Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Chinese Prints 1950-2006 in the Ashmolean Museum

A catalogue of the Ashmolean’s collection of Chinese prints from 1950-2006 by Weimin He and Shelagh Vainker (published Oxford, 2007).

Chinese Prints 1950-2006 in the Ashmolean Museum by Weimin He and Shelagh Vainker


The prints in this cataloguewere acquired in China at the end of 2006 and in early 2007. The AshmoleanMuseumbegan collecting contemporary ink painting in the 1950s, and the present print acquisi­tions accompany the recent extension of that collec­tion to include graphic arts, initiated by the pur­chase in early 2006 of more than one hundred post­ers, mostly political propaganda, printed in the 1970s and distributed throughout China by the Xin­hua Shudian (bookshop). Several of these are the work of artists whose paintings have been in the Ashmoleanfor many years, so that the three differ­ent media together present a comprehensive view of art in China in the second half of the twentieth cen­tury. Until the early twentieth century printmakingin China for the most part developed in close asso­ciation with ink painting, and a history of the subject touches on not just artistic styles but also religious texts, book publishing, folk imagery, and develop­ments in European printmaking.

Woodblock printing in the early twentieth century

It was not until the Creative Print Movement of the 1930s, itself a component or offshoot of the broader New Culture Movement that ensued from the revolutionary societal changes of the early republican period, that woodblock printing became an art me­dium distinct from folk art and traditional means of duplicating texts and images. The essential change lay in the performance of all stages of print produc­tion by a single artist. Previously the tasks of draw­ing designs, cutting blocks and pulling prints were generally each carried out by separate individuals, in a division of labour that was appropriate to large-scale production, and shared by many early manu­facturing industries in China, whose success lay precisely in such collective organization. The earliest surviving prints were produced in monastic communities, where the replication of printed images was associated with ritual practice such as counting ro­saries: the earliest extant printed book, the Diamond Sutra dated to 868 and now housed in the British Library, is a Buddhist work. In the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) printing developed rapidly, and books including classical texts, poetry, catalogues and manuals were produced in quantity, though relatively few Song editions survive. In the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties illus­trated plays and novels were published, and indeed the late Ming was the period of the highest quality of book production, with particularly fine block-cutting and illustration in the south. Painting manuals and illustrated letter-papers were also printed with innovative assembled block-printing techniques, and in fact woodblock printed illustration was largely concerned with reproducing painted images. An­other aspect of the printed image was, however, far from literary, and lay in the practice of pasting fes­tive images on doors and windows at New Year and other times of celebration. These folk images varied from region to region, and in rural areas were simply made within households. By the late Qing, protest prints and illustrations for journals also had a popu­lar circulation.

The woodblock print as artistic image emerged in China in the 1920s, initially introduced by the artist and educator Li Shutong (1880-1942), who had studied Western art in Japan and encouraged a crea­tive approach to printmaking. It was the famous writer and revolutionary Lu Xun (1881-1936), how­ever, who advocated the use of prints as a political tool and the use of traditional woodcut techniques to depict images of social oppression and injustice in subject matter largely influenced by European artists such as Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and Frans Masereel (1889-1972). The origins of the modern Chi­nese woodblock print thus lie in Western artistic practice and the cultural and technical suitability of the medium for mass information.

Printed images 1949-76, from the founding of the People’s Republic to the end of the Cultural Revolution

Mao Zedong's addresses on art and literature, delivered in 1942 at the then Communist base at Yan'an in Shaanxi province, established the principles that were to direct all artistic activity in the opening dec­ades of the People's Republic of China. His central tenet was that art should serve the people, and that it should be understood and accepted by them. The form and content were prescribed as socialist, realist and representative. In printmaking, it was the tradi­tional New Year prints that were first employed to these ends. New Year prints, or nianhua, are associ­ated with bright colours, strong and fine lines and an uneducated authorship; only the subject matter- of auspicious symbols, gods of wealth, and themes from legend and myth—was not appropriate to the new policy, and so was replaced with scenes of socialist prosperity, education and optimism (see cat. nos. 3-24). In the early 1950s, a national exhibition and a national prize for nianhua marked the transforma­tion of a folk art form into an official one.

Throughout that decade various art forms developed. In art academies, a Soviet model within a structure of art education based on Russian and French academies prevailed, and artists' organizations were founded as governmental cultural insti­tutions. Most were headed by leading print artists from the first Communist Art Academy in Yan'an. Printmaking departments were established within the new art academies throughout China, and in 1954 the first national exhibition of prints was held. New techniques were introduced, including etching and lithography, and the use of traditional water-soluble ink in woodcut prints was revived. Subject matter also saw expansion and experimentation in 1956 with Mao's new policy for art and literature of letting 'a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend'. The Hundred Flow­ers Movement, however, was swiftly followed by the anti-Rightist campaign of 1957-8, in which many artists and writers were persecuted. The early 1960s was again a period of relative freedom in art, partly due to a renewed possibility of reviving traditional styles following the break in relations with the Soviet Union.

