New York

Sybil Andrews

The British linocut movement, led by artist Claude Flight, a teacher at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London, took shape in the wake of World War I. Inspired by Flight’s view of the linoleum block print as a populist medium, a group of artists began producing ingenious woodcutlike designs that drew on Art Deco and Italian Futurism. Unlike the Vorticists of the ’teens, who worked primarily in an abstract vein, the linocut artists depicted recognizable, popular subjects—straphangers in the London underground, scenes of the British countryside, and sporting events. The movement flourished for a time, died out during the Depression, and has remained a relatively obscure chapter of art history.

The tensions between form and content in the work of the British linocutters are particularly evident in the block prints of Sybil Andrews, who, until her death in 1992, continued to make images in the style she helped to define. In some cases her Futurist vocabulary suited her vision of an urban, rapidly industrializing society: Sledgehammers, 1933, for example, captures the violent rhythm of laborers pounding away at a forge, and Concert Hall, 1929, portrays a theater as an immense culture-dispensing machine for the masses. In other works, however, the gap between subject matter and form seems unbridgeable: Bringing in the Boat, 1933, renders a rowing crew as a Tatlin-esque tower of robotic forms, while Andrews’ pictures of pastoral and religious scenes are characterized by sharp, menacing angles and roller-coaster perspectives.

Andrews, who did a stint as a welder during World War I and worked at a shipyard during World War II, talked about the need for strength and toughness in art. Writing about the unforgiving nature of the linocut, she noted that “a poor shape, a broken-back curve, a meaningless line . . . hits you in the eye immediately.” If Andrews were an Italian Futurist, her repeated groupings of regimented figures around a powerful central core would undoubtedly be found to contain the seeds of fascism. Yet many of her images represent working people in heroic poses more suggestive of the other end of the political spectrum. In Flower Girls, 1934, which depicts two women carrying enormous bushels of flowers, a harsh rectilinearity conveys their struggle and turns the outstretched arm and clenched fist of the figure in the foreground into a defiant salute. Like her fellow linocutters, Andrews absorbed stylistic influences from a variety of early Modernist movements, encompassing a range of ideologies. The mixture yielded images that seem politically contradictory today but remain vital because of their dark, emphatic style.

Tom Moody