Not Picasso's invention - a foray into the history of reductive linoprinting.

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Not Picasso's invention - a foray into the history of reductive linoprinting.


Bunbury, Alisa.


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



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Not Picasso’s invention – a foray into the history of reductivelinoprinting

Not Picasso’s invention – a foray into the history of reductive linoprinting.
by Alisa Bunbury


This paper is the result of several years of exploring the early use of reductive linoprinting. Known by a wide variety of names – reductive, reduction, progressive, elimination, ‘cut and come again’, ‘the suicide method’, it is, in one sense, the easiest of colour printing techniques – there are minimal registration problems. However, one slip while cutting and you can have ruined your entire edition (or maybe just have to modify it to incorporate the mistake). Given the limited materials required, it is the easiest colour printing method to teach – probably you learnt it at school – and it is so common now that it’s almost a printing equivalent of the wheel – so easy, so simple, so obvious, that you can’t imagine people not having used it.

Possibly for this reason, no one seems to have looked into the history of this technique – my foray is definitely an unsolved detective story. I have researched as much as I have been able – for the moment – but by talking about it today I hope that this will open up new avenues – I am sure that many of you here will be able to comment, contribute, so it will be a constantly expanding answer…

Let me start by telling you how I got into this project in the first place. I did my MA on the linocuts of Murray Griffin – a Melbourne-based artist – who first produced his highly colourful, technically brilliant linocuts in 1932, to immediate acclaim. One of the things that turned up in my research was a 1935 exhibition catalogue in which Griffin described how he made the prints:

In the editions, averaging 15 copies of each design, …[t]he plates are automatically destroyed as each design is built up, and it is quite impossible to print more copies without cutting a fresh.” Grosvenor Gallery catalogue, 1935.

To describe it in this way in the catalogue this is clearly a selling point – this is a limited edition not simply by choice, the decision of the artist, but the creation of the print itself limits the edition – exclusivity guaranteed. Here he is clearly talking about the reductive technique. In 1935.

Here I must give due credit to Roger, my supervisor, who encouraged me to look further into this as he didn’t know of anyone else using this technique at this time. And if Roger doesn’t know it, then it is worth looking into.

Once I did start looking into this, Picasso was the one artist lurking at every corner.

I quote from one of the most recent publications on Picasso’s prints, by Stephen Coppel, who wrote

In 1959 [Picasso] took up the linocut and for the next four years experimented with its possibilities in the most original way. Whereas traditionally a new block was cut for each colour, Picasso developed the ‘reductive method’ whereby a single block was cut and printed across the entire edition before further cutting and printing of the same block with the next colour. (Coppel, 1997, p. 91)

This 1997 publication continues the myth, begun in the early 1960s, that Picasso was the first to use this technique.

Other texts acknowledge that Picasso was not the inventor, but rather that he was encouraged to use the technique by his printer (so known commercially).

From Kandinsky to Corneille: linoleum in the art of the Twentieth Century (1999)

“Dissatisfied with the result [of Portrait of a woman after Lucas Cranach, 1958]…he went on to use the reduction technique proposed by his printer….Since then this technique has become common practice among graphic artists” (p. 14)

Later in the same publication it says that:

“In 1959, dissatisfied with the result [of that work], Picasso was the first artist to experiment with the ‘reduction’ method …”(p. 84)

So he was not the inventor but the first “artist” to use it.

Rosemary Simmons and Kate Clemson in The complete manual of relief printmaking, London, 1988, write:

Pablo Picasso is sometimes credited with the invention of the reduction block method …but it seems to have been in use by small-scale commercial printers for some time before he made it his own. It was one such printer of posters who suggested to Picasso that he might find it an easy way of keeping the various colours in registration with each other….(p. 48)

Antony Griffiths in his primary text Prints and Printmaking:

“When Picasso took up linocut in the late 1950s, he adopted and popularised another way of making a colour relief print. This is sometimes known as the ‘reduce block method’ and involves successive printings from the same block onto one sheet.” (p. 117)

It was as a result of this statement that Antony Griffith received a letter, which he allowed me to see, written by British printmaker Rigby Graham in 1997 who wrote that he ‘read with incredulity’ Griffith’s statement:

As a boy in school in the 1940s, I along with others was introduced to this [reductive] method by the art master. Also in the late 1940s at art college many of us used this method of lino-printing – mainly because it only took one block and registration was always so easy. In different art schools at that time it was known variously as ‘cut and come again’ or as ‘progressive linocutting’ or as ‘reduction block cutting’. Naturally enough it was sometimes used in conjunction with another, or other, blocks as well….I find it astounding that Picasso though he had invented it in 1958. I know that from personal experience it was in use in 1946 and I am under the impression that the method was widely used at that time. I taught in secondary schools in Leicester from 1954 to 1957 and the method was widely practised then, I assumed it had been going for some considerable time.

