Linoleum was invented in the early 1860s and first used for printing in 1890 in Germany for the manufacture of wallpaper. By the early 20th century it had been popularized for artists’ prints. Linocut gained particular favour in poorer cultures that were less inhibited by a tradition of fine printing. In revolutionary Russia important linocuts were produced from about 1918. In Canada in the 1920s and 1930s the linocut was more common than the woodcut.
Linocut artists have been influenced by earlier woodcut traditions, including Japanese woodcut traditions and and also geometric forms and abstraction from African and Oceanic art. Linocut artists like the Grosvenor School and Lyubov Popova (see below) have also been influence by major art movements of the twentieth century, particularly cubism, futurism and constructivism. The possibility for dynamic mark-making and bold shapes with simplified colour make lino very well suited for this type of design.
Linocut artists used many of the techniques earlier developed for woodcut – both markmaking and use of tone and structure. But they also developed new directions with Picasso’s use of the reduction linocut (that can also be done with any other surface like wood). Linocut artists became particularly interested in dynamic shapes and use of colour influenced by Futurism.
Later prejudice grew up against linoleum block printing, as suitable only for children, amateurs and the uncultured. The linocut’s popularity also fell with the rise of commercial collaboration between printmaker and publisher, which encouraged more technically complex media.
But recently there has been a resurgence of interest in linocut as an art form. It is a key part of the many printmaking courses as an easier introduction to relief printing than woodcut. It has therefore become widely used for things like greetings cards. But there are also contemporary linocut artists doing innovative work – including very large pieces that exploit its potential for being cut into smaller blocks and because of its relatively light weight. There has been development of a wide range surface etching and texturing techniques using different tools.
Nineteenth and twentieth centuries
An Austrian artist and teacher popularised the material for artists’ prints. He recognised the medium’s potential to instruct children in colour and design: it was cheap, easily worked with simple tools, adaptable to water-based inks, and versatile. Cižek toured Europe and North America with examples by his pupils and influenced art education worldwide.
German Expressionists 1905-1920s
The first major artist to adopt linocut as a medium was Erich Heckel, and his earliest linocut is dated 1903. In his Frog Queen (1905) linoleum’s lack of grain bias is evident in the perpendicular clusters of gouge strokes.
Artists from Die Brucke regularly used linocut instead of woodcut from 1905 to 1920s. These focused on bold shapes and expressive distortion in monochrome prints. The use of lino was ideal for this, although the fine lines and use of woodgrain etxture in some of the woodcuts was not possible.
This German Expressionist tradition has been continued by modern artists like Georg Baselitz who produces very large linocuts and combination prints often on subjects of political protest.
Matisse executed 70 linocuts between 1938 and 1952. These are similar in both style and subject matter to his black and white monoprints of figures. They are executed on lino in a fluent white-line technique, taking evident advantage of the smooth passage of the knife through the soft material and the variation in expressive line that can be achieved.
Picasso used linoleum for popular posters in the early 1950s. In 1959 he began a series of innovative colour linocuts, developing the reduction print technique. He developed a method of printing in different colours progressive states cut on a single block, so that the finished print comprises layered impressions of all the states.
Lyubov Popova was a Russian avant-garde and ‘new woman’ artist (Cubist, Suprematist and Constructivist) painter and designer. She produced a number of linocuts in constructivist style.
Claude Flight (1881–1955)
The most important British advocate of the linocut. He taught linocut from 1925 at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London and emphasized its accessibility to the proletariat. His images are very dynamic with strong curvature distortion.
The work of the Grosvenor School has also influenced some contemporary linocut artists like the Canadian Gary Ratushniak who was trained by Sybil Andrews draws also on native America traditions.
Edward Bawden is another English artist and illustrator who often worked in watercolour, but also produced many linocuts. His work is more figurative and many of his paintings are from his experience as war artist in the Second World War.
US Civil Rights Movement
Linocuts were very popular as effective and cheap media for mass communication by African American artists involved in the American Civil Rights movement. Influenced by both African and Mexican art they depicted images of racial and sexual issues. Key proponents were:
Some of the sources I have looked at (in alphabetical order). For images and more detailed discussion see Logbook 2: Linocut at page references given below.