In Lu Xun’s time, creative woodcuts were black and white, printed with oil-bound colour. Lu Xun also encouraged the revival of late-Ming multi-block techniques using water-soluble colours (shuiyin), but not for social and political reform. For his purposes—arousing and modernising China—black and white prints were the right approach. They could be produced quickly and cheaply in large quantities, without any special equipment: just a piece of wood, a knife, ink and paper. The resulting contrast of black and white was dramatic and immediate.
Black and white prints comprised a much smaller proportion of propaganda print production in post-1949 China. Prints with agricultural and industrial scenes in the 1950s were generally designed with only one or two colours, mostly oil-bound. In the late 1950s-early 60s, shuiyin techniques were revived, to promote ‘national’ forms. Following the Cultural Revolution, many artists practiced these techniques for aesthetic reasons.
Woodblock printmakers use various cutting methods to produce their images. The most common method is to cut the prints in reverse, or mirror image, but several other methods are displayed here.
This pale image of Lu Xun is a remarkably skilful work. The revival of shuiyin techniques—printing with water-soluble colours, rather than oil-bound—began in the late 1950s but has been widespread and increasingly innovative since the 1980s. The plum blossom carries important symbolism in China, representing hope and the coming of Spring, as it is the first flower to bloom. It also stands for resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity, so is fittingly paired with Lu Xun.
Dong Jiansheng originally taught himself printmaking. Because of a casual remark, he got caught up in the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and was sent to do hard agricultural labour for twenty-two years. During the Cultural Revolution, his only permitted art practice was creating propaganda posters. Rehabilitated when aged 45, Dong finally began formal study at CAFA. He works in black and white using a single block, cutting dramatic images of the architecture and mountain.
Chen Haiyan is one of China’s best-known printmakers in the West today. She sticks to monochrome images, making her prints from both woodblock and copper plates. Her woodblock printing technique is unusual in that she cuts the block with a right-reading image, rather than in reverse, then presses the back of the paper so it bleeds through, also showing the image right-reading. She records her dreams daily, transposing the images of her mind in prints, juxtaposing words with pictorial elements.
Chen Haiyan generally does not make a preparatory drawing before she cuts the block. Cutting and printing right-reading images is particularly suitable for her complex designs, with their extensive use of Chinese characters. The images are shown partly as white against a black background and partly as black on white. Her “bleed-through” technique (tou yin) contributes to the spontaneous quality of her work, suggestive of traditional ink and brush painting.
Wang Chao has revitalized the techniques of 17th century woodblock printing, generally considered to be the zenith of the art in China. He is an acknowledged expert in the cutting and printing of douban blocks. This print was made with 23 small blocks cut from fragments of pear wood—each block individually registered—then printed with water-soluble colours (shuiyin). In keeping with the archaistic flavour of his work, Wang adopted the studio name Jiuli fang (Hall of Nine Ancient Vessels).
These ten blocks show Wang Chao’s cutting and printing process. The blocks are a few millimetres larger than the area to be printed. Douban blocks are traditionally printed with water-soluble colour applied with a brush, so that each block can carry one colour or several colours. Pairs of blocks here illustrate both the relief and intaglio version for the scissors and cutting tool, table screen, tamping brush and lion water dropper.
Gao Rongsheng has used the intaglio printing technique here, printing the white gouache colour from the cut or incised area of the block. The composition combines the geometric shapes so effective in graphic art with the tonal quality of painting. The empty spaces are ambiguous—a quality much valued in Chinese art. In 1999, Gao Rongsheng won the Gold Medal in the Ninth National Art Exhibition for this print, but he is equally well-known for his story illustrations.
This is one of a series in which the artist wittily juxtaposes views and images of ancient and modern China. Here he contrasts modern technical innovation, represented by the jet aeroplane in a fan-format landscape, with scenes of traditional Suzhou, which was for centuries the heart of Chinese culture. This print also bears the pencilled name of his wife, Wang Jingping, who probably helped him with the print.
This beautiful print contrasts the simple, painterly design of the fan with the background’s finely graded wood-grain. In his long career, Chen Qi has been a great experimenter and versatile innovator. His prints cover a wide range of subject matter, including landscape and urban scenes, and various series depicting single objects, such as instruments (Cat. no. 121), lotuses and furniture. He has also engaged in more spiritual and philosophical enquiries, with series of butterflies, waterscapes
The print’s title, “Qin II,” refers to its place in Chen Qi’s series of twenty-one musical instruments, each represented in isolation against a blank background. This print depicts an erhu, a two-stringed bowed lute, held vertically by the seated player. Chen’s instruments are extremely realistic, designed in the boneless manner (without outline). Although Chen prints from plywood blocks, the absence of any wood-grain suggests that he sanded the blocks before cutting and printing.
He Weimin has worked in various media: painting in Chinese ink and oils, lithography and woodblock printing. He illustrates places, times and occasions, both in China and the UK, where he lives. His works exude energy and atmosphere. This bold, thickly-outlined monochrome print is one of many showing scenes of daily life in Harbin, capital of his native Heilongjiang province. He Weimin is a Trustee of the Muban Educational Trust, contributing to the curation and authorship.
This is the last in a series of landscapes inspired by the West Lake in Hangzhou. The flat, luminous forms are printed with water-soluble colours on rice paper. Cao Ou says he has always been attracted by the beauty of repetition and complex parallel patterns, choosing geometry as his linguistic symbol of expression. Other series by the artist, of landscapes, animals and fruits have a different language altogether-- intentionally witty and playful, but equally colourful and energizing.
Gu Xiuhua employs the vocabulary of the wood engraving in the making of his woodblock prints. He gives clear references to books of engravings, often coloured, illustrating birds and insects which were popular in the growing interest in the natural world during the eighteenth-century. Gu’s images are extraordinarily skilful, highly detailed and symbolically complex. He was the First Prize Winner at the Muban Educational Trust’s Woodblock Printmaking Awards in 2016.
He Sanqing was a student of the unorthodox artist Chen Haiyan (cat. no. 108). This work has the appearance of a collage of pre-painted or pre-printed papers. He skilfully exploits the tonal range possible with Chinese ink, calling to mind the traditional Chinese principle that, “if you have ink, you have all the five colours”. He Sanqing was the First Prize Winner in the Muban Educational Trust Woodblock Printmaking Awards in 2018.