Bringing together three sets of School Prints at the Hepworth Wakefield, two sets from the 1940s and one by contemporary artists, is both a creative experiment and a political statement.
The original School Prints date from 1946, when arts campaigner Brenda Rawnsley asked leading modern artists to create pictures specifically for display in schools, which were to be reproduced as lithographs at accessible prices. The scheme was a great success, with a second print run in 1947, thousands of schools subscribing and members of the public buying prints for their own homes.
At a time when the arts have been side-lined in schools due to financial cuts and pressures on the curriculum, The Hepworth Wakefield has set itself the challenge of engaging the next generation by commissioning new School Prints by six contemporary British artists – Jeremy Deller, Rose Wylie, Helen Marten, Haroon Mirza, Martin Creed and Anthea Hamilton. Although, at £500 each, few members of the public are likely to be able to afford the prints today, six sets have been distributed to schools in Wakefield and posters are also available for schools across the country to buy.
What’s striking about the early School Prints is their atmosphere of ordinariness. Many of them resemble storybook illustrations in their narrative detail and depiction of episodes from everyday life. The more exciting prints – although apparently they proved too experimental for the tastes of schools and led to the scheme’s premature closure – were those commissioned from European artists for the third and final series of the School Prints in 1949. These appear both bolder and more colourful than their British counterparts. Rawnsley’s greatest success was convincing Picasso to design a print. She chartered a plane to France to meet him and this journey is the subject of his print ‘Composition’ (1948), which tells the story of their encounter in lively, crayon-like lines and colours.
The choice of artists for the Hepworth’s revival of the School Prints reflects some of the developments that have taken place in contemporary art since the 1940s. What role might artists’ prints play in the classroom in the twenty-first century? Though diverse in style, the selection compiled by the Hepworth suggests uses that go beyond the merely decorative to offer opportunities for demonstration of techniques, along with debate, discussion and critique. Anthea Hamilton’s ‘Dreamer’s Wavy Boot’ (2017), a surrealist-influenced take on a self-portrait, places a stylised boot against the redbrick environment of her old school, showing that artists continue to respond individually and creatively to traditional genres and subject-matter. Rose Wylie’s ‘King John, Frog’ (2017) humorously reinterprets a historical and political story. Martin Creed ‘Work No. 2874’ (2017) presents a series of colourful, tree-like prints taken from broccoli, demonstrating the new forms that can be found in everyday objects. Another highlight, Haroon Mirza’s ‘Photons and Friends’ (2017), uses geometric patterns to map scientific phenomena and imagine the invisible. What unites all the pictures is a sense of fun, play and experimentation, useful qualities for any aspiring artist – and for life.
School Prints, The Hepworth Wakefield, 12 January-3 June 2018.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and researcher based in Greater Manchester.