Born in Belgium of Welsh parents, Frank Brangwyn was the last star of the Arts & Crafts movement, which sought to transform society by providing “art for all.”
Apprenticed as a teenager to the movement’s guru, William Morris, he went on to become a furiously energetic painter, printmaker, illustrator and furniture designer whose huge-scale, populist murals – notably those in New York’s Rockefeller Centre – made him a household name in his early 20th-century heyday.
Brangwyn repaid his debt to Morris by giving a substantial part of his huge collection of Japanese art – and his own work influenced by Japan – to help found the William Morris Gallery at Walthamstow, in north-east London. While the gallery goes from strength to strength, winning the Museum of the Year award in 2013, Brangwyn’s donations have been little seen over the decades. But they form the focus of this intriguing little exhibition, which looks at his attempts to integrate the western and oriental traditions – an idea he took further, arguably, than any other artist.
Judging by the paintings and prints presented in this show, Brangwyn was a sort of art nouveau illustrator with a talent for translating his romantic, historically-inspired imagery onto a monumental scale. Music, a sumptuous 1895 mural of Pan-like figures in a wood, uses the verticals of tree-trunks as a sort of decorative punctuation across the canvas, while The Swans, from 1921, crowds the canvas with dense patterns of birds, flowers and mottled sunlight – compositional ideas he drew directly from Japanese prints.
The late-19th-century vogue for all things Japanese was felt in forms as diverse as van Gogh’s paintings and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, but for Brangwyn it was far more than a passing fad. In the Twenties he teamed up with Yoshijiro Urushibara, a Japanese artist resident in Britain, producing a remarkable series of over 50 prints in which Urushibara realised Brangwyn’s compositions using traditional Japanese woodblock printing techniques; these form the most fascinating aspect of this exhibition.
In Devil’s Bridge, St Gothard Pass, a group of figures on a precarious broken bridge are seen silhouetted against a huge, brilliantly lit viaduct. The sense of scale and the picturesque evoke European Romanticism, while the layering of stark tonal contrasts recalls great Japanese print masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, whose works are seen elsewhere in the exhibition. Images of Bruges at night are rendered in lustrous wash-like layers of ink characteristic of Japanese print-making at its absolute finest.
While Uhushibara’s own view of Bournemouth (I doubt you’ll recognise it) is dominated by a startlingly brilliant moon, a series of his still lifes, which bring Japanese aesthetic to bear on this quintessentially European form are interesting, rather than earth-shattering.
Although he never visited Japan, Brangwyn sought to extend the cultural influence in the other direction, by designing a gallery of Western art in Tokyo – to be called the Sheer Pleasure Pavilion – funded by the Japanese shipping magnate Kujio Matsukata, who owned a large collection of Brangwyn’s paintings. When Matsukata went bust in 1926, the project was abandoned, and a substantial part of Brangwyn’s oeuvre lost, leaving him a diminished figure on his death in 1956, aged 89, and still neglected today.
His work is presented here alongside beautiful Japanese prints, paintings and ceramics. Yet considering we’re looking at an artist whose credo – inspired by Morris – was the integration of art, craft and everyday life, the show’s presentation is a touch stark, with little attempt to evoke the atmosphere of Brangwyn’s personal environments. It could have gone further in using his collection to create that sense of sensual immersion promised by its title.
From Feb 4 until May 14. Admission free. Details: wmgallery.org.uk