also includes a selection of prints made after Vorticism's heyday but inspired by its spirit and stylistic innovation.

Nevinson, Wadsworth, and Paul Nash made a number of prints during the war that represent varied aspects of modern warfare, from the harrowing flights of military airplanes, to the marching of armed soldiers into battle, to the devastating effects of combat on the natural landscape. Nevinson, like his fellow Futurists, championed war as a means of purging the old and decadent in favor of the new and vital. He renounced this position, however, after serving three months as an ambulance driver in Flanders and Northern France where he witnessed firsthand the grim reality of modern weaponry.

Nevinson returned to the front as an official war artist in 1917, close to three years after his initial service. Although he had largely abandoned pure Futurism, he continued to incorporate certain formal elements such as dynamism and geometric angularity into his frank, often illustrative images. Nevinson's Vorticist rival, Wadsworth, also retreated from the radical abstraction of his earlier prints in favor of a more representational approach. His wartime prints remain strongly geometric and full of graphic intensity, yet their imagery is closely tied to his work for the Royal Navy. Both Nevinson and Wadsworth's work of this period marks the start of a postwar "return to order" or move toward a more conservative style by many of Europe's most progressive artists.

In 1926 Claude Flight began teaching a weekly linocut class at the newly established Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London. Within three years, a vibrant, diverse and free-thinking group of British and international printmakers, including Cyril Power, Sybil Andrews, and Lill Tschudi, emerged from Flight's class to exhibit together in annual exhibitions organized by their mentor. The Grosvenor School artists quickly became recognized for their richly colored, geometric images of urban life, industry, sport, and leisure activity that illustrated the speed and movement of modern life. Their innovative use of the novel medium of linocut suited their shared interest in modern materials as well as modern imagery.

Although Flight's fascination with speed was inspired by Futurism—he reportedly had met F. T. Marinetti, the self-appointed leader of the movement, through Nevinson—he never subscribed to its militaristic doctrine. Flight and his Grosvenor School colleagues took a more humanistic approach to modern life, celebrating its exciting dynamism in innovative yet accessible images of fast-moving amusement park rides, motorcar races, and urban transportation, to name just a few. Flight fervently believed and promoted the linocut as a democratic medium capable of enlightening a broader audience about modern art.