Friday, 16 December 2011
Bruges by night: Frank Brangwyn & Yoshijiro Urushibara
Many years ago I was on a visit to Leed Gallery of Art with a friend (who had trained at the Royal College of Art in the Hockney days) and he began to mock the technique used by Frank Brangwyn (1867 - 1956). 'He puts black lines round everything,' he said. When I pointed out that van Gogh had done the same, he only replied, 'That was different.' Well, Brangwyn was different and that's for sure.
He was born in the old Belgian city of Bruges where his father worked on church architecture. After an early childhood spent there, he went back to Britain and was sent to copy things at the old Kensington Museum (now the V&A) and received precious little in the way of formal education. Eventually, he was taken on at William Morris's workshops in Walthamstow so his background was to some extent a practical one, in the arts and crafts tradition.
He may have left Bruges but Bruges did not leave him and at some point during the first war, with Belgium overrun by the German army, he had the idea of translating designs of the city where he had spent his childhood into colour woodcut and the folio he produced with the Japanese woodblock maker Yoshijiro Urushibara (1888 - 1953) turned out to be one of the most personal responses to the terrible events of that war.
The mere choice of the medium was a very interesting one. It shows to what extent colour woodcut was regarded as belonging to the arts and crafts movement by an artist who had after all initially trained under the aegis of the great man himself. More than that the project exemplified the arts and crafts approach to co-operation and their attempt to break down barriers beween disciplines. The woodcuts acted as illustrations to six poems by the writer and scholar, Laurence Binyon. Now, untill 1915 Binyon had been head of the new sub department of oriental prints and drawings at the British Museum where Urushibra had been working as a conservator of prints and scrolls since 1912. Binyon was given leave to volunteer as an orderly in military hospitals so he was the only one of the three men with experience of the war. He returned to the museum in 1918 and this symptomatic folio itself was published the following year.
Symptomatic because I wonder whether Brangwyn already realised that he was going out of fashion, a process that would end in the derision of the sixties. It did happen; he became unfashionable in the way that Augustus John did. He didn't have a good war, as they say, and I think colour woodcut looked sufficiently stylish for him to make a come-back. He had caused outrage in both this country and Germany when he produced a propaganda poster showing a terrified German soldier about to be bayonetted. So much so Kaiser Wilhelm had vowed to have his head. These night pieces of Bruges are about as far as you can get from the eighty war posters he produced in all.
Different and yet not so unlike the posters that designers in the arts and crafts mould like F Gregory Brown were starting to make. Brangwyn approached almost everything he touched with bravura. What Urushibara finally offered him was subtlety.
Before he came to Europe, Urushibara had worked at the publisher Shimbi Shoin who specialised
in fine reproductions of Japanese woodblock prints so he was ideally suited not just to interpret Brangwyn's work but to get a very good likeness. What he added was the kind of trance effect we were later to see when he made prints like Moonlight, Bournemouth.
What is so utterly remarkable about the work of the Japanese artist was the way in which he was able to be true to both Brangwyn and to himself. I know this sounds like an allusion to what we as Westerners see as oriental self-effacement but I am not sure what other term we can use when faced with what to us is a strange displacement of the ego.
I've not really said anything about the individual prints as I would usually do. Perhaps this is because there is only one print and this is also the Urushibara effect. He brings everything together into an overall mood; the differences between these lamplit, evening images is less than what they have in common. I don't think I could really judge without seeing all of them together alongside the poems by Binyon and I still haven't read those nor have I come across all the images in a format suitable for the blog. So, this post must be as partial as Brangwyn was himself.