CYRIL POWER AND THE JOY OF CUTTING

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Cyril Power, a British printmaker, "allows light, noise and speed into everything he sees", observes The Economist's Books and Arts editor in her Art.view column. After lingering in the shadows for decades, Power's work is now finally getting the attention it deserves ...

From ECONOMIST.COM

“It has become the custom nowadays,” wrote Claude Flight, a British artist, in 1926, “to go to a shop for the tools of one’s trade.” Flight was scornful of shoppers and liked to make things for himself. He kept his own bees and championed the art of the linocut, believing that the use of cheap materials would help democratise art and bring it to the attention of the masses. For his own linocuts he insisted on “a sharp penknife--such a very rare thing among art students” and a gouge he fashioned by fitting a small wooden handle onto a rib he cut from an umbrella.

Hard to imagine health and safety regulations allowing children today to have such fun. But Flight, who was a friend to Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, inspired many pupils at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, where he taught, wrote and organised exhibitions on linocuts.

Among the most famous was Cyril Power, an extraordinarily creative printmaker, born in 1872, who soaked up Flight’s enthusiasms and gave them new force. Power drew on many influences--the German Expressionists (who invented linocutting before the first world war), the Italian Futurists, the Vorticist prints and paintings of Wyndham Lewis--and the enthusiasm for speed and movement that marked the work of so many artists of the period, from Natalya Goncharova to Marcel Duchamp.

While the work of the Germans, Italians, French and Russians has become very well known, the prints and linocuts made by Power and his fellow British artists have lingered in the shadows. An inspired little exhibition--the first major show of Modernist British prints in America, which began earlier this year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York--will help change that. So too will a newly opened show at a private gallery in London that gathers together for the first time prints of all 46 of Power’s linocuts. Some are for sale; others have been lent by museums and private collectors, of which the most important are two New Yorkers, Leslie and Johanna Garfield.

The first impression of the Power show is that he lived his life in reverse. Until he was almost 50 he followed in the professional footsteps of both his father and his grandfather and practised as an architect, making a name for himself also as the author of an erudite study entitled “English Medieval Architecture”. Then, as Philip Vann explains in an elegant essay that accompanies the show, he “embarked on a kind of Gauguin-esque adventure”, leaving his wife and four children to enrol in art school in the company of a 24-year-old artist, Sybil Andrews.

The early prints in the show were made by a middle-aged man and it shows. In black-and-white there is a bridge at Rickmansworth, a street corner in the sleepy Suffolk town of Lavenham. Then suddenly the movement of the windmill in “Elmers Mill, Woolpit” gives an indication of what is to come. Starting in 1930, when he was already 58, Power takes to speed as if he had taken personal charge of the Futurist manifesto, which C.R.W. Nevinson co-signed with an incendiary Italian, Filippo Marinetti, in 1914, with the words “Forward! HURRAH for motors! HURRAH for speed!…HURRAH for lightning!”

Power allows light, noise and speed into everything he sees. Using a series of easily recognised colours, particularly “Chinese orange”, “chrome orange”, “viridian” and “Chinese blue”, he created images of merry-go-rounds, rowers, acrobats, dancers, runners, hockey players and, of course--given that some of his influences were Italian--beautiful cars.

The most successful are those, like “The Eight”, in which the element of formal design is most visible. But Power’s vision as an artist really comes to the fore in works containing a hint of menace. The bourgeois-assaulting spirit of Italian Futurism, Mr Vann explains, had fallen into the malign hands of Mussolini and was about to give way to Fascism, while Freud’s and Jung’s obsessions with the unconscious were increasingly helping to throw up visions of fears, hopes and dreams.

“Monsignor St Thomas” (1931) is a brilliant working of the murder in the cathedral of Thomas à Beckett, but it is technically skilful rather than edgy. The really potent, and most modern-looking, of Power’s linocuts are those that lead the viewer right to the edge. These start with “Tennis” (1933, pictured right), a magnificent rendering not just of the energy of the centre court, but of the physical and psychological effects of slicing and spinning--sport at its most gladiatorial.

As the 1930s move towards totalitarianism and then war, Power’s work takes on a darker hue. The tube trains and the escalators of the London subway system provide ample opportunity for exploring man’s addiction to the rat race. Two further works seem remarkably prescient. In 1934 Power made a linocut which he called “Exam Room”, full of hunched-up concentration and a complex set of figures that show, in turn, fear, nerves, gloating, dreaming--and one who is slyly distracting a neighbour. Watching over them is the overbearing timekeeper and the all-seeing eyes in the ceiling.

Similarly, “Air Raid”, which Power made in 1935 and which has been lent to this show by the RAF Museum in Hendon, is an extraordinarily filmic response to a period of history the artist had not yet even seen. It would be another five years before the start of the Battle of Britain would make such imagery routine. Cyril Power was not just an artist, he was a visionary.

“Cyril Power Linocuts” is at the Osborne Samuel Gallery, London, until December 20th. Prices range from £2,500-90,000. “Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914-1939”, which is about to close at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, will travel next year to the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, Miami Beach.

Picture credit: Cyril E. Power, The Tube Train, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Partial and Promised Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield

(The Art.view column appears every week on Economist.com.)