A review by Sylvia Vetta of Chinese prints 1950-2006 at the Ashmolean

This review was translated  into Mandarin and published in  Sanping Wu’s book  titled Poems and Paintings

This exhibition may be small in size but not in ambition. The Ashmolean has an exquisite collection of Chinese artefacts but the Assistant Keeper of Eastern Art, Shelagh Vainker had the vision to build on an important modern collection. The Ashmolean was farsighted in collecting contemporary ink paintings in the 1950s. For this show Weimin He, who is on a three year placement at the museum, went to China and acquired a comprehensive selection of woodblock prints. As an artistic image, it emerged in the 1920s introduced by Li Shutong who had studied western art in Japan. Weimin He returned with a total of 107 prints by 74 artists from different regions revealing the development of styles and techniques between 1950 and 2006. This extra dimension to the museum’s already fine collection makes it the most comprehensive and one of the best in Europe. This is an important exhibition. The restrictions of the Eldon Gallery mean these new acquisitions will be displayed in two parts: the second opening on Dec 18th. Staff and visitors at the Ashmolean eagerly await autumn 2009 when the new buildings will provide an exhibition space worthy of this first ever public museum.

My description of the show ‘printing it red’ is not just because of communist associations but the deliciously mouth watering red sorghum fields in some of the prints. Weimin He says they come from ‘The Great Northern Wilderness School which is well known for the use of vibrant colours with multi-block printmaking techniques.’

A famous writer and revolutionary called Lu Xun (1881-1936) advocated the use of prints as a political tool. He introduced the works of the German artist, Kathe Kollwitz which depicted images of social oppression. By the start of The Cultural Revolution in 1966, the use of prints and posters for propaganda purposes was well established. Fundamentally, this was a period when creative art closed down. There were no national exhibitions between 1964 and 1972. Many artists and teachers were imprisoned. Nature is central to Daoist philosophy as is art. The ideas of the great thinkers of Ancient China including CongFuxi, LaoZi and Chuang Tzu were consigned to the dustbin of history… not quite literally although many books were burned and beautiful art and antiques destroyed by the marauding Red Guards unleashed by Madame Mao and the Gang of Four. Landscape painting was banned in this bonfire of classical ideas.

The female artist Li Xiu’s ‘The Return of the Graduate’ was printed in 1977 but its style is reminiscent of youth on the move at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when the schools closed and they were free to explore China. By 1968 those who had the opportunity joined the ‘clean’ classes of workers, peasants and soldiers. The art of that time was socialist realism and celebrated these groups. You will see the political nature of sanctioned art from the caption attached to one of Tibet.
‘This print represents a scene following the peaceful transformation of Tibet from a feudal society to a socialist system in 1951.’

Sadly the Chinese believe they have a right to be in Tibet, presumably just as we thought we had a right to be in Hong Kong. The recent scenes of pacifist monks, in Burma, facing an army is a better reflection of what really happened in Tibet in 1951. Maybe one day in China there will be a kind of Renaissance and they will revisit the humanism of the great Chinese philosophers. Perhaps then, they will see Tibet with a different vision.

After 1980 the art gradually changes and becomes freer particularly in style technique and subject matter. Deng Xiaoping’s social and economic reforms of 1978, meant that many artists saw ‘capitalist’ images for the first time. It led to a period of experimentation. The most notable installation from this time was Xu Bing’s ‘Book from Sky’. It became one of the most written about works of the twentieth century. He invented unintelligible characters and hand cut them into wood blocks. If you Google his site you will learn about his motivation. He received a MacArthur Foundation genius award in 1999. The work selected for the Ashmolean collection is ‘Lost Letters’. There is a large expressionist print made in 1998 by Dai Zhengsheng. Hong Tao’s colourful ‘Galloping rhythm’ (of the city) is used on the museum’s publicity for this exhibition. The quality and variety of exhibits for both shows is superb.

Weimin He and Shelagh Vainker have written an informative and attractive illustrated catalogue for this show. If you are interested in contemporary Chinese art or are looking for a colourful Christmas present, it is a good buy.

Chinese Prints (1950-2006)
Part 1: until 9 December
Part 2: 18 December – 24 Feb 2008.