The History of Linoleum Printmaking

Written by christopher shanefish
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A linoleum cut, or linocut, is a technique of printmaking that uses similar principles as a woodcut. Invented in 1863 as a surface covering composed of linseed oil and cork, in 1890 linoleum was seen as a less expensive and easier to engrave surface over that of wood and was used for producing wallpaper. Linocuts could be produced faster than woodcuts because of its softer qualities. The technique lent itself to being taught in schools as well as for the creation of inexpensive illustrations.

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History

Linocuts were popular among members of the German Expressionist and Russian Constructivist movements in the beginning of the 20th century. Working in the 1920s and 1930s, German artist Gerd Arntz was particularly attracted to the woodcut and linoleum cut styles because of stark contrasts of black and white. Arntz wanted to remove the personal touch of the artist's hand, and later developed a stylised vocabulary of symbolic forms called Isotypes. His work often depicted industrial scenes and worker revolts with figures representing statistics and was accompanied by articles discussing the status of the working class.

The Grosvernor School Linocuts

In 1925, the Grosvenor School of Modern Art opened in London. There, Claude Flight taught classes on the art of linocuts. To produce multiple colours in a linocut print, Flight taught his students to use different blocks for each colour. These British prints were highly influenced by cubism and Futurism. With the growing popularity of the medium, Flight succeeded in curating the First Exhibition of British Linocuts in 1929. This new found appreciation did not last long, and Flight organised his last exhibit of linocuts at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1939.

Art for the Masses

Affordability and quality were aspects that Walter Anderson felt most important in art. With this in mind, Anderson turned to linocuts to produce prints in the 1940s at his Gautier, Mississippi home. The standard size of linocuts in 1945 was 12 by 18 inches. Anderson wanted to create larger prints and used wallpaper to make prints that hung like scrolls. He is considered to be the first American artist to print linocuts on such a large scale. Exhibiting his work at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1949, he maintained that his work should reach people who may not be able to afford to purchase art, but appreciate its beauty.

Picasso's Contributions

In the late 1950s, Pablo Picasso advanced linocuts in fine art by developing the reductive printmaking technique. Picasso thought linocuts lent themselves to producing graphic posters and his first prints in the early 1950s were composed of bold and simple images. Picasso explored the limits of linocut printmaking and experimented with making multiple colour prints using one block.

This reductive technique begins with printing the lightest layer and then each subsequent layer is carved away from the linoleum and printed over the previous. Once the final print is done, it is impossible to reproduce the work, therefore artists working in this technique create predetermined editions.

Popularity

The popularity of linocuts has waxed and waned throughout its history. Linoleum was often considered to be the wood of the poor. It was favoured in poorer cultures that were not concerned with fine print making and was used in schools as a teaching tool. Linocuts grew in acceptance as an accepted art form when artists such as Matisse and Picasso demonstrated the potential of the medium but fell again when collaboration between printmaker and publisher rose to produce more complex images.

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