The Force of Commitment: An Article/Interview with Noel Counihan

Imprint 1976 Number Three
Cover image: Noel Counihan, The Miner (from The Miners, a folio of six linocuts, edition of 50, 1947) 23 x 17 cm

I was becoming more and more concerned with the idea of a democratic art, of making things available to people who couldn’t afford paintings. This was a result I suppose of the state of mind at the end of the war. 

This article was written by Charles Merewether and published in Imprint 1976, number three.

Throughout Noel Counihan’s artistic career he has been known as a social realist artist. However, this categorisation has in some way prevented any clear understanding of his work, not only in the medium of paint but [also] in drawing and printmaking, to be reached. The only publication worth considering for its wealth of information is Max Dimmack’s monograph on Counihan. Yet one of the downfalls of this book is its fairly sketchy appraisal of the work under the headings: Cartoons and Caricatures, Prints, Paintings, Portraits, Drawings.

This article attempts to describe Counihan primarily as a graphic artist particularly through the medium of printmaking, and the relationship between the medium used and the subject matter of the work.

In 1930, when Counihan was seventeen, he produced his first print, having become friendly with James Flett and Eric Thake, both of whom taught and assisted him greatly in acquiring the techniques of printmaking. Prior to this he had spent some time at the National Gallery Art School in night classes with Charles Wheeler teaching him to draw in charcoal from the antique.

In 1930 Counihan used Flett’s presses to produce his first prints. In 1931 he made another couple of prints, again linocuts of the human face, and the following year a front cover for the University of Melbourne Labour Club magazine, Proletariat. The linocut was in two colours and cubistic in design depicting a protest figure of a worker. However the greater part of the thirties was taken up with drawing from life either human faces or figures such as miners and the unemployed. Thus his first and subsequent exhibitions in those Depression years were drawings and caricatures, and not prints or paintings. Further, at this time Counihan was earning some kind of wage from his art, and cartoons and caricatures were easier and cheaper to produce. During this time Counihan saw a number of overseas artists’ work particularly through magazines such as New Masses and other left-wing publications.

Amongst these were Hugh Gellert and his set of lithographic illustrations for Karl Marx’s Capital, Louis Lozowitz and William Gropper, all left-wing artists concerned with the urban environment and in depicting the social conditions about them, or satirising and caricaturing the oppressive forces as they saw them.

Equally, the woodcut of the Belgian artist Frans Masereel from the period of the First World War was to have a strong influence over his work. It was not until the mid-thirties that Counihan saw the work of Kirschner and the German Expressionists.

In the early forties Counihan turned his attention fully to painting, realising as he has put it that he was a ‘frustrated painter afraid to begin’. It was the close friendship with Josl Bergner that helped him in those early days, both of them teaching and assisting one another in their efforts:

We had a lot of kinship in spirit and we helped each other. It wasn’t any of the older, heads of art schools, professional painters that taught me anything at all. I battled along with Yosl breathing over my shoulder and showing me what he was doing. The fact that we were working – we were confronted with similar problems around the same time, and had somewhat similar philosophy – I think at that stage I probably influenced his thinking whereas I think that he helped me in a practical way in just starting to paint. So we helped each other.

It was not until after the war that Counihan resumed printmaking again. He had just painted a series of pictures on the Wonthaggi miners who had been involved in strike action for better conditions. Why did Counihan decide to take up printmaking again and did he view it as a more democratic art than painting?

I had been drawing all those years and involved in graphic imagery. Printmaking, I felt, could provide me with another outlet in which I could develop imagery which I couldn’t in either painting or cartooning. I was becoming more and more concerned with the idea of a democratic art, of making things available to people who couldn’t afford paintings. This was a result I suppose of the state of mind at the end of the war. I had close associations through that period with trade unions, factories and the industrial working class and I was under pressure from the idea of making the work available on a wider scale.

Why didn’t this happen in the years of the Depression?

I suppose because I went for the more direct means of expression that is straight drawing, whereas printmaking needs a press. It was indirect, there was something that stood between me and the final image – there had to be a stage of cutting and then a stage of printing secondary relief blocks.

In the work of the forties the two dominant themes are looking back at the Depression and the miners.

Yes, I was looking back in the first place to the experiences of the dole because they were very vivid flesh and blood experiences, and the experiences I had had in the mining industry both at Broken Hill with the silver lead mines where I spent four months in 1937, and during the war at the State Coal Mine underground with the miners. In both places I was drawing all the time. With this I wanted to make not just a print but a series of six to sell for the price of five not six guineas, and Flett fortunately agreed to print them for me cheaply.

Have you always worked with a printer and what kind of differences do you think this has made?

