The humble linocut in the age of digital technology.

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The humble linocut in the age of digital technology.


Bott, G.W.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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The humble linocut in the age of digital technologies

The humble linocut in the age of digital technologies.
by G.W. Bot


If we accept that canvas, linseed oil and pigments are the fundamental ingredients of traditional oil easel painting then the linocut, at least in its physical composition, is the medium which can be said to bring oil painting into the realm of printmaking. At first glance this may seem to be the case of Irish logic, yet linoleum, as a material, consists of a canvas backing, thickly coated with a preparation of linseed oil and powdered cork. The linocut is produced with pigments, dissolved as an ink, which are applied onto the linoleum block. I have always felt that materials have their own sense of symbolism and in the finished art work retain a special significance. No medium exists without some symbolic cultural baggage, a voice which goes beyond the formal properties of design and the intricacies of its iconography.

For me, and perhaps for other printmakers, the symbolism of medium also involves the dimension of time and its ‘cultural envelop’. What I mean by this, is that the woodcut is anchored in the twentieth century and somewhere in its origins bears the authoritative voice of Albrecht Dürer; the lithograph goes back a couple of hundred of years and carries the imprint of Goya, Redon and Daumier. Then what about the linocut? Linoleum may have been invented by the Englishman, Frederick Walton, and twice patented by him in 1860 and 1863, but as an art medium it belongs to the twentieth century.[1] Kandinsky and Rozanova, the German expressionists, Picasso and Matisse, the Australian women relief printmakers and Aboriginal printmakers, plus a host of others, have made remarkable linocuts. At least in my mind, possibly because it is a twentieth century medium, no one artist owns it, like a Dürer or a Goya could, it was born into an artistic pluralism and within this artistic pluralism it has survived. This may be one of the reasons for why I find it in my own work such a liberating medium, so fluid and flexible, where each mark does not carry with it the crushing dead hand of tradition. This year, however, for the first time, we can look back at the linocut from the perspective of a different century and for an artist, the word ‘century’ has a particular ring about it.

I suppose like most of us searching for our own distinctive voice in art, I have ranged over many mediums — gouache and watercolour, oils and tempera, intaglio, lithography and relief printing have all been mediums which I have used and have continued to use, but the linocut has remained for me the greatest challenge, the deepest vein which I have sought to excavate. As a visual person, for me words do not come easy. Much of my work deals with recording an environment, a physical one and a metaphysical one — the garden, the paddock, the studio, a corner of a well loved room — they are both observable and spiritual, known, but unchartered, ancient, but belonging to the here and now — very immediate and contemporary. As a medium, for me the linocut can do all of this — it has all the associations of oil painting from Vermeer to Morandi to Diebenkorn — the feel and smell of the canvas and the linseed, yet none of the constraints. Like the unexplored and unmapped Australian landscape, the linocut is an unchartered medium without codified orthodoxies, it can detail a preciousness and intricate fragility like the spikes of a banksia or a vast monotony of tone. I find this very difficult to explain verbally. Perhaps the meaning may become a little clearer if I address some of my images.

Let me go back a dozen years to an early linocut of mine of 1989 titled Natasha, named after my daughter. For my iconography I turned to the image of St Anne with her daughter, the Virgin Mary, which I combined with the traditional Hodegetria image which I am showing here in the work of Dionisiy. The central idea, I guess is a bit obvious, that the mother gives birth to a child as a sacrifice to the world. Being, Irish I decided to use medieval Greek and Russian monograms for the identificatory inscriptions. I show my daughter picking multi-frilled daffodils which she had gathered the previous day in an old deserted 19th century gold mining site and the vase I surrounded with clay figurines which Natasha had made.

I juxtaposed the image of my daughter, with that of a Wandjina figure that hung on our dining room wall.

Now it looks very obvious and over-stated, but at the time the linocut technique allowed me to layer associations — interior and exterior worlds, different cultures, different periods, the objective and the intimate. As colour stood to make no contribution to the conception or the design, the work remained monochrome.

