This section presents a highly-abbreviated summary of the styles and subject matter of Chinese printmaking since 1949. From the founding of the PRC until after the Cultural Revolution, nearly all art, whatever style or format, was produced in the service of the new society. Prints promoted the Party, the people, the revolution and a continual flow of specific political, social and economic campaigns.
Art in the post-Mao era has been much less explicitly political, both quantitatively and aesthetically. Personal expression has returned. The same types of subjects as before are depicted—landscapes, figures, village gatherings, work and leisure—but through individual eyes. Scenes are intimate and life-size, rather than grandiose. There is great interest in Chinese history and traditional culture, offered in newly-imagined ways. An important feature is the development of regional schools of printmaking with their distinctive styles, notably the Great Northern Wilderness and Yunnan Schools.
Not everyone is shown to be happy. The second part of this section offers some social and political commentary on contemporary China. Crowding, industrialization and consumerism are common and politically acceptable themes.
Liu Jing’s images of cultural masters are misty, mysterious and haunting. He insists that he is a printmaker, not an artist. Liu revels in his choice of techniques, uninterested in labels like ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary.’ He says, “Instead of trying to be a pioneer in the art world, I am more willing to get a block, take a knife, and easily sift a pile of sawdust. Or grind the stone, adjust some of the ink, and casually create some texture.”
There were comparatively few female artists in the communist-controlled ‘liberated areas’ in the 1940s. In printmaking, Gu Qun specialised in nianhua (new year pictures). Folk-art styles were particularly effective for propaganda in revolutionary and wartime China. This highly detailed woodblock print celebrates the founding of the PRC on 1 October 1949, illustrating the masses’ genuinely enthusiastic welcome of the new leadership and the end of the Civil War (1945-49).
Lin Ling is less well known than many of his contemporaries, perhaps because he spent his artistic career in the military, serving in both creative and administrative roles. In the late 1930s and 40s, he produced propaganda for the Resistance against Japan, but also depicted the hardships of rural workers. This print celebrates agricultural abundance, in the style known as ‘Revolutionary Romanticism.” The huge flowers and vegetables belie the disastrous agricultural situation of the Great Leap
Wu Fan studied both oil painting and guohua (national painting, using ink and brush) before turning to printmaking. Dandelion demonstrates his painterly style and mastery of traditional shuiyin techniques employing water-soluble colours. The print has no political content, which was very unusual for its time. With its universal appeal, spare design and tranquil air, Dandelion was an international prize winner. However, during the Cultural Revolution, it was singled out for symbolizing pacifism
Liao Youkai was a self-taught artist. In 1958 the People’s Liberation Army Cultural Group sent him to the Great Northern Wilderness (Beidahuang), a huge tract of uncultivated land in Heilongjiang. There he worked on a newspaper for farmers and labourers, later joining the Bohai Oil Company as Head of the Art Group (most large work units had one). Liao specialised in panoramic prints. This large, colourful celebratory scene is in the heroic style of the later years of the Cultural Revolution.
While China recognizes 56 ethnic groups, the Han nationality constitutes more than 90% of the population. Kazaks comprise only about one-tenth of one percent, living mostly in Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. They are a nomadic people, raising herds of cattle and sheep. In the early 1980s, artists took a new interest in regional cultural elements, and the Kazaks’ exotic clothes and customs provided stimulating imagery. The woman in this print is making milk tea for a large gathering.
The ‘Yunnan School’ developed in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, along with an interest in rustic habitats and local cultural features. The artists of this home-grown style are influenced by Buddhist cave paintings, tribal textiles and the colourful tattoo traditions of the region’s minority groups. He Kun’s prints are easily recognized by their vivid colours, stylized forms and complex textile patterns. The Red Sky was made using the waste-block technique.
In 1958, a hundred thousand demobilised soldiers were sent to develop the vast wilderness of Heilongjiang—an area known as the Great Northern Wilderness (Beidahuang). Artists were sent to publicize the achievements in agriculture and construction. Hao Boyi was the youngest of the leading artists from the first generation of Beidahuang printmakers, and he trained many of the second and third generation artists. Trees, seasonal landscapes, cranes and village life are his favourite themes.
Chao Mei was sent to Heilongjiang in 1958 and is the most influential of the Great Northern Wilderness (Beidahuang) artists. He uses strong, romantic colours to emphasize the beauty of the vast expanses of land and sky in Heilongjiang. Autumn Glory observes the turning colours of the season, the yellow and red trees distinct from the stylized stand of green trees behind them. From the 1990s onwards, Chao Mei’s work moved gradually from naturalistic detail to greater abstraction.
In the late 1970s, during the brief period of ‘Scar’ art--so named for the 1978 novella Scar (Shanghen) by Lu Xinhua—writers and artists felt able to express their feelings about the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Zhao Yannian has written openly about his terrible experiences during those years and made the hauntingly expressive Nightmare series on this theme. This print, however, is dated June 1989, which is likely a reference to the events at Tian’anmen Square that month.
Su Xinping is unusually versatile, creating paintings, prints and videos. His prints employ etching, woodblock and lithographic techniques. Xu grew up in far-off Inner Mongolia, but has spent much of his career in Beijing, where he is the Deputy Director of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He laments China’s urbanisation and ecological decay in desolate landscape scenes. His portraits comment ironically on materialism and rapid social change, particularly the rituals of business and politica
Zhang Minjie worked as a stage designer and actor in Hebei. He was badly injured in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. Both experiences continue to influence his life and work, which includes painting, sculpture, lithography and woodblock printing. His surrealistic prints are stage spectacles with crowds of figures in motion—dancers and acrobats, farmers, workers and soldiers. Some march in stiff formation; others are unsynchronized, arriving nowhere, but few make it outside the walls. Dull colours
Guo Shuang cuts bold, panoramic street scenes from hardwood blocks printed with oil-bound colour. Her complex images of urban life show jostling crowds of workers, business dealers, eccentrics and people-watchers. Looked at closely, the variety of individual character types is remarkable. Guo Shuang won First Prize in the inaugural Muban Woodblock Printmaking Awards competition in 2015. She is now a post-graduate student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.