By the mid-1960s, printmaking had become well established in most major cities, following the return to art academies of artists who had studied print-making in Russia and East Germany. In Beijing at the Central Academy of Fine Art printmaking was championed by veterans of the 1940s woodcut movement such as Li Hua (1907-94) and Yan Han (cat. nos. 2, 28) [EA2007.65 and EA2007.64]. In Zhejiang the emphasis was on monochrome figure subjects, led by Zhao Yannian (cat. no. 27) [EA2007.88], Zhang Huaijiang (cat. no. 65) [EA2007.13] and Zhao Zongzao (cat. no. 32) [EA2007.80]. In the neighbouring province of Jiangsu, which had been a centre of woodblock printing during the Ming dynasty, the use of water-soluble ink and colours and of multiple and assem­bled blocks was revived and developed. In Shanghai artists developed their own distinctive perspective such as monochrome book illustrations and multi­colour woodblock prints. In the west, in Sichuan province, both single block oil-based ink and multi-block water-soluble colour techniques were used to produce mostly figure subjects. Far to the north in Heilongjiang province near the Soviet Union, the Great Northern Wilderness school developed a non-key block oil-based ink woodblock printing technique, mostly depicting regional landscapes. In other parts of the country, in Guangdong, Shanxi, Hebei and other areas, distinct regional styles devel­oped.

From 1966 to 1971, when the Cultural Revolu­tion was at its height, the prevailing political ideol­ogy meant that artists could produce only anony­mous or collaborative works, if indeed any work at all; art education ceased, and many artists and teachers were imprisoned or otherwise persecuted and humiliated. For a slightly longer period, be­tween 1964 and 1972, no national art exhibitions were held, and in the 1972 exhibition that commem­orated the thirtieth anniversary of Mao Zedong's Yan'an talks on art and literature, two-thirds of the works were by worker, peasant and soldier amateurs. The same applied to the three further annual na­tional exhibitions. In the early 1970s some art acad­emies began to admit students from such 'clean' po­litical backgrounds, and artists who had been sent to the countryside for 're-education' were called back to the cities to teach them. The activities of print artists who had been in the countryside contributed to the development of printmaking, notably in the rural areas of Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Jiangsu. The Great North­ern Wilderness school revived, chiefly under the or­ganization and direction of Hao Boyi (cat. nos. 72, 82) [EA2007.25 and EA2007.26], and many of the young talents later became well-known professional artists. Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution some print artists made work that combined the 'correct' political tendency with their own creativity, though as a whole the ten-year period was one of aesthetic retreat and techni­cal stagnation.

Printmaking from 1976 to 2006

For a few years following the death of Chairman Mao in September 1976, the visual imagery he had sanctioned in his lifetime continued to dominate artistic production. Deng Xiaoping's social and economic reforms of 1978, however, opened new pos­sibilities for artists. The Chinese Artists' Association and other organizations became active again, and the biennial National Print Exhibition resumed after an interval of sixteen years. New printmaking journals were established; in 1980 the Chinese Printmakers' Association was founded, with more than a hundred further associations in the following five years. The middle of the decade was a period of great experi­mentation in art, and some confusion too, as infor­mation about hitherto unknown Western styles poured into the country and into the awareness of a generation that was still trying to comprehend the deracinating effects of the Cultural Revolution and the traditions that preceded it. Printmakers of the Yan'an period (1935-47) regained their leadership in art organizations in Beijing, and with few exceptions, they firmly followed Mao's instructions in the Yan'an talks and advocated a socialist realist style. This could be one reason why printmakers were slower than other artists to respond to the modern art of the West: some merely tolerated Western influences while others embraced the new tide and began to create personal, experimental works. The most notable was Xu Bing (b.1955, cat. no. 99) [EA2007.100], whose installation 'Book from the Sky' (Tianshu), first exhibited in 1988, became one of the most written-about works of the twentieth century.

From the late 1970s onwards the regional printmaking styles went from strength to strength, most notably the Great Northern Wilderness school, and the activity in Sichuan centred in the Sichuan Acad­emy of Fine Arts in Chongqing and the Sichuan Artists' Association in Chengdu. In Yunnan in the south-west a local style of woodcut print emerged with the jueban (waste-block) broadly used, and the Ming dynasty shuiyin technique of Jiangsu flourished again.

Throughout the 1980s, following the open-door policy and the initial success of economic reform, the political impact on art gradually diminished, although it has never vanished. Rather, commercial opportunities began to define parameters for artists; some created decorative and colourful work to meet Japanese and other overseas markets, and, ultimately, Western tourists. With the nonetheless limited opportunities for selling work to overseas markets and in the absence of a domestic market before the 1990s, some young and middle-aged artists abandoned printmaking altogether. In general artists enjoyed more freedom in their choices of both style and content. Printmaking exhibitions were held regularly and this was also a period of technical experimentation: screen printing was introduced to art academies in the early 1980s, and together with etching and lithographic printing these three printing techniques formed the focus of a biennial exhibi­tion that continues today.

Cultural exchange between China and the outside world has increased steadily since the 1990s. International print exhibitions are held across the country, and this, together with access to the Internet, has accelerated Chinese printmaking towards globalization. Art styles have become more diverse, and ancient Chinese philosophies and modern West­ern ideas coexist and are reflected in artists' prints. Contemporary Western printmaking techniques such as photo lithography and photo etchings have developed along with computer-generated digital prints. Although woodblock methods still dominate the printmaking field, they have been incorporated into a wide range of modern visual languages, whilst traditional assembled woodblock printing tech­niques are developed in art academies.

Following the rapid economic development of the early twenty-first century, Chinese prints have gained a profile in the domestic art market. In contrast to the situation of the 1980s, when artists adjusted their work to suit overseas consumer demand, recent auctions of prints emphasize the value set on prints with both artistic and historical merit and, furthermore, many print museums have been established. Having served, like literature and other arts, as a political tool, modern Chinese printmaking has gained its own place as a mainstream art form and to date has never enjoyed such widespread innovation and recognition.


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