At about this time, in 1990, I made a series of seven rather large linocuts which I called Seven days a week, I am showing Friday and Sunday from that series. When they were exhibited at Helen Maxwell’s first gallery, aGOG, I produced a statement for the show which probably reflected what I felt about the work at the time. I wrote: “When my children were small, they used to play with soft toys. Into these creatures they projected their personalities, so that the teddy bears and stuffed dogs would adopt their voices and express their innermost thoughts and emotions. These inanimate objects in a certain way would proscribe ‘my space’ draw up the parameters of my week. They occupy the main stage of Seven days a week; the subtle changes in expressions, hand gestures and locations of their bodies form a paradigm for human behaviour. The ever present icons in these images also relate directly to my space and my spiritual environment If Seven days a week is autobiographical, then it also makes a broader comment on children, the domestic situation, a woman’s perception of her space and our multicultural environment.”[2]

The transition between the overtly figurative work of the 1980s to a linocut like Threnody 1994, marks a considerable shift in my thinking as an artist. The cutting has become much finer, there is a move from the more customary black and white cutting to a white and black variation, which heightens the feeling for space. Now the boundaries I was defining have a reference point outside the house. While the catalyst may have been a passage of music by Peter Sculthorpe by that title, the symbolism, in my mind, has remained fairly obvious, such as the cross on Golgotha, in the lower right hand corner, but it becomes more of a visual parable, discernible only to the informed gaze. The sacrifice implied in the mother and child image has metamorphosed into the sacrifice of the landscape itself.

As you would have gathered, central to my work are the concepts of environment, framing and the culturally encoded space. I am attracted by the idea of layering of allegory, as in these two linocuts of 1996, The poet and Washing. What perhaps is less apparent is the sense of internal discourse which is framed in terms of binary polarities. Enclosures and boundless spaces, the poet and the sacrifice, the garment and the body, and so on, and for me as an artist, few things achieve binary contrasts more effectively, than the fluidity and endless flexibility of the linocut. You will notice that the cutting of some of the blocks becomes very fine, some have even termed it eccentric and obsessive, with some blocks taking in excess of 200 hours to carve. In contrast to this, the various forms of inking are very free flowing.

I don’t really have any pure landscapes, even when they are quite literal, as in Drought 1998, in the same way as I do not have purely figurative studies. They are all in some sense inhabited, metaphysical and culturally encoded, for example Manuscript 2000. Some may be quite specific studies of Lake George, or the paddocks near my house, or a favourite rock, or a garden.

If you look closer into any one of these prints, here I am showing Calligraphy of drought 1998 and Tiger snake II 1995, they contain a layering of associations.

Also in The rock 1994 and Garden 1999. I have always been interested in notions of space and the frames which people build around them, like fences of the mind, a palimpsest of frames and boundaries. The idea of layering, which is so central to the way many printmakers think in building up of the image, for me has translated into a number of different artistic strategies. For many years I worked in reduction colour linocuts and then in collage.

In both of these, Domestic poet v 2001 and Suburban poet 2001, I have applied cloth to the surface, as a device through which to introduce the feminine associations of textiles into the physical texture of the work.

Another strategy was to employ totemic forms, some were doll-like figures which came from my domestic experience, others, gnarled branches which came from the bush environment and intruded into different constructs of engendered space. The two which I am showing are Playground 1998 and Totem of the desert 1 1999, which, in view of the time, I will pass over in silence.

I will conclude with two recent pieces from earlier this year, Garden of Gethsemane and Entrance II. Both of them are enclosed gardens and in my mind carry associations of the traditional Hortus Conclusus of the woman’s space, of the poet and the lady and the unicorn, as well as the domestic space and that of the wilderness. I employ wonderful tapa paper, which comes in this instance from Tonga, which for me is a covering, a skin, a veil and a garment. This is mounted on BFK and where the aperture appears, as a point of escape and a window into the space beyond, I have chine coiled Joss paper, which I have been using in my work for about twenty years. This material has traditional associations with offerings and sacrifice.[3] In the Garden of Gethsemane, the poles, the totems, the crucifixes all comment on the notion of the ephemerality of life. The fragile and eccentric cutting and the atmospheric inking of the blocks hopefully combine more successfully with the symbolism of the materials and the artistic strategies than in the work of a decade earlier. Hopefully people will notice that my work is permeated with a sense of inner joy, like the poet singing in the landscape. So often when I work, I think of a wonderful statement made by Matisse: “Happy are those who sing with all their heart, from the bottoms of their hearts To find joy in the sky, the trees, the flowers. There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”[4]

Thank you for your attention.

© G.W. Bot, 2001.
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.

[1] For a discussion of the history of linoleum and of the linocut see the excellent account in Stephen Coppel, Linocuts of the machine age, Aldershot, England: Scolar Press 1995, pp. l3–24.

[2] Artist’s statement from Fragments and foundations catalogue. Canberra: aGOG Gallery, 1990.

[3] Wang Shucun, Paper foss: Deity worship through folk prints, Beijing: New World Press 1992, p.10.

[4] Henri Matisse, Jazz, New York: George Braziler, 1992, p.xxvi.