Blanche Lazzell was one of the first women artists to introduce modern art into America.  In 1916, here in Provincetown, Oliver Chaffee taught the extraordinary abstract painter and pioneer modernist how to make the single-block woodcut in color. These prints became known as Provincetown Prints and are of great interest as a uniquely American art form.  It was the right time and place for Lazzell, and it was her vision and dedication to the medium that has been recognized in a series of recent exhibitions - in the winter and spring of this year at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and now, at Berta Walker Gallery.  Roberta Smith of the New York Times, calling Lazzell a "perennially overlooked American modernist," describes the prints appreciatively in her review of the MFA exhibition:


                        The carefully stacked, radiantly colored shapes of these works

                         brim with abstract power while also defining villages, landscapes

                         and waterfront scenes.


The story of the print is a true tale of the irreplaceable synergistic value of Provincetown as an art colony. These prints grew directly out of the exposure of expatriate Americans to the cubist aesthetic charging the air in prewar Paris. They were likely influenced by the bold woodcuts of Wassily Kandinsky, seen there during 1906-1907 at the Salon d'Automne; the puzzle-like shapes of Edvard Munch's block prints in the 1913 armory show; and the Japanese color prints newly available on the Paris art market - sources employing the flattened perspective and simplification of color and composition. 


The outbreak of war in Europe had curtailed travel to Paris, then the western world's art center, and by 1915, Ethel Mars, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Ada Gilmore, Mildred McMillen, Maud Hunt Squire, and Juliette Nichols were in Provincetown exploring this newly discovered graphic medium.  Gilmore taught Oliver Chaffee. That summer, Chaffee was teaching Lazzell watercolor and, at her request, trained her in the new print technique. Lazzell taught Agnes Weinrich, and much later, Ferol Warthen, grandmother and teacher of Kathi Smith.  Today in Provincetown, Smith continues to explore and advance the technique.  In 1918 this pioneering group established the Provincetown Printers, the first society devoted exclusively to wood block prints.


The print technique seemed a natural medium for Lazzell, well-suited to her bold forms and strong colors. The image was drawn as one complete image on tracing paper and cut on a single block, with each segment separated by an incised grove.  With the watercolor pigment she preferred, Lazzell colored the block. Japan paper was placed over the block and rubbed to produce a reversed image on the paper. The method was labor intensive but resulted in each print being unique.  Lazzell's experimental nature led her to explore the print techniques in many different directions. Sometimes, she used two blocks, a black line block over an impression of the color woodcut, producing a stained-glass effect.  The richly tinted wood blocks themselves retain a glowing, fresco-like infusion of color, the wood grain incorporated in the artist's image.


In 1923, at 45, Lazzell returned to Europe, and developed close associations with artists who were interested in Cubism and abstraction.  Here, like Chaffee, Lazzell became interested in compositions based on the

"golden section", the ancient mathematical formula for calculating proportional perfection.  Her work was exhibited in the Salon d'Automne in the fall of 1923 and received favorable press notices.  She also exhibited her abstract paintings.  She explained her theory of the abstract in a letter to her sister:


                        The abstract as we consider it in painting today, is an organization

                        of color, whether the color is expressed planes, or in forms, or in

                        volume - isn't music the organization of sound?


When Lazzell returned to Provincetown in 1926, she enlarged her vine-covered wharf studio, sadly torn down this spring by it's new owner, and expanded her artistic production, adding china painting, batik fabrics, hooked rugs, and monoprints to her paintings and drawings and white line prints.  During the Depression, at age 54, Lazzell was a recipient of a WPA grant in West Virginia, creating prints of local landmarks and a courtroom mural in her hometown of Morgantown. 


From childhood Lazzell was independent, self-reliant, and eager to learn.  She never abandoned her will to experiment.  She was nearly 60 when she joined the classes of Hans Hofmann in 1935.  In the familiar Gallery 200 photograph of 1949, Lazzell, 71, sits serenely in the front row among the young artists who would soon rock the art world as Abstract Expressionists.   Her favored subjects were the townscapes of Provincetown, flowers in vases, and the hills of her own West Virginia.  Roberta Smith suggests that the still lifes

                        show her applying the tenets of Analytical Cubism, and maybe even

                        a bit of Hofmann's push-pull theory, to progressively flattened and

                        abstracted compositions that nonetheless remain linked to reality.


Lazzell lived in Provincetown until she returned to Morgantown, where she died on June 1, 1956, at 78. For more than forty years, Blanche Lazzell was an important presence in the town of Provincetown.  Lazzell achieved an incredibly productive and long artistic career. Of her138 recorded woodblocks, 95 were printed in an edition of five or fewer.  Her work is held in many public collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, West Virginia University, and in many private collections.















August 2001

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved