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Linocut

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Type of relief print in which linoleum is used as the printing surface. Using gouges and knives, the artist cuts the design into linoleum, a man-made sheet flooring composed primarily of oxidized linseed oil and ground cork. Battleship linoleum, a variety c. 6 mm thick, is frequently recommended, as is Desk-top, a thinner sheet. With the advent of synthetic floorings, linoleum became less easily available. In the late 20th century it was no longer produced in the USA but was manufactured in Scotland and commonly sold only in artists’ shops. For printmaking, linoleum may be mounted on to plywood, to produce a block that can be printed mechanically. The linocut can also be printed in a simple screw or lever press or by hand, by rubbing the paper against the inked block with a spoon, rolling pin or baren (a slightly concave disc sheathed in bamboo), or by laying the inked linoleum on to the paper and hammering the back of the block. These hand-printing methods can also be used to print on to textiles, or the inked block can be turned on to fabric stretched on the floor and trodden on by the printer.

Either water- or oil-based inks are used, the former often preferred for their ease of cleaning. Waterfast inks are essential for textile printing. Any paper suitable for relief painting, damp or dry, can be used with linoleum blocks, depending on its texture and on the printing method. Type-high linoleum blocks can easily be printed with type and have been used in book illustration. Because sheet linoleum weighs relatively little and can be printed by hand, it has been used for exceptionally large printed images. Because linocuts are so easily printed by hand, they have been favoured by many artists who personally produce very small editions, although mechanically printed editions of as many as 25,000 are reported (Yeaton, p. 21). Since linoleum lends itself to broad effects, it is particularly adapted to multicolour printing, usually with a separate block for each colour. Linocut manuals commonly prescribe the offsetting of an impression of the key block, which establishes the composition, on to additional blocks in order to guarantee correct registration of colour areas. Likewise, in printing, a jig or other registration device is recommended to locate the paper precisely on each inked block.

Linocuts resemble woodcuts, although the softness and lack of grain of linoleum, which permit the artist to cut fluently in every direction, deprive cuts of the vigour and bias often seen in woodcuts. As fine networks of printing lines tend to crumble in linoleum, broader effects are usually sought. As the surface of linoleum is smooth, unless specially treated, it will not print with a texture that is visible in some woodcuts. The slickness of linoleum can produce a distinctive curdled effect in broadly inked areas, as seen in the Frog Queen (1905) by Erich Heckel; in this print linoleum’s lack of grain bias is evident in the perpendicular clusters of gouge strokes.

Although linoleum was invented in the early 1860s, it was first used for printing only in 1890 in Germany for the manufacture of wallpaper. By the early 20th century it had been popularized for artists’ prints, largely through the efforts of Franz Cižek, an Austrian artist and teacher who recognized 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. The earliest linocut by Heckel, the first major artist to adopt the medium, is dated 1903. He and the other artists of Die Brücke regularly used linocut through the next dozen years.

Such major artists as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso worked in linoleum. Matisse executed 70 linocuts between 1938 and 1952, in a fluent white-line technique, taking evident advantage of the smooth passage of the knife through the soft material. Picasso, after using linoleum for popular posters in the early 1950s, began a series of innovative colour linocuts in 1959. 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.

Linocut gained particular favour in poorer cultures that were less inhibited by a tradition of fine printing. In revolutionary Russia important linocuts were produced by Luubov’ Popova c. 1918. In Canada in the 1920s and 1930s the linocut was more common than the woodcut. The most important British advocate of the linocut was Claude Flight (1881–1955), who taught linocut from 1925 at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London and emphasized its accessibility to the proletariat. This attitude was later demonstrated by such prints as Smokers (1982) by the Australian artist Richard Bosman (b 1944), which was printed by the artist and his wife in an edition of two rolls of paper towels. 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.

M. B. Cohn
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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