A printmaker friend of Graham’s, Chris Thistlethwaite, confirmed to me that he too learnt it in the later 1940s, after the war, and Pat Gilmour, former print curator here at the NGA, also learnt it in a similar period in Britain. Pat wrote to me:

I used it at high school and later at college myself – i.e. 1940s and mid-1960s. So Picasso was certainly not its inventor. However, I have to admit that he made a better job of it than I did! I guess the reason that the method was used by school or college students was that a) it was easier to get accurate registration from the use of a single block and b) it was less expensive than multiple block printing for indigent students. (Correspondence 20.1.01)

So if a person such as Gilmour, eminent print scholar, has known of the early use of this technique, why is this not generally known? You’ll have noticed that these anecdotes are largely about students, people learning printmaking, rather than professional artists. No professional reductive prints from this period are known. But is that just that we haven’t been looking for this technique? Or was it the regard in which this technique held? From its very earliest years, linoprinting was associated with amateurs. Professor Cizek in Vienna was one of the first to publicise lino as a matrix, using it to teach his young students a sense of design. Some of the earliest (non-commercial) use in Australia was in secondary schools and hospitals. Publications about relief printing (of which there were numerous publications in the 1920s and 1930s) demonstrate a clear attitude that linoprinting is for amateurs, on which you practice until you are competent enough to advance to woodblocks. (One of the reasons Claude Flight’s teachings at the Grosvenor School in London in the 1920s, and his subsequent books, were so important was that he didn’t regard lino in this light, but actually saw it as a more appropriate material for the 20thcentury).

To return to reductive printing then, is it the case that reductive linoprinting was taught to students who, only if they were good enough, advanced to multiple blocks? My feeling is that, yes, this is clearly the attitude.

But if we’re accepting that reductive printmaking was aimed at the amateur, can this be proven in the numerous books which, as I said, were published during the inter-war years? Well, no. I spent many, many days at the British Library and other libraries looking at every book they held on printmaking from this period and if colour printmaking was mentioned at all in these British publications, and it frequently wasn’t, it was only ever multiple block printing.

With one exception. In a 1952 publication put out by Dryad Press, titled Making colour prints: an approach to linocutting, the author John Newick described in great detail the reductive technique. In the forward, Newick wrote:

All the examples reproduced here were made by boys and girls at Sidcot School, Somerset, [ie. still by students] by a method I introduced to them whereby colour prints…can be made by using one block of linoleum[his italics] for all the colour printings on each picture. The second aim of this book is to present as clearly as possible this method of colour printing from one block: a method which has so many advantages – educational, aesthetic and economic – that I hope it will become familiar and widely practised.

The introduction states that Newick had been using the technique over a number of years – that is, since the 1940s.

So how do we reconcile this statement of originality or invention, with Rigby Graham and Pat Gilmour’s of the common knowledge of the technique amongst British art students (and therefore artists) particularly as Graham and Newick actually knew each other? How do we reconcile the idea that reductive printmaking was aimed at the amateur when all the amateur books bar this one made no mention of it?

Was it spread by word-of-mouth only? Used only by students? But at least some students become professional – surely it would have spread? And of course it must be acknowledged that it is an easy technique to discover when experimenting.

What then of professional artists in Britain?

In the catalogue raisonné of the prints of Blair Hughes-Stanton, Penelope Hughes-Stanton notes that “8-9 colour progressively cut, elimination linocuts” were produced in 1959 for illustrations for Joseph Conrad’s Youth.

I am showing you this slide, despite the damage, as it arrived in the mail, folded up in a package, from Penelope Hughes-Stanton (she sent it because it was damaged, didn’t happen in the mail) as an example of what she believes is her father’s first reductive print, dated 1958. She wrote: “BHS was very comfortable with the process and already by 1960 was making very complex prints in many colours using reduction all over the place. Unfortunately I threw away a whole trunk of bits of lino. He did cut up the pieces of lino but I have no idea how he printed them – whether one colour at a time or several.”

Simmons/Clemson “Blair Hughes-Stanton’s… prints often have seventeen or more printings from three or four reduction blocks. He tended to use one block for all the yellows and related colours, one for the blues, one for the reds and one for the greys to blacks. This gave him an enormously wide range of colours.” (p. 48)

Although others have suggested that I check whether Gertrude Hermes was also doing this, Penelope writes that while Hermes was producing linocuts earlier, and was the one who encouraged Blair to produce them, she does not seem to have made any herself reductively. Leon Underwood is another who has been suggested but there has been very little written on him, and although I’m sure there must be someone working away on his prints, I haven’t yet located them.

I’ve been focusing on events in Britain here. What was happening elsewhere?

I quote from an article by James Watrous titled “The woodcuts of Alfred Sessler in the Elvehjem Collection” (1987–88):

In 1957, Sessler received a summer grant from the Graduate School [of the University of Wisconsin] for “creative printmaking” His experiments led to a reduction block technique” A single block was used (or at the most two) for all of the cuttings and colour printings. His first reduction block colour woodcut was Still life – the vase, a print with seven cuttings and eight colour printings. The technique – with all of the sequential proofs and the final impression – was exhibited at the Wisconsin Union Gallery in September 1957….The reduction block method required precise planning and Raymond Gloeckler…recalled that Sessler’s students referred to it as the ‘suicide method’….[Sessler] also believed that no contemporary artist was creating reduction block woodcuts as a systematic method of printmaking. Not long after Sessler carried out his experiments, the reduction block process was publicised, wrongly, as an ‘invention of Picasso’.

