To analyze the opening text for Machine Age Modernism: Prints from the Daniel Cowin Collection is to understand the works that lie beyond it. Typed in simple font on a white ground encircled by arcing crescent shapes in varying shades of blue that resemble a wave or the teeth of a gear, it reminds one of a corporate logo. Carefully constructed and strategically spare, its clean lines convey the principles of progress, innovation and uniform efficiency, just like those of the prints in the show.
Machine Age Modernism is the Clark’s tribute to the time period known as the Machine Age in Britain, situated between the two World Wars. Its vigor was concentrated in the 1920s and ’30s but extended all the way to the mid-20th century. During this time, an increasing reliance on mechanization and mass production revolutionized all aspects of life, from political and social development to making art more accessible to the masses. The 40 prints on display chronicle these changes visually through their innovative printing techniques and common subject matter, depicting soldiers, factory laborers and hardworking athletes.
If you’re into art history, then you may associate this period with big-name artists such as Picasso and Dali, whose cubist and surrealist works, respectively, dominated the high art of the period. However, when given the opportunity to borrow works from the late banker Daniel Cowin’s vast art collection, Manton Curator for Prints, Drawings and Photographs Jay Clarke sought to bring notice to a group of artists whose mass-produced work has long been marginalized by the art world, which is exactly what makes it so exciting for the Clark.
If the show’s title text can be seen as a neat, concise thesis, then the remaining rooms of the show are like the body text of a neatly written essay. Rather than being arranged in strict chronological order, the works are arranged by print type.
The first room, subtitled “Printmaking and World War I,” features the works of English artists Edward Wadsworth and C. R. W. Nevinson, who chose to transcribe the Machine Age as they experienced it with abstract, monochromatic woodcut and drypoint prints. You will find works like Nevinson’s “Column on the March,” depicting an endless line of soldiers extending diagonally into space, and Wadsworth’s “Dock Scene,” whose sweeping, striped band of color cause the scene to shift in and out of focus depending on which angle you look at it from.
The second room displaying works is subtitled “The Linocut Movement,” and features several artists from London’s Grosvernor School of Modern Arts who championed the new printmaking technique, such as English powerhouses Claude Flight and Sybil Andrews.
In a linocut print, the negative space of the image is cut out of a common linoleum floor tile and printed on paper, with each color carved onto a separate block. Thus, along with their bold and dynamic compositions, these prints have bold, beautiful colors as well.
The subject matter of these prints differs from those in the previous room. Instead of depicting realities of war and factory labor in a grim, harsh light, they are glorified through scenes of athletes and robust farm workers. A standout in this room is the Scottish Margaret Barnard’s “The Rowers,” depicting a team of male rowers in the midst of a raise, straining over their oars with their backs to the viewer. While all other linocuts in the room depict figures in abstracted form, the figures in this image are incredibly realistic, with rounded forms and visible musculature that must have been incredibly complex to carve. It’s also notable that many of the best prints in the show were created by women. The curator Clarke “was especially excited in the number of works created by female artists in this group – slightly more than half of the prints in the show were created by women artists,” said Curatorial Assistant Megan Kosinski, who helped to curate the show.
In the back of the exhibition space is a room that does not contain artwork, but instead provides extra information for the curious viewer. A tribute to Cowin, photographs of the nine artists on display and a detailed description of various print techniques used for the works in the show adorn the walls. On a few tables lie full exhibition catalogues and other books relating to Machine Age art.
If any part of the exhibition could be called out as a bit too spare, it would be this room. Its location off to the side from the two main galleries renders it easily overlooked by visitors, especially since most of the informative text and pictures are placed on a wall not immediately visible to visitors entering from the main exhibition space. However, once I sat down and began to flip through a catalog, I witnessed the room doing its job – other visitors filtered into the space and began to strike up invested conversations about art while asking each other questions about the exhibition.
As with the individual cogs in a machine, no one artwork is presented in such a way as to command attention above all others. Every picture is placed in the same uniform, black frame and the matting surrounding most of them is just wide enough to prevent a picture from commanding too much attention. Even the prints that are perfectly square are placed in a rectangular frame, as if to further dissuade the visitor’s eye from being caught on any print in particular.
But just as it was in the title text, this simplicity is strategic. Instead of relying on contrast or explosive visuals to draw you in, the pleasure of viewing this exhibition must ultimately be achieved the old-fashioned way: from a close-up and detailed examination of the prints on display.
Look closely at any print in the “Linocut Movement” room, for example, and you will realize that each print is made not with a full spectrum of colors, but with only three at the most, since each color is printed with a separate block, And how long will it take you to decipher what it is that the graceful limbs of pedestrians are traversing in Andrews’ “Rush Hour?” (Spoiler alert: it’s an escalator!) Each print is filled bold lines, patterns and shapes to decode and digest.
All in all this exhibit, along with the rest of the Clark’s permanent collection is certainly worth taking a stroll down South Street to visit. So if you can manage to escape the lockstep of midterms for a couple of hours, be sure to head to the Clark for a study break. But if you’ll be grinding away until spring break, not to worry – Machine Age Modernism will be open through May 17th, when it will be replaced by the highly anticipated Van Gogh and Nature exhibit on June 14th, 2015. Until then, try not to be too much of a machine.