Vivid prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston depict England between world wars.

The doomed lover Keira Knightley plays in "Atonement" might have regarded the avant-garde prints displayed in "Rhythms of Modern Life" with a heady mix of excitement and foreboding.

If visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts could view these 100 prints through the cool eyes of Knightley's character, they would relive 25 turbulent years when technology transformed modern European life beyond recognition.

They would see vast machines changing labor, leisure and war in unpredictable ways. They would marvel at fabulous steamships, aeroplanes and skyscrapers adding glamour and excitement to everyday life.

And like the fateful couple at the film's tragic end, visitors might sense human dignity, individuality and freedom swallowed by impersonal forces beyond their control.

Created by 14 pioneering British printmakers, the prints in this engaging show are often bold, sometimes stark but always exciting. They convey the infatuation with energy, speed and movement that animated the public and intrigued artists in the years between the two great wars.

Inspired by woodblock prints imported from Japan, English artists portrayed their changing society in startling images. A sleekly futuristic car whizzes along in Cyril E. Power's "Speed Trial." In sharp chiaroscuro, a biplane pilot soars above the battlefield in Christopher R.W. Nevinson's exhilarating "Banking at 4000 feet." Like a 20th century Prometheus, a pole-climbing electrician repairs power lines in Lill Tschudi's 1932 sumptuous linocut "Fixing the Wires."

Working primarily in woodcuts and two-toned or colored linocuts, these artists captured the initial public euphoria for the machine-driven age in vibrant pulsing prints.

Whether depicting artillerymen, dockworkers or motorcycle daredevils, artists as varied as Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth and Sybil Andrews celebrated the brawn and bravado fueling the new age.

Like a rocket's trajectory, these artists' best work initially reflected a collective enthusiasm for the technological advancements of their era and a dawning recognition of the human cost.

Organized by Clifford S. Ackley, this show is an eye-opener whether viewed through the perspective of past generations or your own contemporary vision.

The department chairman and Shapiro curator of prints and drawings, he has brought together innovative works by 14 printmakers who reacted against earlier, little-remembered trends to forge a look that still affects how we remember their age.

Only half joking, he described the prints as "Op art before there was Op art." Later he also called the prints "Proto Pop Art for the Machine age and the Jazz Age."

Around the outbreak of World War I, Ackley said many artists in this show incorporated the just-born abstraction to express the enormous changes wrought by technology through a new visual vocabulary. After experimenting with briefly influential movements including Futurism and Vorticism, they turned their skills to creating dynamic images that reflected the pulse of a changing world.

Rather than examine a broad artistic swath in a time of monumental change, this show takes a deep, close look into a key phase that nonetheless reflects not just the mood but the culmination of major undercurrents shaping the 20th century.

Ackley said the exhibit is organized "thematically rather than chronologically" into nine sections. They are: Vorticism and Abstraction; World War I; Speed and Movement; Urban Life/ Urban Dynamism; Sport; Industry and Labor; Entertainment and Leisure; Natural Forces; and Linocut: History and Technique."

Subtitled "British Prints 1914-1939," the show runs through June 1. It then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and then Miami's Wolfsonian-Florida International University.

Ackley and the MFA organized the show in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. About 70 prints in the show have been loaned by collectors Johanna and Leslie Garfield who have promised nine prints and a drawing to the museum.

MFA Director Malcolm Rogers called the show "a joyful trip back in time to a period of artistic creativity between the wars." "These prints reflect the huge societal and technological changes in a wonderful way," he said.

Rogers credited the Garfields for "sharing their passion for prints" through donations that can be enjoyed by the public. "Because of their vision, we are now able to introduce to our visitors these striking works by modern British printmakers whose interpretations of the emerging technological age reflect one of the most vibrant periods in modern art," he said.

Several of the most memorable prints reveal a growing recognition that the machines once hailed as heralds of modernity will become instruments of mass death and the enslavement of the human spirit.

Nevinson first greeted the war enthusiastically for its "cleansing hygiene (that would) wash away the old order to be replaced by machines." As a volunteer ambulance driver, he suffered a nervous breakdown when exposed to the horrors of trench warfare. After recovering, he produced grim yet starkly beautiful images like "The Road from Arras to Bapaume" or "Returning to the Trenches," which depicted individual soldiers as either tiny ants crawling across a blasted landscape or a robotic wave of sacrificial pawns marching to their deaths.

Ackley said Power revealed "a sardonic edge" in prints that depicted a threatening mass society reminiscent of Robert Wiene's macabre movie "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

In haunting four-toned linocuts, Power portrayed cramped subway riders as automatons with tormented faces or students taking exams as prisoners suffocating in Kafkaesque public anonymity.

Asked how much art history visitors need to appreciate the exhibit, Ackley replied with a wave of his hand and said, "Enjoy them as pictures. Look again and enjoy them as printed pictures."

"If you're into prints and care about the techniques that went into them, it doesn't matter what I tell you," he said. "They'll just come off the wall at you."


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; (Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m. only the West Wing is open).

A four-part course will be offered in February to enhance appreciation of this exhibit. Sessions will be held Tuesdays, Feb. 5-26 from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Remis Auditorium or Thursdays, Feb. 7 though 28 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Riley Seminar Room. Tickets for the four-session course are $80 for members or $100 for non-members. Class size is limited to 80.

A lavishly illustrated catalog about the exhibit with essays by Clifford Ackley and Stephen Coppel of the British Museum is available for $60 (hardcover) or $37.50 (softcover). General admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period but does not include Gund Gallery exhibitions) is $17 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and students 18 and older. Students who are university members are free.

Admission is free for children 17 and under during nonschool hours.

For general information, call 617-267-9300 or visit