For a start I have never owned my own press and this makes it very difficult to become a master printer. Nevertheless I enjoy working with an experienced printer and I believe this collaboration to be a good and valuable experience. Over the years I’ve learnt a great deal from people I have worked with such as Alexander McClintock, Jimmy Flett, Eric Thake, Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams. In one case a print that I took an edition from, three times were quite dissimilar, produced a totally different feeling with the methods of wiping the plate and the aesthetic values of each printer. On another occasion when working with Fred Williams on the Laughing Christ series, I would have thrown the plate away if it had not been for Fred who had the experience to be able to draw the best out of a plate.

Do you always work from preparatory drawings or are the designs sometimes worked out directly on the plates?

In most cases I draw from sketches. For example the set of prints, from lino, The Miners (1947) was drawn largely from my sketchbooks. These were notes I had made underground which were purely documentary. But when I got to the lino I started working the image out very much in terms of cutting the material, then pulling a stage proof and seeing what happens, then maybe work on it further. This was also the case with a folio of lithographs the following year in 1948, The Foundary Worker. I had spent a period at that time making studies and sketches on the spot and some of the lithographs were a direct result of those studies. Others were worked out directly on the plate.

What is it about the medium of lino that is attractive to you, for it seems to have been the material that you have worked with consistently from the thirties.

 I like its dramatic possibilities in particular. It is also a form that demands a discipline: the forms must be laid down in their basic essentials and unnecessary and trivial details cut away. For example, in 1969 I set out in a set of prints to exploit, in a supposedly simple medium such as lino, its possibilities. There were six prints in the folio, each with a different basic conception. In some of the prints the concept is a white line on a black background, in others it would be a black silhouette on a white ground and so on. In each case the print is treated differently but in all of them the feeling of the block is strongly maintained, as would be the case if I were cutting in wood or another material. Although it is said that the lino is a very limited medium I think the possibilities are very much greater than is popularly conceived. Picasso for one has proved this very well.

You have spoken of the demands of working in lino as the discipline of laying down forms in their basic essentials. Has your long experience as a cartoonist, as in the days when you drew regularly for The Guardian, been of value in this area?

I suppose it has helped to get through to the core of the theme more quickly. One of the positive aspects of the cartoon experience is that it does help you to simplify complicated issues and deal with them in a direct simple manner. It strengthens your ability to communicate with ordinary everyday people on a level they can grasp.

Surely there are restrictive qualities about the style of the cartoon – for instance, the manner in which the artist distances himself from the subject often by taking an ironic stance.

I agree. Nevertheless, it is all bound up with communication. There is no point in doing cartoons or any art for that matter unless you are concerned with your audience. I don’t think the artist just spends his time talking to himself. It is a matter of communication which is rational, but charged with feelings and emotions.

To survey the work of Counihan this concern is quite apparent, and it is revealing to trace the formative stages of one of his prints to appreciate the capacity he has to withhold and yet refine the initial artistic response. First and foremost it is drawing that plays the dominant role shown in the strength of the preparatory drawings and most clearly in the fundamentally graphic quality of his art. In a folio of linocuts simply called Linocuts 1959, it was some drawings based on experiences in Italy in 1956 that were the main inspirational force. The drawings are fairly free with broadly applied washes. Then with the idea of producing a print the image takes on a stronger graphic quality. The image undergoes a rapid change becoming more austere and simple in form. The tones and gradations of the washes are lost to be replaced by a strength and sparseness of line. The print Hunger from the series highlights this process. For Counihan:

This image of a desperate, starving woman in Naples was one I grappled with for quite a while in drawings before I felt I was getting to the stage where I could go the lino and cut a version of it.

Similarly the Boy in the Helmet (1967) demonstrates the transitions that occur with the change from one medium to another, in this case from pen and wash to linocut. The nature of the material influences the work with the need of deliberation in cutting the resistant material and as a consequence, the images become stronger. In this print the image becomes more iconic, its added forcefulness more threatening.

And of course if the design had been cut in wood then it would again be different with its own type of edging and the appearance of a grain. Further, whilst one is working on the plate or material you have time to work things out and refine or alter the image. Another point with printing from relief blocks is the aesthetic result. It is quite different from when you run your print. A print is made by placing the paper on the inked block and rubbing it from the back as compared to sending the inked block and the paper through the press.

The relationship of your drawing to your printmaking has been discussed but not the relationship of painting to printmaking. Has each medium affected the other or do you see them as mutually exclusive?

