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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 6 (January-February 1953)

Freedom and Discipline

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Freedom and Discipline

Even the Honan ceramic figurines wanted to dance—though they were static enough where I found them, sedately grouped in a dusty case at the Fogg Museum at Harvard. My holiday mood was showing itself. A trip abroad had meant for me freedom from discipline, deadlines, and “musts”. A period of impulsive compulsions if you like: when it was more important to spend an afternoon in the Tate Gallery or the Uffizzi, than laboriously to record for oneself this or that historic spot. To draw only what I wanted to, mainly fragments, and always quickly: a black boy on a wharf, a glimpse from a London window, a group in a cafe. One general aim only—to loosen up, to work freely, to have fun.

Not that I don't have fun under normal circumstances. I have always had two kinds of interest as an artist and have found the practice of each equally rewarding. Having spent some eight years in a commercial studio, my interest in commissioned illustration has been as lively as in the free use of watercolour for landscape or decorative figure studies. Concentration on freedom during these few months abroad was merely intended to restore the necessary balance between the discipline of technique on the one hand, and fredom of expression on the other. The advice, ‘Work hard, and then say, nuts’, appeals to me. Not because of the ease with which saying ‘nuts’ would roll off the tongue, or be expected to drip off the end of the brush as a result of hard work. But the more vocabulary one has, or experience with a variety of techniques, the more effectively can one say it.

It was in New York that the search for new freedoms led me to the Art Students League. I think six weeks spent studying Lithography there was its culmination. Once long ago, I had been required to reproduce a seven colour poster (designed by somebody else, and a bad one at that) for the lithographic process, and it had kindled, not extinguished my interest in the possibilities of this medium. There is scope on a stone, to scratch, to scrape, to smear, to chalk, to make lines like the meanderings of cracks on ancient buildings, or textures like those of pitted wood. A thousand stored-up impressions of patterned landscape or strange skylines can find outlet here. The lively atmosphere of the Graphics Department at the League, where individual experiments with new materials, as well as group research, were being carried on in the seemingly severe disciplines of lithography and the kindred arts of etching, engraving and their variants, convinced me of their endless potentialities for artists seeking new freedom and variety in expression.

Working as a commercial artist channels a general desire to draw, into those methods of expression which are adapted to mass reproduction. However, the limitations of block printing by line or half tone, the reduction to a few colours, the requirements of a client, and economic considerations, can also be a challenge. There is a fascination in the never-ending search to page break enlarge one's range of expression within these limits. And after all, one is free to choose between the media themselves.

‘Small comfort!’—do I hear a hoot from the Art for Art's Sakers? Not at all. All lucid integrated works of art have their own discipline. So too, the discipline imposed from without can be fulfilling. It is true that too great a preoccupation with technique can tighten and inhibit creative thought. Yet lack of skill in saying what he wants to say can render an artist equally inarticulate. In the same way, a fixation on a formula has proved as fatal to the integrity of the artist painting only for himself as to the so-called hack working in a commercial studio.

There is a double interest in drawing for reproduction. First, the conception of an idea within the range of the chosen medium. Then the thrill of steering this child (which one always hopes will be a prodigy) through the intricate birth, the printing process. Each stage is a test. Perhaps a block has to be made, a colour chosen, a plate bitten, a stone inked. Even if one is only directing these operations and not actively participating, it doesn't alter one's vital interest in the result. Will it emerge as one intended it should? Will it, if it is an illustration for a book, really balance the type? Will it, if it is a poster, convey its message clear across the street?

There is a fascination in print-making which has nothing to do with economics or the need for multiplication. A veteran lithographer I met in New York summed it up when he said to me, while he ‘mothered’ a first run through the hand press: ‘I would still make prints if only one print could be pulled from my stone’. He knew the discipline of the stone, the excitement of producing a clean print, and the possibilities of the medium.

There should be no barriers to artistic expression. No forbidden ground. No techniques too lowly to try out, no pigeon-holing of an artist's efforts into categories, ‘commercial’ ‘industrial’ or ‘fine’. Each medium mastered can be a gateway leading to a clearer statement of the artist's outlook on life. In his ability to draw a precise or decorative line, his penchant for clear diagrammatic statement, his sensibility for colour, or his flair for innovation, his individual viewpoint will be apparent in whatever field he is working. It has been said of Paul Klee that his every mark upon paper was ‘a positive controlled act of faith’.

In a recent appreciation in Image of the work of the young English artist Leonard Rosoman, Michael Middleton says. ‘If the problem facing the artist in the second half of this century is seen as one of re-integrating values recently isolated and pushed to sterile extremes, Rosoman is a distinguished member of a generation that aims to bring the fine and applied arts together in harness again.’ Rosoman himself, whose work enlivens pamphlets, magazines, the theatre, and book production, as well as painting, says: ‘These are all aspects of the same problem.’