(Two qualifiers in that statement. Sessler said ‘no contemporary artist’ in reference to chiaroscuro woodcuts – which are multiple block only though. When he said that he believed himself to be the only artist producing woodcuts, I am sure we can accept linocuts in that statement.)

Like Newick, this statement of Sessler’s clearly states that this technique was not known – however, at least one American artist was also publicising this technique in the early 1950s. Charles W. Smith, in his book Experiments in Relief Printmaking (1954, The University of Virginia Press) wrote of a number of experimental printmaking techniques that he used, one being “a subtractive method from four direct impressions made from the same block”. In his book he briefly but clearly describes the method, then reproduces the print – firstly complete, and then divided up into each colour. This book was limited to an edition of only 300 copies (one being in the NLA) so it is understandable if the technique did not spread as a result of this publication.

Anyone else?

Gauguin in fact did use this technique in 1899. In the catalogues three prints are listed for which he produced two states of each print (Guerin 58, 60 and 66). The first was printed usually in black onto thick Japanese paper, while the second state was printed in brown onto thin Japanese paper which was then superimposed over the first state and pasted down. However the Mongan et al. 1988 catalogue raisonné does note that both states were sometimes printed onto the same sheet, thereby technically making it a reductive print.

In my research I haven’t looked in great depth as to what was happening on the continent – my German is non-existent but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some use of, or experimentation with, the technique there. (However, others such as Antony Griffiths and Frances Carey, in The print in Germany 1880–1933: the age of Expressionism make no reference to reductive printing).

In the 1910s, the Expressionist printmakers were experimenting with colour printing but only used the multiple block technique, although Erich Heckel did experiment, as Edvard Munch had done, with cutting up the block and printing it separate colours, and with painting the block with separate colours. Ernst Kirchner also experimented widely with changing the number and order of printing the blocks. I have had one Kirchner print brought to my attention as being reductive, but after careful examination by the Director of McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario who own the work, it has been ascertained that this is not the case. (Many people have poured over this print for me).

So, to come back to Australia, where did Murray Griffin learn it? I really don’t know. Definitely there was no-one using it as early as the 1930s. Unfortunately for my argument, Griffin never used reductive printmaking solely but rather always in conjunction with multiple blocks. At times, he even cut blocks down in size to apply small areas of colour, and it is highly likely that at times he inked more than one colour onto a block. He was clearly very experimental with his inking and given the overlapping nature of his hatching and his varied manner of printing and cutting, it is very difficult to work out the exact order of printing for many of his works, and to confirm where exactly he used the reductive technique.

Coming a generation later, there are discrepancies in people’s memories. Tate Adams, one of the most significant print exponents in Melbourne in the 1960s never used the technique himself (although he said he has wrongly been credited as such) and doesn’t know of anyone using it. Kenneth Jack, one of the group of artists working at RMIT (WMC) in the 1950s under the encouragement of Harold Freedman, also says he didn’t know the technique; whereas Lesbia Thorpe believes that it had been discussed by this group and that a few may have experimented with it (unfortunately she can’t recall exactly who might have been trying this). Franz Kempf says that he saw it being used in London in the mid-1950s and that he himself taught it in the 1960s. I did contact many other artists, all of whom responded in the negative.

However Brian Seidel, in Adelaide in the 1950s, says that it was well known – printmaking was largely self-taught and it was such a simple technique that one would play around with it. No big deal was made of it – people didn’t worry about how things were produced then and so wouldn’t record the technique.

So, as I warned, this is going to be a very open-ended conclusion. Picasso did not invent reductive printmaking; he was not the first artist to use it. Alfred Sessler was not the first artist to use it (although I think there may be an American desire for him to have pipped Picasso at the post); it may not be inaccurate to say that Gauguin did invent it. However, of course to use this word is absurd – undoubtedly many people discovered it themselves – it’s a logical step to take when experimenting – and I’m sure this is how Griffin came across it – he first started in the Depression years when his art sales were a necessary income and the exclusivity was undoubtedly a strong selling point.

So this paper is simply about bringing to light the unacknowledged fact that this method of printing was indeed being used in the first half of the twentieth century – widely in Britain, at least – and that we, as print historians, should be aware of it. Why there has been so little acknowledgment of it is open to conjecture and further discussion, but I’m sure it has to do with associations of amateurism; possibly with associations of commercialism; and with a conservatism about ‘the traditional, correct way of doing it’.

If this is correct, then it was the rebel Picasso – breaking down barriers left, right and centre – who was the printmaker with the power to change this – hence his recognition for this technique.

© Alisa Bunbury, 2001.
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.