Michael Rothenstein FROM - 12 Nov 2016

Michael Rothenstein (1908-93) was perhaps the most experimental British graphic artist of the 20th century. The son of Sir William Rothenstein, the illustrious painter, printmaker, portraitist, and Principal of the Royal College of Art, Rothenstein began life surrounded by art. From an early age he was encouraged in his own studies, eventually enrolling at the Chelsea School of Art in 1923. Despite his obvious talents in the landscape watercolours and drawings he produced throughout the 1920s, a rare glandular illness and debilitating depression meant that Rothenstein exhibited very little in his early career.

After a first one-man show at the Redfern Gallery in 1942, the many diverse processes of printmaking began to attract Rothenstein towards graphic work. In 1946, with his first editioned print – Timber Felling in Essex, produced for the School Prints initiative – he ventured fully into the world of the printmaking. After a flurry of experimental works Rothenstein established his own studio in Great Bardfield in 1954 where he began to produce from his own presses. His fascination led to a myriad of new techniques which he developed on as many different media: driftwood and sheets of iron, scrubbed with sandpaper or ground with power tools, became printing blocks whilst metal scraps, photographs and other refuse were incorporated into the process.  For 40 years Rothenstein ceaselessly dedicated his time to printmaking, at the almost total expense of his work in other media. In 1967 he moved to Stisted, Essex and new workshop premises with the Argus Studio. His imagery in these prints straddled a divide between figurative portraits and depictions of animals, especially the cockerel, and abstract combinations of form, colour and texture.

As well as print-making, Rothenstein also lectured extensively on his techniques and produced several publications about the importance of the print as a medium in its own right, and not merely a tool for reproduction.

My feeling is that each technique in printmaking is like a single instrument producing its own range of sound but that these instruments need not always be played separately as they have been in the past. We live in an age when transformation between techniques is made available through phototechnology and in this way the single instrument is less separate – it is capable of merging, of being used in concert – of producing a symphony, with a new kind of orchestration.

A figurehead at the very forefront of the 20th century British printmaking renaissance, Rothenstein died at his home in Essex in 1993. His prints embody the same excitement and daring that galvanised their production: rich in colour and spectacularly textured, they represent an artist exploding the boundaries of traditional printmaking.

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