Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Eileen Mayo & Linoland
To read what some curators and auction houses say about Eileen Mayo (1906 - 1994) in the Antipodes, you would think she was some kind of multinational. But all the linocuts here (except for the last one) date from the time she spent in Britain before she left in 1953. Isabel de B Lockyer dated all of hers and most of these are dateable, too. To me, this suggests something interesting about the attitude of these artists to their linocuts - that it is art and not craft. Following on from Claude Flight, they make claims for a medium often seen as suitable for children. (Franz Cizek (1865 - 1946) at the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna had pioneered its use for children and in 1925 Alan Seaby had this to say about his work 'it has been found that a child... can deal with linoleum with ease'). And, of course, Turkish Bath (1927ish) wilfully contradicts all this professorial wisdom. Its steamy abandon is hardly general viewing.
Morning tea, with its sexual ambiguity, is even less so. Here is an artist who had trained with a modern vengeance at a series of London art schools: the Slade, the Central School, Chelsea Polytechnic. But it all went out the window with her very first print. She famously got on the phone to Claude Flight for instruction in linocut. The sumptuous art deco of Turkish Bath was the lurid result. It's outrageous, of course, and a lark. And it also got her included in the 'The first exhibition of British Linocut' that Flight organised in 1929. (I am going by Osborne Samuel's date for this - it seems to waver). She was a true printmaker at that point; an artist who was using print to try out new ideas. By Morning tea her lifelong use of bold colour and repetitive, sinuous line is already well to the fore.
She was an admirer of Eric Gill's work but in those first two prints she come across as far more fresh and contemporary than Gill ever did (and I admire his work, too). If Black Swan sees her moving towards an interest in natural history, Cats in the trees displays the same wit and decorative elan we saw in her figure subjects. The skill of her work is beyond doubt. She was highly trained. The growing formalism of her work during the thirties is fairly typical of the times, which were less than easy. She perhaps wasn't going to make a living out of jazz-age linocuts but personally I would have liked to see more.
These two next prints, with their flat figures, simplified colours and sense of recording popular life, would not be out of place in a King Penguin book about British folk art. The Doric Dairy cart is quite some way from the sensuousness of the turkish baths, or waking up. There we had what I find very attractive, a woman artist taking women as her subject - not women in a domestic setting but in pleasurable ones. With ice-cream vendors and milk carts, we move back to a simplified world of linocut childhood. They certainly look like illustrations rather than manifestos.
But this is not a linocut artist, not like, say, Sybil Andrews or Claude Flight. All I have done is look at one aspect of Mayo's work that I like and that starts off very early in her career. She made wood-engravings, lithographs, screen prints, too, sometimes of the same image but never with quite the same sense of verve that she achieved early on.
But everything still went into the mix. This later linocut, which she made in Australia, has elements of both surrealism and abstraction. It's a glorious thing but you can see the teacher in her. In that resepect she is like Bormann and Klemm and Orlik, exemplary in what she does but somehow there is still something missing. I think you can tell by now which of these works I prefer.