Michael Rothenstein

Black and Orange


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Michael Rothenstein 1908–1993
Linocut, woodcut and wood relief on paper
Image: 475 × 720 mm
Purchased 1987

Catalogue entry

P77205 Black and Orange 1961

Linocut, woodcut and wood relief 475 × 720 (18 5/8 × 28 3/8) on Japanese laid paper 628 × 930 (24 3/4 × 36 1/8); printed and published by the artist; artist's proof aside from the edition of 25 proofs in various colour variations
Inscribed ‘Michael Rothenstein’ below image b.r. and ‘Artists Proof’ below image b.l.
Purchased from Redfern Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Lit: Tessa Sidey, The Prints of Michael Rothenstein R.A., Aldershot 1993, p.128 no.135a. Also repr. Michael Rothenstein: Prints of the 1950s and '60s, Redfern Gallery 1987, no.20, repr.

In ‘Black and Orange’ the artist used seven colours: black, orange, brown, red, yellow, blue and beige. Green was also produced by the overlapping of blue and yellow. The beige ground was printed from inked linen to give the image a textured quality. Two elmwood boards inked with red were then used to further enhance this background texture. A strong horizontal line is created by the gap between the two boards. However, ‘Black and Orange’ is dominated by two emblematic forms produced by woodcut and linocut respectively, a green circle with a striking orange mark in its centre on the left, and on the right a bold vertical group of calligraphic marks. With the exception of the orange mark and the black calligraphic motif, the colours throughout the print are thinly applied. The calligraphic motif is flanked by a vertical blue shape printed from a woodcut. Areas of orange appear to the left and bottom of the circle. Other layers of colour in this area include red and brown. The impressions of this print were hand and press-printed at the artist's studio in Great Bardfield, Essex.

‘Black and Orange’ is an early example of Rothenstein's experimentation with open-block relief printing (see entry on P77204). His prints of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as ‘Untitled’, 1959 (P77206), ‘Black and Orange’ and ‘Tournament’, 1963 (P77204) show a gradual movement towards non-figurative imagery. The circle, for example, was emerging as a motif in Rothenstein's prints by the early 1960s, finding full expression in the ‘Circle’ series of 1968–70 (see Sidey 1994, pp.142–4). In conversation on 5 September 1991, the artist explained to the compiler that this apparent adoption of abstraction was never absolute:

In one sense, I was never very abstract because all the work I did, as I feel it, was to do with force and energy and growth and pressure, dispersion, compression - all these things, so that was really a life-raft because I could still consider forms in a purity of relationships and not take away the last moorings with the natural world.

Rothenstein defined his collaboration with existing forms and objects as ‘a true stencil of reality’ (‘Michael Rothenstein Interviewed by Mel Gooding’, National Life Story Collection: Lives of the Artists, British Library National Sound Archive C466/02, 23–24/7/1990, p.66), and his fascination for the texture of wood in particular stems from a sense of involvement with the ebb and flow of life as a whole: ‘It's the feeling one has that things belong, belong to the current of life, or in a Blakeian sense, to the river of life.’ (p.72.)

In ‘Black and Orange’ the calligraphic motif seems to float against a blue shadow. A related woodcut, printed in an edition of fifteen, consists primarily of this shadowy shape and the large circle with a hollowed centre (repr. Sidey 1993, p.129 no.135), but, in contrast with ‘Black and Orange’, they are printed boldly in deep blue.

At the time of making ‘Black and Orange’ Rothenstein was aware of the works of American Abstract Expressionists and was struck by their emphasis on ‘direct intuitive gesture’ (letter to the compiler, 20 October 1991). For him, it seemed that the Americans had realised that ‘you had to work fast to keep pace with feeling and thought’ (conversation, 5 September 1991). Rothenstein explained that in order to translate this spontaneity into print-making he had rapidly painted the calligraphic mark with a brush onto lino, which he then etched. In his view, the virtue of the spontaneous marks was that they contrasted against the static background: ‘“Black and Orange” was one of the first prints in which I discovered I had to employ fast marks with slow marks.’ The marks were not planned and are not intended to refer to Eastern mysticism in any way, but are, nonetheless, the result of feeling or emotion applied without conscious control: ‘I have to work without a conscious deliberate control because I feel that the thing of most interest to me comes out in another way.’

The red background area was printed from two boards of elm, which came from a lumber-yard not far from Rothenstein's studio in Stisted, Essex. Rothenstein chanced upon the yard when taking his family for a picnic beside a river. Instead of being surrounded by a wall, the yard was fenced with immense off-cuts of elmwood. He told the compiler that the ‘wild, wandering grain’ of elm, quite different from pine and other woods, was ‘immediately striking’. The artist was impressed by this ‘vertical landscape’ of wood and he promptly acquired a lorry load of huge elm planks to utilize in his print-making. Describing the elm fence, he recalled: ‘It was like a cliff. A cliff of living material that bore the extraordinary marks of growth, a graph of energy.’ (British Library National Sound Archive 1990, p.65.)

Rothenstein had already started to work with woodcut by 1958, exploiting the character of the grain in the same way as previous artists such as Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and the Japanese printer Shiko Munakata (1903–1975). Rothenstein told the compiler that with ‘Black and Orange’, he felt he was no longer just exploiting the wood's expressive qualities. Through the process of making the image he felt that he was conspiring with the energy inherent in the wood (conversation, 5 September 1991).

The artist began to use Japanese paper c.1958, and went on to use it more frequently in the early 1960s. When he used Japanese paper it was normally thick Hosho paper, but for this edition he chose thin Hosho. This enabled him to produce delicate tonal gradations and textures, since the thinner paper is more responsive to variations in pressure. To achieve this subtlety Rothenstein inked the boards of wood and placed the paper on top. He then applied pressure with the roller by hand-pressing firmly in the centre and gently easing the pressure towards the edges of the print. He thus rejected the conventional method of inking the surface and printing with even pressure.

In addition to the texture of linen and wood, the image is patterned by random marks reverberating around the green circle. These were achieved by banging the edge of a hammer into the block. This type of patterning was not used in a working proof for ‘Black and Orange’ (repr. Sidey 1993, p.129 no.135a, as ‘working proof’), which in other respects is similar to P77205. However, almost identical hammer markings appear in another artist's proof (repr. Sidey 1993, p.129 no.135a, as ‘artist's proof’). This differs from P77205 in that it has a distinctive mark in the bottom left, and lighter areas of colour edging the right of the circle and large, blue vertical shape. It occurred to Rothenstein that anything stronger than the wood or lino, or any other material he was using for printing, could make an impression. He would therefore beat his blocks or boards of wood with a hammer, or with any instrument to hand. In some cases he drew into wood or lino with a very hard pencil in order to make an incised mark. This technique is visible in ‘Black and Orange’ where yellow lines appear in the green circle. In conversation, he told the compiler that such methods were attempts to ‘harness the inherent energies of the material’. They also provided the means of ‘unlocking something which is hidden, making plain something which is mysterious’.

The artist approved a draft of this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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