Modern and contemporary printmaking in China may be broadly divided into three periods: 1931-49, the Modern Print Movement, wartime and revolution; 1949-76, the Maoist era of socialist construction, through to the Cultural Revolution; and 1976 to the present, marked by China’s rapid domestic and international development. As political and social conditions have changed, so has cultural production. The printmakers in this exhibition have worked in good times and bad, some with careers that began in the 1930s, and some in this early 21st century. Their determination and revolutionary loyalty are remarkable, evident decade after decade, despite very dire circumstances.
The artists transformed their styles with the times. This section shows works of six printmakers at different stages of their artistic lives. Five were essential to the Wars of Resistance and Liberation, while one worked from the 1950s through the 90s. The veterans are best known for their 1930s’ and 40s’ woodcuts. Prints from the Maoist years are harder to find, and as the Muban Educational Trust’s collection is especially rich in these works, more of them are included here.
This print imagines Lu Xun in Yan’an, symbolised by the pagoda on the hill. Yan’an was the communist base area and Party headquarters, after the Long March ended in 1935, through the Civil War. Lu Xun never went to Yan’an but sent Mao Zedong a congratulatory telegram and a canned ham when he learned of the Red Army’s safe arrival there. Many prints associate Lu Xun with revolutionary events, even if they occurred long after his lifetime.
Li Hua, one of the earliest active woodcut artists, worked closely with Lu Xun, who thought him among the most promising of the young printmakers. Having studied painting in China and Japan, Li turned to printmaking, his work always dedicated to nationalist and socialist themes. His perceptive figural prints of the 1930s and 40s showed people’s struggles and anti-imperialist, revolutionary determination. This woodblock print shows a long line of high-spirited Red Army soldiers.
This print shows the enthusiastic labour of masses constructing a reservoir. Since it is dated 1959, it is likely a revolutionary romantic view of the Three Gorges Project. An enormously complex undertaking, the dam was heavily promoted by Chairman Mao during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), but engineering problems prevented its construction for forty years; it was finally completed in 2006.
This print illustrates the Precious Sword and Military Book Gorge, part of the Xiling Gorge in Sichuan. This is more than just a landscape, however, for Li Hua’s gorge is a direct reference to Zhuge Liang (181-234), hero of the Three Kingdoms period (220-80) and still invoked in today’s China. Legend has it that Zhuge Liang hid his military book and treasured sword in the crevices of these rocks for brave men to find.
This is one of the best-known prints of the Civil War period (1946-49). It is a dramatic and highly-detailed scene of angry citizens burning the property deeds of a landlord. In Communist-controlled areas, land reform policies were enacted before the formal establishment of the People’s Republic. Gu Yuan had studied at the Lu Xun Academy of Arts, where the prescribed style was based on flat, colourful folk prints known as nianhua, and many of his surviving works are in that style.
After the Revolution, Gu Yuan held numerous publishing, teaching and administrative posts, while continuing his artistic practice. His prints illustrated China’s progress in social and economic development, especially with communal village scenes. This print shows farmers bringing in the harvest, but its theme is Yan’an, the revolutionary-period communist base area and Party headquarters, symbolised by the ancient pagoda on the hill.
Gu Yuan made this print in the last year of his life. There is no explicit political content in the image, though the message is a communal one: bring sweetness to the people. The dominant feature is a blossom-covered tree, with the bee-keeping work in the background. Like many artists, after the Cultural Revolution Gu Yuan made more landscapes and nature scenes—subjects of personal choice, rather than the propaganda art required from 1949 to the end of the 1970s.
Strongly influenced by Lu Xun (see cat. no 4), Li Qun was one of the earliest revolutionary printmakers, and a founder of the Woodcut Research Association 1933. His prints showed the dark social and economic conditions of Republican China (1912-49). Diagonal lines and cross-hatching gave shape and depth to his images. A copy of this print was included in a 1937 exhibition in London, organized to raise funds and awareness for China against Japan’s imperialist aggression.
In total contrast to Li Qun’s dark images of the 1930s (see cat. no. 45), this print epitomizes the folk-art style approved for communist propaganda at the 1942 Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art. The format is called nianhua (literally, New Year’s print), a popular art made for centuries with auspicious or protective imagery. The designs are characterized by thick black outlines and flat, bright colours. This print shows happy, secure living in the communist-controlled ‘liberated areas’.
Li Qun was still a leading printmaker in the 1950s and early 60s. His colourful imagery celebrated progress in New China. He worked in the two approved styles: folk art (see cat. no. 45) and socialist realism, inspired by Soviet propaganda art. Works from the mid-60s until after the Cultural Revolution are hard to find. In 1980, Li Qun re-appeared, making apolitical prints with lively designs of animals, birds and flowers, as well as gentle rural landscapes such as this.
In the 1930s and 40s Wang Qi’s themes were wartime patriotism and people’s harsh living conditions, often in the folk-art style of simple outlines and little shading. After 1949, Wang Qi combined the roles of printmaker, teacher and editor of major art journals. His images celebrated New China in communal scenes of agricultural and industrial progress. This 1950s print is highly detailed, with shading and perspective. The newly-approved style was inspired by Soviet socialist realist prints.
Wang Qi was condemned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and forbidden to work. In the 1970s, he and many other veteran artists were rehabilitated and re-installed in positions of authority in art academies and associations. This is a fine example of the heroic style of Wang Qi’s work in those years, with finely detailed motifs, powerful composition and dramatic perspective.
Trees featured in Wang Qi’s prints as early as the 1940s, but usually not as the principal motif—rather fitted within scenes of village work, children outside school, or workers busy with construction. Wang’s later trees filled the page, celebrations of life and nature. According to the artist’s family, he called his favourite theme the “tree of life.” The gnarled branches and leaves of this ancient tree exemplify Wang Qi’s extraordinarily skilful cutting techniques.
Originally a painter, Yan Han studied woodblock printmaking at the Lu Xun Academy at Yan’an. He also spent time in the Taihang Mountain Liberated Area, and this print was inspired by that experience. Its theme is the mobilization of the masses in the War of Resistance to Japan (1937-5). It is in the format of a nianhua (literally ‘New Year print’), a traditional folk-art form that was very effective for propaganda among the rural masses in the 1940s.
Yan Han made propaganda prints supporting China in the War of Resistance and fought with the communists in the Civil War. He was an important educator as well as artist in the new People’s Republic, but was condemned during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-78. He was politically attacked again in the Cultural Revolution. Yan re-emerged in the 1980s, with works in a new, apolitical style—geometric and often abstract. He was thoroughly re-habilitated and much honoured in his last years.