The Chinese Roots of Print Art
Print art has always fascinated me, not only because it is within my reach as a collector, but also because it is the one medium in contemporary art that has its roots in China, and it embodies the diffusion of ideas between East and West. This medium, which began as the most primal, embryonic form of (semi)mass media, went on to play a major role in the rise of modernity in both Asia and the West, and is today a vibrant art form in its own right.
The earliest known woodcut print is a 7th century copy of the Diamond Sutra discovered in the caves of Dunhuang, along the Silk Road in western China. It was a crude but important means of disseminating religious texts and other important works in ancient China. In this earliest form, it was severely limited by the need to hand carve each individual page, but it was much more efficient than the tedious hand copying of manuscripts seen in the West before Gutenberg. It also provided a solution to the widespread problem of transcription errors in historical texts, which had led earlier dynasties to engage in a periodic exercise known as the “collation of texts,” where scholars would pore over various versions of history and other texts, interpreting and often retranslating them, and forever stamping them with the politics of the time.
There are three basic defining factors of a print: reproducibility, indirectness and color fields with solid edges. Namely, a print is reproducible because you can make multiple copies of it; it is indirect because the artisan must carve the image onto a medium such as a wood block, before transferring its mirror image onto the paper; the solid edges arise because the paper registers only the parts of the plate or block that are both raised and inked, and there is no in-between, at least not usually. This means that a traditional print cannot replicate the fading and gradated blending that is often found in painting and drawing. Not all of these properties are absolute, which will become clear as we move forward in history.
Aside from disseminating important treatises, the reproducibility of prints facilitated the rise in China of popular folk literature, which had its heyday in the Ming dynasty with such classics as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh. Another folk application was in New Year Prints, which were posters depicting auspicious scenes (fat babies, zodiac animals, door gods) that people posted on their doors every Chinese New Year. New Year Prints would go on to become the main folk influence in later Chinese painting, a common-folk counterpart to the more refined literati painting.
For much of the history of Chinese painting, it was difficult to gain access to the works of the old masters. There was no system of public museums and no way to disseminate the more famous works, and the best works were either in private hands or locked away in the imperial collection. The medium of print showed promise as a means for teaching and discussing painting techniques, but it would first have to overcome the medium’s technical limitations, namely the solid edges. Chinese ink and wash painting is a fluid form. Before the rise of colors, artists had to find ways of creating intricate paintings using only black ink. The solution was to use various levels of dilution to create as many as seven different shades of black, with the various shades often blending into each other as the ink soaked through the paper.
That technical issue was eventually solved, just as movable type was taking over in the printing of literature. The solution was the water print, a system that manipulated the wetness of the paper and dilution of the ink to achieve blended results that closely mimicked the blended fields of ink painting. The seminal painting manual was Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, first printed in 1679. Note the color gradations in the image below.
The painting manuals, Spring Festival posters and illustrations insured that the art form survived the rise of movable type, and would eventually go on to play a key role in the birth of modern art.
Most people learn in high school about the spread of movable type to the West, the Gutenberg Bible, and the role of print in the development of Western thought. Printing, particularly lithography and engraving, also played a role in the rise of realistic depiction and the dissemination of art. Asian print art, however, also played a much more direct role in the birth of modern art in the West.
By the late 19th century, the pursuit of realistic depiction in Western art had reached dizzying heights. Using better paints, advanced techniques, and devices such as the camera obscura and daguerreotypes, artists were able to produce images that appeared almost exactly as seen by the human eye. Now photography, an outgrowth of the centuries-long pursuit of the real, was threatening to supplant painting, and painters began to look beyond skill and content for richer expression.
The timing of this dilemma fit nicely with the opening of Japan for trade with the outside world. Western painters of that period were awestruck by the art of that country, the product of a culture that had not spent centuries pursuing the recreation of reality. Just as Japanese and Chinese artists were being astounded by the scientific precision of Western oil painting, modern Western painters such as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were finding inspiration in the Ukiyo-e genre of Japanese print art. Ukiyo-e, often translated as “pictures of the floating world,” was marked by a detached style, with vibrant colors, mismatched perspectives and an overall dreamlike quality.
While Ukiyo-e was not the only factor in the birth of Western modern art, one need only to visit the home of Claude Monet, with all of its Japanese prints, to realize that it played a key role in this new direction of development. This art, though long out of fashion in Japan, inspired artists to draw from deeper within the subconscious, unleashing forces that led to Impressionism, Cubism and by extension, the foundations of modern art.
Print Art and Chinese Modernity
Western print art in turn played a key role in the modernization of China. Though China had a long history of printmaking, the concept of the ‘creative print,’ i.e. artistic creations that were made for the medium itself, rather than as a copy of a painting, was quite foreign to China.
All of this was set to change as China entered the modern era. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Chinese intellectuals began a period of intense cultural soul searching as they attempted to lay the foundations for a new modern nation. A diverse movement emerged towards the formulation of a new national culture, one that possessed a unique Chinese identity but incorporated modern ideas of humanism and rationalism. To cast off the shackles of Chinese imperial feudalism would require a wholesale revamping of Chinese art, culture and literature.
One of the leading figures of the New Culture Movement was Lu Xun, a towering literary figure in modern China. Upon returning from medical school in Japan, Lu Xun set out to “treat” China’s cultural ills, using his pen as a scalpel, writing stories and essays that incorporated these new strains of thought in a simple vernacular that everyone could understand.
The pen may have been his preferred scalpel, but he was also highly active in Chinese visual art, leaving arguably an even deeper impression on modern Chinese culture through his art advocacy than through his writings. He saw woodcut printing, with its simple visual language and ease of reproduction, as the perfect medium for the spread of modern ideas.
He established a studio in Shanghai teaching visual artists to create original woodcut artworks. He organized exhibitions of important international print artists, and amassed a collection of important print art from around the world, especially the Soviet Union.
Lu Xun advocated the use of simple visual language to depict social struggle, and for this he turned to socialist realism, then dominant in Soviet art. This would have a profound impact on Chinese art for decades to come as socialist realism, particularly in the woodcut form, became the dominant strain of propaganda art after the rise of the Communist Party. Even today, the major art academies in China all have printmaking departments.
When China enacted the policy of reform and opening in the late 1970s, Chinese artists began to seek out new forms of expression. Among the new modern artists to emerge over the next decade, many had been trained in printmaking at the major academies. One notable example is Fang Lijun, one of the most celebrated contemporary artists in China. His prints of a despondent bald man lost at sea captured the disorientation of a China swept up by the waves of commercialism in the 1990s.
Today, Chinese print art is alive and well. It has made a long journey from its ancient beginnings to its current incarnation as a powerful contemporary medium, stopping at many points in global art history along the way. It is this combination of ancient Chinese heritage and global historical importance that makes it a medium worth watching, the one modern artistic medium that is at once truly international and truly Chinese.