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Michael Rothenstein's boxes demonstrate, as he himself stated, the heart of his work. They show the complete workings of a complicated and innovative artist. As a printer Michael Rothenstein invented "Relief Printing" where for the first time images were made directly from "found" materials i.e. old wooden planks and metallic objects. Although this seemed obvious and easy at the time, in fact it involved a complicated and skilful process.

Michael Rothenstein had always frequented scrap-yards and old rubbish tips. In these places he collected objects squashed, rusted and changed by neglect. Each of these he was inspired to put aside until the time came when they became part of the creative process within the artist's studio.

Certain themes thread their way through his personal and artistic life. As a small child in the country it was the cockerel, of all the farmyard animals, which was the least threatening and most magnificent. Butterflies and Japanese kites intermingle. Violence, and the fear of it, manifests itself in car crashes, violent images gleaned from newspapers and smashed wooden crates. Excitement and violence of another kind can be seen in the bright and explosive colours of the 'studio' boxes. For it is the studio process that is the creation of images from the hopes and fears within the artist and from the pressures of the times, without. 'Found' objects to hand fuse with accidental events and become the creative process.

When teaching students in Chicago he took them to a local scrapyard and asked them to collect any object that related to their inner instincts. Here he found for himself the perfect expression of violence. Michael's artistic violence was not an outward expression of his temperament, which was a gentle one, but an inner expression of anxiety.

His diary reads:

Scrapyard, Rockford. Twelve o'clock sunlight burning down on seven acres of junked metal. Light burns off the rusty heaps with a smell of dirty hotplate. A truck driveway runs curving down the yard, everything there the colour of dirt, a powdered brownish ash, everything is flattened like an ironed shirt. A crate has been likewise crushed, the wood cracked and exploded, a shiver of angles. Flashpoint! I pick it up, shake it in a dustcloud and throw it in the van.

Violence, not violence as image: violence in pure material expression. An expression more potent than images of shooting or burning. Here I have it. Under my hand.

In contrast, the spiritual side of Rothenstein's nature can be seen in his series of cosmic boxes and prints of suns and moons and tantric wheels. All these images and more are seen within this extraordinary series of boxes and related prints. They combine to reveal a complicated, highly talented and sympathetic human being who has given to us, through these works, the privilege of accompanying him on his creative journey.

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The Agony in the Garden
Born in London, the son of the artist Sir William Rothenstein, he studied at Chelsea Polytechnic and the Central School of Arts and Crafts, 1924-7....
Sarah Colegrave