The Shooting of George Wallace
Michael Rothenstein was born in 1908, the second son of the distinguished artist Sir William Rothenstein (1872–1945), Rector of the Royal College of Art, and grew up in a vibrant artistic household where visitors included Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis and Barnett Freedman; his elder brother John (1901–92) became a noted director of the Tate Gallery.
Home-schooled due to a lengthy childhood illness, Michael Rothenstein studied at Chelsea Polytechnic and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. During the late 1930s he concentrated on Neo-Romantic landscapes and in 1940 he was commissioned to paint topographical watercolours of endangered sites in Sussex for the Recording Britain project organised by the Pilgrim Trust. In the early 1940s he moved to the north Essex village of Great Bardfield, which developed an active artistic community. His first solo show was held at Redfern Gallery, London in 1942. During the postwar period, Rothenstein became increasingly fascinated by printmaking, enhanced by time spent working with Stanley Hayter at the renowned and progressive Atelier 17 in Paris. From the mid-1950s, almost abandoning painting in preference to printmaking, he began working with linocut, silkscreen and etching, tending towards abstraction in the 1960–70s, the period of his greatest experimentation.
The Shooting of George Wallace clearly shows the influence of great American Pop artist/printmakers such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, with their repeated motifs, collaged photographic and popular images, often set within a larger grid-like composition. Lecturing extensively in America, Rothenstein would have been aware of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the dramatic assassination attempt in 1972 on Governor George Wallace, a staunch supporter of segregation, which left him paralysed and wheelchair-bound.
The young black man on the left of the image, whose hands we cannot see, conveys a sense of imprisonment, the colouring of his clothing reminiscent of prison uniforms, whilst the girl’s smiling face on the carrier bag invokes mass media and billboard advertising. The angular forms of the easel to the right are ghostly reminders of the stark forms of the electric chair foregrounded in Warhols’s prints and paintings of the same period.
Rothenstein’s later prints of the 1980s are, by contrast, characterised by a more light-hearted mood, a vibrant palette and a repeated visual vocabulary of familiar, more domestic motifs, such as birds, flowers and vessels. Examples of which were included in Ben Uri’s recent exhibition, No Set Rules (2015), bringing together selected works on paper from the Schlee Collection, Southampton and Ben Uri Collection, London.
Rothenstein taught for many years at Camberwell School of Art and Stoke-on-Trent College of Art; was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA) in 1977 and a Royal Academician (RA) in 1984. A retrospective was held at Stoke-on-Trent City Museum and Art Gallery in 1989. Ben Uri holds two works by Rothenstein in the Collection.