wed 22/05/2019

The Printed Image in China, British Museum | reviews, news & interviews

The Printed Image in China, British Museum

The Printed Image in China, British Museum

An exhibition exploring the history of printmaking in the country of its birth

'Chatting Over Tea': prints of everyday life evoke as well as idealise the life of the ordinary citizen

The British Museum’s current exhibition of 15th-century works on paper, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, explores the increasing importance of the preparatory sketch in the development of western art. Central to that development was the availability of cheaply produced paper. But as we discover in the British Museum’s free exhibition of the evolution of Chinese printmaking, The Printed Image in China, paper was being successfully manufactured in China by the third century AD. This innovation, along with the invention of the compass, gunpowder and printmaking, is among what’s commonly known as China’s Four Great Inventions.

The British Museum’s current exhibition of 15th-century works on paper, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, explores the increasing importance of the preparatory sketch in the development of western art. Central to that development was the availability of cheaply produced paper. But as we discover in the British Museum’s free exhibition of the evolution of Chinese printmaking, The Printed Image in China, paper was being successfully manufactured in China by the third century AD. This innovation, along with the invention of the compass, gunpowder and printmaking, is among what’s commonly known as China’s Four Great Inventions.

The process of printmaking is believed to have been invented in China in around 700 AD and this exhibition begins spectacularly with the earliest extant woodblock print in world history: the frontispiece to the Diamond Sutra, commissioned in 868. This detailed and intricate image shows the Buddha discoursing with the disciple Subhuti surrounded by attendants and divine beings. The scroll bears the date, the equivalent of the western year 868, and a statement by a certain Wang Jie, who commissioned the scroll to ensure blessings to his family. The complexity of the composition and the refined technique suggest that this method of illustration was already well developed.

Buddhism was at the heart of the evolution of printing in China, for central to its philosophy was that the mass production of sacred texts and images was a way to receive blessings and to spread faith. Having become a state religion during the Sui dynasty of 589-618, Buddhism flourished during the Tang dynasty of 618- 906, though most of the earliest prints in this exhibition, including the Diamond Sutra scroll, were only discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, in a Buddhist cave near an oasis in Dunhuang in the northwest of the country.

Chineseprints.warriorAbout 100 prints from the museum’s vast collection are on show in this exhibition, leading us right through to the 21st century and to digital printmaking. There are gaps in chronology, but the 17th and 18th centuries are well represented, with both the establishment of commercial workshops and the development of printing in five or more colours. Florid prints of fierce-looking warriors were highly popular, since their symbolic function was to protect the household (pictured left: Bring-in-Emoluments Military Door Guard; Qing dynasty, 18th century).

In terms of popular imagery, there is surprisingly little that changes through the course of the 20th century, though the Modern Woodcut Movement in the late Twenties employs a new social realism to reach the masses and express the need for social and political change. During China’s occupation in the Sino-Japanese war (1937-45)  artists created prints to exhort patriotism. Liu Lun, for example, edited a publication called Resistance Woodcuts and he is represented here by a realistically depicted print of wounded soldiers, executed as an appeal for international humanitarian support.

Heroic images of workers and peasants illustrated in a social realist style are not a particular highpoint in this exhibition, but later, more sensitive illustrations, such as Chen Yiming’s 1981 print Happiness (pictured above right), which depicts the weather-beaten face of a peasant while he is enjoying his pipe, are of a different order. This image was considered a milestone in Chinese contemporary art: the black and white contrasts, as well as the rough carving of the block to suggest the worn out features of the peasant, make it an extremely evocative image. Meanwhile, prints of everyday life such as Wu Jide's 1984 Chatting Over Tea (main picture top) evoke as well as idealise the life of the ordinary citizen.

This exhibition is impressive for the early achievements of printmaking technology. Slightly more difficult for the Western eye is how little seems to change in terms of imagery and the development of new and radical ways to depict a changing and evolving culture.

Buddhism was at the heart of the evolution of printing in China

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