In some cases a series of prints have stimulated a number of paintings and sometimes it has been the reverse process as in the paintings The Good Life (1968). Some silkscreen prints and deep relief etchings for a broadsheet arose out of that theme. With the Laughing Christ (1970) theme the first images were painted. And then I was working towards simplified graphic versions of it, with the object of reducing the image to its very barest essentials, and with the idea of an edition. And knowing the particular qualities of the medium I was using, I was also presenting the image in a new light, in a way quite unlike that of the paintings.

Why did you decide to do an etching of The Good Life (1968) – or had you been working on the technique of etching well before that?

I had had some tentative essays in etching of no consequence, but when I was in England Arthur Boyd saw a drawing of that theme and thought that etching was most suitable to the design. He gave me some copper and offered to proof them. So I did four plates in drypoint and the most important of them was an image of The Good Life directly related to the painting in the South Australian Art Gallery.

The significance of the series The Good Life is to be found in the theme that Counihan has found. For as with all his work it demonstrates a very direct response to the society in which he is involved. In the forties it was the depression and the hardships of the industrial working-class and with this work it is the dominance of a consumer-oriented society. Counihan speaks of that society as:

Spreading themselves out over the beaches – they were all done under the shadow of the Vietnam War because I, somehow or other, was contrasting this life with the fact that Australia was involved in an aggressive war in an Asian country and that young Australians were losing their lives as well as killing the Vietnamese while here the consumer society was sweltering away on the beaches and so on.

Another characteristic of Counihan’s art has been the constant experimentation with different mediums. Early last year he started work with terracotta making mostly figurines. Do you turn to other mediums as both a respite from the prior medium that you have been using and as a way of re-stimulating your work?

Yes, I think so. I’ve commenced a whole number of drawings, which are tentative essays developing certain themes. I think the next few months will be pretty much devoted to drawing and printmaking. I’ll probably cut some relief blocks in lino and in wood which is a material I would like to explore. I shall also do some more work in etching and lithography and in all cases will work with an experienced printer on the basis of collaboration.

Why are you thinking of working with wood as a printing material?

Because I want to try the feel of wood and some of the ideas I have in mind I think would be suitable for wood or lino. Further, I would like to exploit the grain of the wood.

Shall the work you do in etching and lithography taken up the same themes and see how each medium influences the form and quality of the image?

I shall be doing just this, exploring the relationship between various materials and forms. You have to be open when you approach the medium so that one is responsive to the particular dictates of that medium. But this is not to say one is the slave of that medium at all.

Certainly if one looks at work you did around the theme of The Good Life or work from the forties, the qualities you have brought out with the use of the different mediums demonstrates this point. On the one had the paintings of The Good Life seem almost to revel in the texture and colour of the paint that are used to reveal the torpid spread of bodies under a hot Australian sun, and, on the other, the prints in drypoint that render the image in a harsh and severe manner. It is these areas in which the Print Council can play an important educative role. For they can not only inform and show through comparative exhibitions these differences and particular characteristics of a medium, but demonstrate forcibly that printmaking as an art form is as creative as painting or sculpture.

And as much as that to develop the idea that printmaking is potentially a democratic art in comparison to painting. From plate lithography and relief blocks very big editions can be run. And there is no reason why they shouldn’t be run, so long as the machinery existed for marketing them at a price commensurate with the size of the edition. In our society, because artists are placed on a competitive footing, whether they like or not, and because they are in the hands of the dealers to a great extent, of course the elitist principle of a small edition is promoted at the expense of the big edition. Hogarth engravings for example were sold for a few pence each in large numbers in England. I am very much in sympathy with the idea of the low priced original work, but we are in the grip of a marketing system which makes it very difficult to do it.

What is striking about Counihan’s artistic career is its breadth of involvement not only in the wide variety of mediums he has used and explored, but in the use to which he has put his art. Over the past forty-six years Counihan has produced work for May Day march banners, political posters, left-wing publications, murals as well as the involvement in exhibitions such as the Anti-Fascist show (1943) and an exhibition in the U.S.S.R. Equally, Counihan as an artist has been continually committed to the left and specifically to communism that has involved him in the anti-fascist and -war movement of the thirties and as an Australian delegate at peace conferences. One cannot separate his art from this commitment. It is clear that this commitment has played a vital part in informing his work with a deeply responsive articulation of human society. Nevertheless, as an artist he has demonstrated a capacity to seek out the inherent qualities of various mediums and explore the most powerful way of depicting his subject. Above all else it is as a printmaker that this quality, and the sensitivity and immediacy with which the subject is conveyed, particularly of suffering and hardship, which should be give him a distinguished and central place in the history of Australian art.

Charles Merewether, August 1976.


Charles Merewether is an art historian and writer on contemporary and postwar art who has taught at universities in the United States, Central and South America, and Australia.