Introduction

Spowers set up her studio in an old loft at her family home in Toorak, Melbourne. Light flooded the room, which made it perfect for art-making. It’s likely that Syme also produced prints in this space.

Early in their careers, Spowers and Syme experimented with the technique of Japanese woodcut found in a book written by British artist Frank Morley Fletcher. The book focused on the Ukiyo-e tradition. Spowers’ early woodcut Val de Grace, Paris 1922 reveals the influence of this style. Poetic and atmospheric in style, the military hospital is framed by the silhouette of the tree in the foreground.

In 1928 Syme made an interesting discovery at the Depot Bookshop, run by the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria: a book named Lino-Cuts written by Claude Flight. She was fascinated by the bold geometric compositions representing modern city life. She showed it to Spowers, who was equally impressed by the modernist images.

Together they decided to travel to London and study linocut printing under Claude Flight, a teacher at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. Syme recalls, ‘Here was something new and different, linocut no longer regarded as a base form of woodcut’.

Ethel Spowers The gust of wind c 1931, oil on linen, 45.5 x 36 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, David Thomas OAM and Barbara Thomas Fund in honour of the philanthropy of Rupert Myer AM former Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia 2014

Look

  • Let’s compare the two 1931 versions of The gust of wind by Ethel Spowers (above and below), one a painting and the other a linocut. Immediately, we notice the same subject: a figure losing control of a stack of papers on a wet and windy day. Examining the two works, what are the distinctive characteristics of each medium?
  • In the linocut print below, The gust of wind 1931, Spowers has suggested the wet pavement with a few repetitive blue lines. What approach has she taken to represent the pavement in the oil on linen painting above, The gust of wind 1931?
  • The painting displays fluidity and the figures show form. The linocut combines a flattening of form and abstraction, recalling the Vorticist teachings at the Grosvenor School in London. What other differences can you see?
  • The composition in the print is based on the idea of a vortex. What is a vortex? Explain how this is an accurate description of the composition.

Think

  • Artists often paint the same subject numerous times. What was the key element about the subject that appealed to Spowers?
  • In the print version, Spowers reduces the subject to geometric patterns, almost unrecognisable. What technique does she use to isolate the central figure from the background?
  • A sense of movement is represented in the curved line created by the grouping of the papers. In the painting the curved line is fragmented, while the curve is continuous in the print. Can you think of a reason for the variation, is it linked to the medium?

Create

  • If you were asked to make a drawing suitable for a linocut, what might you take into consideration, especially if including letters? Make a list.
  • Photograph or draw various aspects typical of the hustle and bustle of a city street—busy intersections, neon signs and advertising. Look for interesting combinations of line, pattern and shape. Develop your composition into a design suitable for a relief print.