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Contemporary Chinese Woodblock Prints: Cutting Edges in Black and White

June 12, 2015–September 20, 2015
Gallery 134

Today’s most dynamic Chinese printmakers are using their nation’s time-honored graphic medium to create truly contemporary art. These artists have inherited an impressive cultural legacy: China is renowned for the invention of paper as well as for the earliest developments of printing and woodcut illustration. The works displayed here combine traditional and innovative techniques of woodblock cutting and printing and bring fresh vision to both enduring and current themes. 

In the 1920s and 1930s the leftist writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) kindled the Modern Woodcut Movement by galvanizing printmakers to create compelling images that would inspire social and cultural reforms. Receptive artists embraced German Expressionism and other avant-garde Western styles, heightening the visual intensity of their subjects in strong black-and-white compositions. Subsequent decades of revolutionary upheaval and isolationism, however, constrained print artists to patriotic subjects or auspicious images of popular folk art. By the late 1960s and 1970s, most such works were designed for posters and customarily executed in bright colors. 

Not until the 1990s were artists again free to formulate original subjects and styles. The works displayed here are representative of the revival of black-and-white imagery, occasionally softened with shades of gray. Juxtaposed here are realistic images, dramatic figural compositions that evoke societal tensions, and landscapes that appear delicately lyrical or creatively stylized. The subtlest and most inventive images combine motifs drawn from China’s rich intellectual heritage in new and unexpected ways.

Xu Bing. My New Book, 1998. Margaret Gentles Fund.