Since the 1980s, China and its artists have searched for a new direction. In a time of radical new mediums and methods, we see artists looking to the past and rediscovering the potential inherent in one of the oldest forms of image making: woodblock prints. As China booms and its art market grows, these prints are attracting growing global interest from museums and collectors. Ronin Contemporary is pleased to present Ban Hua: Chinese Woodblock Prints Post-1980, an exhibition exploring some of China’s most exciting Contemporary printmakers. The works on view come both from an important European collection and straight from the studio of the innovative artist Gu Zhijun.
Ban Hua : A Brief History
To create a woodblock print, the carver cuts the negative design out of a flat wooden surface, allowing the intended image to extend into space. He or she then evenly applies ink to the face of the woodblock and presses a damp sheet of paper or fabric against the surface, smoothing it with a flat-sided tool. Once the block is lifted, the printed image is revealed. This process is repeated for each color. As one of the oldest forms of image making, woodblock printing can be traced back to antiquity across innumerable cultures. This technique originated in China and developed over thousands of years. Spreading throughout Asia, this technique shaped both literary and visual culture, and continues to serve as a critical form of artistic expression.
In China, evidence of woodblock printing can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. Yet, it was the introduction of Buddhism in the 1st century that had a profound influence on the history of Chinese printmaking. Considered an act of tremendous devotion in the Buddhist tradition, the practice of copying and disseminating Buddhist teachings sparked the development of printing techniques. Maturing in the Tang Dynasty, Chinese printing technology spread along with Buddhism to Korea and Japan. The earliest known printed texts in Japan took the form of one million Buddhist sutras, commissioned by the Empress Koken in 764 C.E.
During the Song Dynasty, woodblock printing evolved from simple lines and monochrome texts to the more complex techniques that made color printing possible. While Buddhist materials continued to dominate printed works, subjects broadened to include classic works of Chinese literature, poetry and secular illustrations. The rapid urbanization and commercialization of the Ming dynasty caused city populations to surge and a new class of merchants and more wealthy urban dwellers to emerge. Literacy rates increased, spurring the market demand for books. With the potential for complex polychromatic compositions, the woodblock print technology adapted to fit its evolving role in Chinese culture.
As the popularity of woodblock prints continued to grow, artist specific patronage fostered the development of famous workshops, each with distinctive regional styles. Most well known of these was the Taohuawu workshop, located in Suzhou, the prosperous commercial center of Southeastern China. Home to some of the greatest artists, poets and calligraphers of the time, the city’s artistic style became known for its elegance and was loved by both the educated literati and common people. Nianhua, or prints produced in celebration of the Chinese New Year, were especially popular. Other themes included famous landscapes, scenes and stars from the Peking Opera, and folklore.
The prosperity of printmaking studios peaked in the 17th century. During this period, Suzhou artists could produce up to one million prints per year to be sold across China, though few survive today. In subsequent centuries, war, rebellion, famine, and social and political unrest devastated the printmaking studios. As people fled from cities during the chaos, studios lost their artisans and customers alike. Suzhou’s Taohuawu district was no exception; the district was burned down during the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1800s and lost most of its once-flourishing workshops. Even though some print shops remained in the foreign concessions in Shanghai, relatively safe from the war and upheavals, the future of Chinese printmaking seemed bleak.
In the early 1900s, many intellectuals began to call for westernization and cultural revival. Lu Xun, considered the father of modern Chinese literature, was impressed by Japanese ukiyo-e prints when he studied in Japan. Inspired by these works, he began to call for a revival of the Chinese printmaking tradition. Lu Xun advocated the original and creative nature of the art, drawing on the Japanese sosaku hanga, or creative print movement, in which artists designed, carved, and printed the blocks themselves. These prints reveled in the new, the modern, and the artists’ individuality. Simultaneously, artists began to experiment with Western techniques, such as intaglio and etching. Though previously excluded from classical Chinese arts, printmaking began to garner respect as a powerful form of artistic expression.
As governmental power shifted in China in 1949, the majority of the country’s resources were devoted to the development of a communist nation. Printmaking became the domain of propaganda and promotion of the communist cause. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, printmaking and other creative activities were suppressed as artists, writers and intellectuals were widely persecuted. The Cultural Revolution stands as one of the bleakest periods in modern Chinese history. Yet, at the end of this era, the artists who had escaped persecution returned to their mediums, joined by many new talents.
Since the 1980s, China and its artists have searched for a new direction. The artistic community has witnessed both a revival of traditional printmaking methods as well as new, innovative explorations in Western methods. The famous Taohuawu workshop still produces traditional woodblock prints of superior quality, but also experiments with contemporary themes. Furthermore, art academies have solidified printmaking programs for talented students, familiarizing them with different techniques and artistic traditions. As China thrives and the art market grows, Chinese prints are attracting growing global interest from museums and collectors. In a time of radical new mediums and methods, we now see young artists looking to the past and rediscovering the potential inherent in one of the oldest forms of image making: Ban Hua, woodblock prints.