Radical Beauty – the new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Madame Butterfly; image courtesy of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

The first major UK exhibition of woodcuts by the leading Abstract Expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) is now open in Dulwich Picture Gallery. Abstract expressionism was a broad artistic movement born in America in the 1940s and refers to abstract works where the technique aims to give an impression of spontaneity.

Helen Frankenthaler’s use of woodcuts to make prints of abstract works was truly groundbreaking. She pushed this somewhat narrow technique to produce the type of work more often associated with paint and canvas. 

Ranging from Frankenthaler’s first ever woodcut in 1973, to her last work published in 2009, the exhibition brings together 30 works to reveal the enormous diversity that flowed from her “no rules”, experimental approach. 

Unlike any other woodcuts I’ve seen, these works are sometimes bold, sometimes delicate, energetic or reflective, but always compelling. They consist of fluid shapes and fields of colour and are of a scale not normally associated with the medium.

Freefall; image courtesy of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

‘Freefall’, one of her early works, clearly marks her innovative approach. It is a work of still, calm beauty and a very confident sense of space and perspective. Alongside it are two works – ‘Radius’ – one of which is a template or model for the other. The first demonstrates her print-making skill and creativity; the second demonstrates a technique known as “guzzying” whereby she used various implements to work paint to produce layers and texture to produce a fine example of abstract expressionism.

Essence Mulberry; image courtesy of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

Two of the rooms are devoted to explaining and exemplifying the printing process she used. ‘Essence Mulberry’ and ‘Tales of Genji’ appear in many different versions which reveal the versatility of print-making and the use of colour to create contrasting ways of seeing and reproducing images. Individually the works stand on their merits as dynamic, expressionist pieces. Together they give a fascinating insight into her creative process and desire to break boundaries.

Tales of GenjiV; image courtesy of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

The exhibition ends with what is regarded as her masterpiece – ‘Madame Butterfly’. This monumental work – which defies the limitations of the medium – involved a complex and lengthy process based on 42 separate blocks and 102 colours, but appears as momentary, ethereal, shifting shapes.

Jane Findlay, Exhibition Curator and Head of Programme & Engagement at Dulwich Picture Gallery, said:

“This is a truly special opportunity for visitors to get up close to Frankenthaler’s phenomenal works …….in the intimate spaces of Dulwich Picture Gallery. There is something magical about how she breathes life into such a rigid medium, retaining the energy and dynamism – that born at once feeling – that you see in her painting. And with her proofs and process explored alongside we’ll show the painstaking work behind these beguiling works – revealing just how accomplished Frankenthaler was in modulating control and spontaneity in her art.”

The exhibition runs until 18 April 2022 in Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, SE21 7AD

Tel: 020 8693 5254 or visit www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Open Wednesday – Friday 10am – 5pm

Adults £16.50  Concessions £8 

Under 30s: £5 – sign up at dpg.art/under30