Putting a modern face on an ancient technique: Noel Dyrenforth’s batik submissions to Pictures for Schools

This week I spoke to a really interesting batik artist, Noel Dyrenforth, who submitted artwork to the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the scheme’s final years in the 1960s, as well as to the Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions which were ongoing in the 1970s and 1980s [Dyrenforth has records relating to 1974-83]. He remembers it as a ‘valuable cultural scheme’ which was contributed to by top-quality artists, and that ‘original art was freely circulated and hung in corridors for the benefit of everyone to access’.

Batik is a wax-resist dye technique for fabric. Dyrenforth’s work was included in the ‘Embroideries, fabric collages and batiks’ section of the exhibitions (this is a category of works that particularly interests me, as it seems that several of the artists who exhibited were at the forefront of pioneering new techniques in areas such as machine sewing; interestingly, though, on the subject of craft, a 1965 planning meeting of Pictures for Schools considered an enquiry about whether decorative woven wall hangings could be included in the exhibition, but it was decided that they were too close to craft and it was suggested to craftspeople that they consider starting their own ‘Crafts for Schools’ exhibitions instead).

Dyrenforth recalled that he was travelling around a lot at the time and was very prolific. He used to send in five or six pieces to each Pictures for Schools exhibition, and typically sold four or five each time, particularly to Leicestershire Education Authority which has around 40 of his pieces. Dyrneforth remembers that their buyer was a ‘wily character’ who was particularly keen, and often approached artists who were in their final year or were just coming out of the Royal College and had a future in the art world, meaning that they built up a very large collection of now very valuable artworks. Dyrenforth’s work was also purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum Circulation Department.

Dyrenforth had a traditional, classical art school education, which included life drawing and ‘training the eye’, but found oil painting ‘awful’ so quickly turned to abstraction after leaving art college as it ‘leaves more to the imagination’. He saw himself as part of the 1960s counterculture, which went against all traditional aspects of technique and materials, remembering that it was a very open, easy time and a good time for art as ‘everyone was much more open to new things’. The 1960s was well-known as a time when artists were experimenting with different materials such as glass, rubber and plastic, but Dyrenforth though ‘what can I do that is different to everyone else?’ and decided to go the other way by looking back to the ancient technique of batik, which is 2,000 years old, trying to put a modern face on it and find a new approach. Although batik was more associated with fashion and had no legacy in art (although there was a craze for it in the early-1900s) he always looked on it as art, and thought the division between art and craft was superficial; there was a big tie-up between art and other forms in the 1960s, and a breaking down of traditional divisions. Dyrenforth explained that his work didn’t really look like conventional batik, and he preferred to see them as paintings. Typically, works were around 1.5 metres high, meaning they looked good on walls. At that time, there weren’t many other people working in batik, but in the early-1960s it had started to become popular and was taught in schools. In 1975, Dyrenforth wrote the popular book Batik with Noel Dyrenforth, and has since taught all over the world.

Dyrenforth, who has always been interested in politics and social change, points out that there were great changes in the sixties, and everything became political. It was a time when art seemed to have great promise, particularly American art. He remembers: “There was rebellion in the mind and in the street. We thought there was going to be a revolution in 1968 but it didn’t quite happen.” One of the artworks Dyrenforth submitted to Pictures for Schools in 1969 was called ‘Contact’, and he explains: “We thought contact with new ideas was a vital thing, to communicate ideas to change the system.”

To find out more and see examples of Dyrenforth’s work visit www.noel-dyrenforth.com.

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