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Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Sybil Andrews
Glenbow Museum, Calgary, September 14 - October 22

Vanguard, Vol. 11 #9/10, January 1983.
[ 805 words ]


Long before the most recent revival of interest in those areas where painting and decoration overlap, Sybil Andrews was grappling with some of their perennial common problems — colour, line and movement. Yet it is this revived interest, along with the attention that has been given in the last few years to Futurism and its spin-offs, that helps to make these vibrant and energetic linocuts look less like dated pattern-making.

Peter White, until recently Assistant Curator of Art at the Glenbow, sets out their historical credentials in a well-researched essay in the beautifully produced catalogue. He shows Andrews's work growing out of a specific moment in that rather moderate debate about modernism that went on in England between the two world wars, and how she has made an interesting contribution to it; although she has done so perhaps in a more minor way than White suggests.

Andrews was born in England in 1898 and since 1947 has lived and worked in Campbell River on Vancouver Island. In 1925 she began to learn about the art of the linocut from Claude Flight who taught at the Grosvenor School of Art. In the linocut she found a medium that perfectly suited her feeling for the spectacle of everyday life and work. The 74 works in this exhibition show a remarkable consistency in her use of the medium between 1929 and 1979.

They are supplemented by a selection of linocuts by Andrews's contemporaries and by Flight himself. On the evidence here, Flight looks the most interesting artist and Andrews appears to have remained the closest to his style. Without making it any more technically complex, Flight had developed the humble and essentially decorative medium of the linocut to the point where it could encompass a Cubist flat fragmentation of the subject and the dynamic movement of Futurism. Flight himself had been much influenced by the ideology of the Italian Futurists, was acquainted with Marinetti and was a friend of the British artist Nevinson. He believed that art should deal with the modern world and he also believed that it should be widely accessible preferably at a price 'equivalent to that paid by the average man for his beer or his cinema ticket.'

Predictably, the average man continued to prefer his beer to a linocut. Partly because of the Depression climate, partly because of the deep-seated prejudice against 'modern art' in Britain, Flight's quasi-socialist ideals were not taken very seriously, and his work, and that of his followers, though widely exhibited, never found a popular audience.

The ideology may have foundered but the works remain very accessible. White suggests that Andrews's imagery is much more personally expressive than that of her mentor, but for all that they are immediate and easy, without being facile. They are attractive rather than challenging. In some of them one finds the simple and singular idea of the successful advertising image, and it is not surprising to find that Andrews has turned her talents to advertising, for example, the charming posters done for London Transport around 1930.

Her preferred subjects, taken from her own observation, are of people or machines operating in concert, lines of plough, windswept trees, wheels and their tracks. They yield repeating and therefore rhythmic imagery — here are the serial and stacked elements of Art Deco design as well as the sinuous line of Art Nouveau. Andrews has also exploited the design potential of the vertiginous and worm's eye view, as in Bringing in the Boat (1933), and Michaelmas (1935), and of centrifugal and centripetal forces, as in Sledgehammers and Windmill, both from 1933.

References in Andrews's work to Futurism and Vorticism do not reach very far. For artists like Boccioni and Wyndham Lewis, technique was used to submit subjects to ideas. Andrews subordinates her subjects to their design potential. And this is right because she does not have much to say about her subjects. The series The Stations of the Cross seems to be an exception to this where line and composition are emotionally expressive rather than visually manipulative.

These linocuts, and I am thinking in particular of Concert Hall (1929), Hyde Park (1931), Fall of Leaf (1934), and Wings (1979), belong in a realm of strong, sometimes enduring, visual impact. If, in examples like Flower Girls (1934), the angular sequences seem perversely inappropriate, or in Indian Dancers (1951) and Western Red Cedar (1977), Andrews seems to have caught misleading rather than essential characteristics of her themes, nevertheless there are those, like Tracks (1977), which fully repay the tenacity with which she has perfected the methods of a lifetime.


Vanguard, Vol. 11 #9/10, January 1983.


Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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