Revolution, propaganda, art

Printing is considered one of the Four Great Inventions of China (along with paper, gunpowder and the compass). A new exhibition at the Museum of East Asian Art looks at the trends and developments in modern Chinese printmaking and how this reflects the culture and society of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Museum of East Asian Art in Bath is hosting a new exhibition, Revolution, Propaganda, Art: Printmaking in Modern China. It showcases a series of prints selected from the Muban Educational Trust’s (MET) collection of over 6,000 prints and tells the story of China’s 20th-century wars, revolution and rejuvenation.

The exhibition, curated by Mary Ginsberg, explores artistic trends, political movements and technical developments in modern Chinese printmaking. The works presented mark several significant anniversaries in China’s modern history, including the May Fourth Movement (1919), the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (1921), and Lu Xun’s seminal printmaking class, which symbolises the origin of the Modern Woodcut Movement (1931).

Haiyao Zheng, the secretary of MET explains: “Woodblock printing is an ancient Chinese art form that goes back over 1500 years. The modern woodblock movement gave it a new lease of life and made it the Art of the Revolution. Inside the many plan chests in our tidy Putney office, lies the whole revolution and social history of 20th century China.”

The exhibition leads viewers on a journey of artistic discovery, inviting them to consider some fundamental issues of Chinese culture in the 20th and 21st centuries: nationalism and westernisation, tradition and modernisation, contin­­­uity and innovation. Curator Mary Ginsberg explains, “These tensions were apparent through all the periods and styles covered by the exhibition, whether the artists created prescribed propaganda or works of personal expression.”

Included in the exhibition, and for the first time ever being shown in the UK, are eight prints and some blocks from a portfolio of 18 contemporary Chinese prints, commissioned by the MET from some of China’s most accomplished young printmakers today. These prints represent a milestone in the modern revival of the relief print in China and in the development of the nation’s contemporary printmaking practice.

Revolution, Propaganda, Art: Printmaking in Modern China is at the Museum of East Asian Art until 3 June 2023;

The exhibition has four sections:
• Portraits and Stories: showcases a series of woodcut print portraits of Lu Xun (1881–1936), a popular subject with Chinese printmakers. The leading figure of modern Chinese literature, he was also responsible for reviving the art of woodblock printing and turning it into a weapon for social change and national resistance.
• Generations: showcase works by leading printmakers, showing the transformation of their styles with the times.
• New China: presents a summary of the styles and subject matter of Chinese printmaking since 1949, with themes of patriotism, personal expression, and revisiting history and traditional culture.
• Techniques and Regeneration: examines the evolution of major printmaking techniques associated with Lu Xun, as well as other popular techniques in China today. Also showcases the broad scope of Chinese printmaking, demonstrating the range and depth of technical and creative innovation in this field by young Chinese artists today.

Featured image: Liao Youkai (b.1932), Evening of the Festival Day, 1972. Image © Liao Youkai