Alan Dixon’s woodcuts have appeared on the covers of, so far, four HappenStance pamphlets: Ruth Pitter’s Persephone in Hades, Thomas McKean’s A Conversation with Ruth Pitter , the Ruth Pitter Selected and finally Who’s in the Next Room (poems by Thomas Hardy with responses from four contemporary Dorset poets). He is also a poet in his own right, his most recent full collection being The Ogling of Lady Luck, Shoestring 2005. More recently, he has translated thirty poems by Max Jacob entitled The Seaweed’s Secret (Spectacular Diseases, 2011). Shoestring Press is about to bring out 73 Woodcuts, a title which describes precisely what the volume contains. The first 25 copies will include a limited print (Tramps in Rain) signed by the artist, a collector’s gem if ever there was one.
Alan, you’re both poet and artist, and in recent years, you’ve chosen to specialize in woodcuts, mainly as works in their own right, but sometimes to complement small press publications. What first drew you to this print form?
I was prompted first by the woodcuts and linocuts of Arp, Hans Richter, Marcel Janco and Raoul Hausmann in Robert Motherwell’s book on Dada. One of my first, perhaps the first, entitled ‘Head’, was exhibited in a print show at the AIA Gallery in Soho in 1960.Later I became enthusiastic about German Expressionist woodcuts and those of Munch; the Emil Nolde and Franz Marc woodcuts most of all initially; also the work of Bauhaus masters Lyonel Feininger and Gerhard Marcks.
I’m attracted to the physical, tangible quality of the medium, I suppose, even its unpredictability, each piece of wood being different, each print different, the first often surprising. The character of the block has a lot to do with the nature of the print. Different parts of a block print differently. A block that dips in the middle is a devil to print and could only be printed by hand (perhaps with the foot too). My Tramps in Rain (not the same block as in 73 woodcuts) of which I have made my 30 was that kind of block, and still is; it took me all day.
Many of my prints are nocturnes, I think: I’m cutting light from darkness. But sometimes light and dark in the medium are interchangeable. Erich Heckel has a black full moon in a white sky in his woodcut of an Ostend canal, and Gerhard Marcks a black sun in his woodcut of a snow scene with a sleigh. White lines can replace the draughtsman’s black.
I admire many linocuts too but for me the medium is too easy, invites over-elaboration. The forms are decisive in most of the woodcuts I admire. There’s no going back, putting back. I shall use my stock of floor lino when my right hand weakens.
What sort of wood do you use?
I have never bought the wood I have used and, perversely, like to make use of difficult pieces with splitty grain, knots, holes and variable hardness. I still have some beech from old school desk tops and pieces of hard rough pine used to carry roof tiles which I must have been given thirty years ago.
How long ago did you first start marrying prints to poems, and what was the impetus?
I never married prints to my own poems. Woodcuts in my Poet & Printer books are essentially decorations. I am not an illustrator by inclination. My ideas are spontaneous, though, as you know, I’ve provided some illustrations when asked to do so. I can think of no connection between my poems and woodcuts, though I suppose my temperament has led me to choose these media.
You’ve worked quite a bit with people hand-setting publications (eg Alan Tarling’s Poet&Printer Press). Can you say a bit about how that came about and what you’ve learned from it?
I know nothing about hand-setting. My collaboration with Alan came about because I showed him early on that I had made woodcuts. My blocks had to be made type-high, often by adding cardboard on the backs. I realized too that the blocks had to be flat and small and needed wood of a better quality—beech from old desk tops etc. I believe the blocks are lost now and I have very few prints from them, but still some copies of the books. The Immaculate Magpies (Poet & Printer, 1982) has more than any other.
Can you explain a bit about what making a woodcut involves – for the wholly uninformed?
My procedures are simple. When I first began, I used a Japanese woodcut knife only; soon after I began to use V chisels and gouges. My first paper was English India paper. I’ve used many other papers since but regret I’ve been unable to find any more of it.
Most of my printing is done in the garage with the door open. No passing neighbours have shown any interest. I have never used a press: I tread on the back of my blocks, even the smallest. I use both sides of most blocks.
Under the paper is a cotton cloth folded into eight thicknesses. After treading I use a roller (brayer), giving most attention and pressure to parts of my usually uneven blocks that have taken less ink. Sometimes finger pressure is all I need. Occasionally I’ve used the back of a metal spoon. Often I cut directly into the wood with gouges, knives and V chisels, without preliminary drawing. Often, before printing, I make a frottage of the block with graphite. Nevertheless, I’m often surprised by the first print. Being an impatient person, I’ve never blackened the surface of blocks before cutting—more patience, and sandpapering, could often have made blocks easier to print. I use an oil-based ink, which I never dilute.
What role does colour play in woodcuts?
I think the best woodcuts, with very few exceptions, are black prints. To me, the Brodzky linocuts are better than the colour prints of Claude Flight and his circle, though I know many collectors require (and pay a lot for) colour. All the same, I may never do any more prints using more than black. Still, I admire the use of hand colour in some Munch prints, though I know it wouldn’t work if I tried it. The sharp spikes of black, the black flecks in white, I suppose the Gothic, Expressionist quality of the medium appeals to me, though one writer says it is a quintessential Dada medium too, and I agree with that.
Which wood-cutters (that can’t be the right term, I know) have influenced you, or whom do you admire?
Of English woodcuts and linocuts, I admire those of Edward Wadsworth, Leon Underwood, Joseph Crawhall, Edward Gordon Craig, the only linocut, ‘Wrestlers’, by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and those of his friend Horace Brodzky.
Some other woodcutters (good word, reminds me of the Brothers Grimm) I admire include Erich Heckel, Otto Mueller, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Christian Rohlfs, Heinrich Campendonk (see my translation in The Journal 31/41) and Max Pechstein – members of Die Brücke mostly.
Can you explain something about the background behind your forthcoming
It was John Lucas’s idea. I didn’t think anything like it could ever happen. I had hundreds of prints from which to select—roughly, very roughly 600, and many are lost, blocks and prints. Alan Tarling once suggested I do a book on the technique, but my procedures, as I explained earlier, are very simple and only recently have I started to tread on the backs of my blocks, which tends to prevent slipping, so perhaps, I am still learning. For me, a poem takes months, though first drafts come quickly. I can conceive, cut and print a woodcut in a morning, providing I only print my usual eight.
Alan’s new book is
73 Woodcuts, Shoestring Press, £12.50 Publication date: October, 2011 ISBN: 978 1 907356 32 2