‘British Prints’ exhibit highlights the overarching dynamism of artists from the World War I era

“British Prints: Rhythms of Modern Life” collects a selection of prints from a specific era, 1914 to 1939, and a specific country, Great Britain. This simple statement is an easy one to take for granted: The medium of the print is often overlooked in museum exhibitions.

Prints are usually put together with no eye for specificity, showing a lack of binding theme or feeling. This is exactly what the exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) corrects. The show affirms the nature of the print itself. It captures a moment graphically, an intuitive communication of politics, entertainment and ideas, and the spirit of the day in a picture.

Visually, these pieces are instantly recognizable; they bring together the dynamism of early avant-garde modernism with the sinuous curves of art nouveau. The art nouveau influence provides a link to the medium of the print as well. Some of art nouveau’s most familiar pieces are posters, published designs used to advertise events or serve as magazine covers.

The artists in this show use the same media and same techniques of those posters’ makers, but here, instead of advertising dance halls or shows, they communicate the horrors of war, the anonymity and power of the worker, and the energy of urban life. Co-opting a style that is usually whimsical to instead show universal themes of discord is a powerful tool.

Artistically, the standout works of “British Prints” are the ones that are not content to simply create a beautiful picture and reach beyond to drive a message home. The show is split up into several different themes, the most immediately striking of which is World War I.

The 1914 to 1939 time period becomes important here. Artists of that time had the horrors of war impressed into their consciousness; several, including C.R.W. Nevinson, were soldiers themselves. This mindset makes their prints much more than fine art. The pieces are at once documents, memoirs and warnings to the current world.

In the artists’ time, a period of jumps in technology and the heyday of factories, movement was made into a fetish. Futurism, an art movement contemporary to the artists of this show, was so enchanted with the dynamism of new technology and weaponry that most of its followers died after volunteering to become soldiers.

In Nevinson’s work, the Futurists’ glory-filled depiction of a machine gun in full blaze gives way to a bleak description of soldiers as relentless machines. In one lithograph the marchers’ legs become pistons rotating in futility.

This anonymity is not unique to prints of soldiers; the prints of the show all partake in a sort of dearth of individuality. Workers at a machine lose their faces while the heads of a group of rowers tilt down to become a rhythm of circles rather than human bodies. This image is both a fetish and a social critique; the artists idolized the abstraction of shape and form that the machine age made possible. Looking at these works in hindsight, there is also a grain of fear. Anonymity is both praised and damned, as if in the 1920s it was apparent that this “facelessness” would become one of the major critiques of the modern age, but the artists were powerless to stop it. They could only describe it.

Everything in “British Prints” documents the move toward abstraction that dominates the modern aesthetic from 1915 to the present. Some intriguing prints by Edward Wadsworth seem to be direct precursors to the German Bauhaus; from 1914 he looks forward to 1920 and the non-objective color-based paintings of De Stijl.

The curatorial design choices in “British Prints” are, in a word, cool. The molding area of each wall is replaced by a sheet of highly reflective aluminum so shiny that the bottoms of the walls seem to disappear. This technique leaves the pieces floating on flat color planes. The show’s “Speed and Movement” section is grouped onto a single wall in the middle of the gallery. Diagonal and painted a deep blue, the wall makes a singular abstract gesture not unlike a colored staircase in a Corbusier house. The entire experience reinforces the artists’ ever-reaching drive towards movement and their love of the technology that defined their era.