May 27, 2024

Cunningham's Cuts

         Mary Phillips Cunningham (USA, 1903-1980) spent the latter part of her life living in my old home town of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where she participated in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s juried May Show, and the Print Club of Cleveland.  I have very little biographical information on her, and I suspect that her biography, at least as far as being an artist is concerned, isn’t particularly remarkable.  She achieved some moderate success as a printmaker without becoming either famous or infamous, and she made some block prints that I think deserve to be shared.  So that’s what I’m doing today.  (I will note the one possibly strange element in her life: there's another minor printmaker named W. Phelps Cunningham who, according to the biographies I could find, was also born in Kansas in 1903 and also died in Cleveland in 1980.  Are the various galleries confusing and conflating the two artists when they go looking for biographical information, or is this actually a spectacular coincidence?  If you want to compare Mary P. Cunningham's twin, I shared a print by W. Phelps Cunningham back at Finding Balance.)
        Now, to put the spotlight back on Mary, first up is the one likely to be voted the prettiest and most universally appealing: Wild Strawberries and Blue Star Grass.  It looks to me like it was made with about 7 separate color blocks, which are relatively subtle rather than 
using intense, bold colors, and even the darkest is not fully black.  The layers build up to form a delicate little detail of natural bounty and delight.
        The Patchwork Quilt is very different, most obviously in being black and white instead of color.  But that means that areas are delineated by lines rather than shapes, differentiated by patterns rather than colors.  Value (light and dark), too, is created by patterns of fine white marks rather than by different colors, and black shadows are the absence of the white details.  The over-all impression is of cozy darkness rather than fresh spring brightness.  All the different fabrics in the crazy quilt are fun, and the potted geranium makes a nice contrast to the geometry of the quilt.
        Different again is Cunningham’s scene of Shacks in Tiptonville.  This is looser and less precise than either of the others, with the sky composed of larger gauges and the lines of texture and shading less carefully even.  I always love it when artists use relatively few, simple strokes to call an entire scene into being.  Fruit Shop, Villefranche is another view of buildings and small people, but it looks as if it was planned more carefully and executed with more control.
        Printmakers pretty much never get the same level of attention and acclaim as painters and such flashier media, and there are hundreds of printmakers whose work deserves more attention than it gets.  It looks like Cunningham did steady, excellent work, mastering a range of relief block printmaking styles and techniques, while keeping an eye open for the small glimpses of beauty and resonance.

[Pictures: Wild Strawberries and Blue Star Grass, linoleum cut by Mary Phillips Cunningham, 1945 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);

The Patchwork Quilt, linoleum cut by Cunningham, 1937 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);

Shacks in Tiptonville, 1937, linoleum cut by Cunningham, 1937 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art).]

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