Learning from the west: The New Chinese Woodcut Movement, revolutionizing art as a voice of the people
At the turn of the twentieth century, voices supporting modernization were on the rise. Politically, although the Xinhai Revolution replaced the Qing monarchy, there was still no real democratic rule established. People still didn’t have a voice and they were by no means free or having an improvement in life. Externally, China was under constant threat and aggressiveness of Japanese imperialism and internally, China’s political condition is extremely unstable as it’s under absolute rule by ruthless warlords who fight with each other all the time. As an attempt of self-salvation, Chinese intellectuals and artists started the New Cultural Movement and various art reforms. Lu Xun started the New Chinese Woodcut Movement and looked into western art forms as models and inspirations as an attempt to save their culturally-deteriorated country, revive their weakened tradition and send modernization messages to the masses. This essay will focus on the woodcut print, “To The Front!”by Hu Yichuan, which is a part of the New Chinese Woodcut Movement and is a good example to illustrate the impact of the import of western prints technique and styles on Chinese woodcuts during the 1930 and how the production and purpose of art had been revolutionalized and publicized.
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At the time of chaos, Lu Xun and his colleagues saw the potentials of woodblock printing became a tool of enlightenment. Woodblock printing is by natural a low-cost art with high availability as the tools: knife, paper, ink and a piece of wood are materials that could be found almost anywhere. Moreover, it did not require machines or any mechanical processes that were only available in large cities and were most suitable for revolutionaries hiding from the authorities. Also of great importance, its ability to reproduce millions of copies was exactly what was needed for spreading quick and powerful revolutionary and modernization messages to the public, including those who were illiterate. The “New”, “Creative” Chinese Woodcut Movement got its name by its differentiation from the duplicating woodblock of traditional production by adopting western techniques and styles in woodblock printing.
In order to send a powerful message and distinguish themselves from traditional woodcut prints (Figure 1 &2) which appeared in Buddhist devotional arts, nianhuas and folk tales, young artists from the New Woodcut Movement learnt from western woodcut artists that they should work in the form of an individual artist and the artist should convey their “ideas and attitudes find expression not only when he produces the original design but also in different types of marks he makes with his knife and chisel when he carves the block” in contrast to the production of traditional print where engraving and printing were separate processes performed by different people and the creators of traditional prints were viewed as artisans, not artists.”.
In “To The Front!”(Figure 3) a woodcut of 1932, Hu made this woodcut to persuade his nation to fight against the Japanese. At the time, China was struggling under Japanese aggressions that started with the Manchurian Incident in 1931. Drawing on the emotional intensity and style of German Expressionist art, he produced a powerful image using the stark contrast of black and white and strong angular lines to depict realistic people under hardship. The main figure dominates almost ¾ of the picture. His size added with his outstretch hands make him very powerful. His existence was depicted with broad slashes, which echoes the artist’s urgency in uniting the masses and fight against the Japanese. The mask-like figures in the background convey the power of the masses. This image was a call to a different life. During that period of time, artists only made woodcuts on people either going to the field or suffering hardship. They never use utopia images to persuade the people to fight as they were looking for powerful, dramatic images that could immediately bring out the urgency of needing to fight back.
By learning the styles of leftist western woodcut artists and using powerful and realistic imageries to deliver messages to the masses and focusing on social ills of their time, young artists including Hu, see themselves as part of an international leftist arm community. And in “To the Front!”, we can see a big influence of Kathe Kollwitz’s work, a woodcut artist from the German Expressionalism. Instead of finding beauty in physical attractiveness, what Kollwitz tried to reflect through the illustration in the human body is “the physical reflection of the labors, the efforts, the cares and concerns, the loves, losses, and grief’s that made up the lives of real and ordinary people.” (Figure 4). It was from Kollwitz that artists realized the power of the physical actions of the human body. The strong, diagonal lines of the was echoing the main figure’s body and the movements of the peasants in “Outbreak”(Figure 5), The use of broad slashes and simplicity of the depiction of human figures is characteristic of the period and it was directly taken from the simplicity of human figure represented by Kollwitz in “Memorial to Karl Liebknecht”(Figure 6). In both “Memorial to Karl Liebknecht” and “To The Front!”, the artists used black to set the mood. In “Memorial to Karl Liebknecht”,the people were all bowing down to the dead body, conveying a sense of downward motion which signifies sadness and in “To the Front” The upward outstretch hand of the main figure and the diagonal walls at the back brings out the chaos that the Chinese people were facing at that time.
Although “To the Front!” had taken much cues from German expressionist artists, the construction of the print which consists of a full frontal, dominating stong man leading the revolt was an original idea. Compared with Li Hua’s “Arise!”(Figure 7) which had patterned the style and content from Kollwitz’s “Outbreak”, “To the Front!” bore more Chinese characteristics with the man wearing Chinese style clothing and looked Chinese. In “Arise!” The peasants and soldiers could be of any nationality and although it also had a strong message. “To the Front!” would be more associable to the Chinese people.
As O’Neil had stated in his book, it was ironic that Lu Xun and young artists like Hu Yichuan should turn first to European woodblock printing for inspiration on how to redevelop this ancient Chinese artistic and technological practice, which by that time, European artists had just started to make them an art form from its own right. It was more ironic in the sense that Chinese traditional woodprints were once a tool for Chinese propaganda against the west in the 1860s.
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In the “Anti-Christian print” (Figure 8), we can see a very traditional woodcut which had flat figures with simple outlines. The power of the use of black was not recognized and it was simply a substitute for colour. In terms of the usage of lines, Hu had used strong diagonal lines and upward lines to convey the urgency while the artist who made the “Anti-Christian print” didn’t choose lines to convey a sense of motion. The construction of the two prints are also startling different. “To the Front!” was very dramatic, with a big figure dominating the painting while the construction of the “Anti-Christian print” was very simple and the people were drawn not in proportion. In terms of space, the dominating male acts as a leader walking in the front and the crowds which diminishes at the back persuasively suggests a depth of space. In the “Anti-Christian print”, the sense of space was very subtle and not persuasive as it was only signified by the diagonal lines of the table and that the little people were placed.
In terms of message, Hu’s woodcut could only be fully understood if viewers were aware of the context and history background of the time as the enemies of those people were not drawn. However, in the “Anti-Christian Print”, we know clearly who the enemy was as it was a rebus painting, “pig” meaning Jesus and “sheep” meaning westerners. The “pig” was hanged on the cross and shot with arrows and the sheep were tied to the ground and going to be killed. The westerners were depicted as bad and it seemed injustice to prosecute them. While Yu chose to used the black tone and the diagonal lines to represent the anger to the foreigners and urgency to fight back. He was trying to arouse their eagerness to fight by powerful images but not direct attack on the enemy. In other words, “Anti-Christian Print” was a message from the court transcended to the mass, feeding them hatred to the west, rather than appealing to their situation and suffering because of the enemies like Hu did and provoke their power to fight back from that. Besides the great difference in style, content and the way to arouse public consciousness that are evident, the most striking difference between “To the Front!” and “Anti-Christian Print” signifies the groundbreaking element in the New Chinese Woodcut Movement, revolutionizing art as a voice of the people.
Traditionally, woodcut prints had not only been used for propaganda but also a tool for enlightenment and raising awareness. However, the traditional ways were using idealized examples to praise Confucius, governement approved virtues and feeding ideas of rigidity of social order in the form of illusionistic peace and happiness. For example, “Five Sons Successful in Examinations”(Figure 9) is propaganda for the old-fashioned and stubborn Chinese examinations. The artist twisted the idea and chose to focus on the glory of having five sons being successful in examinations. This way, people would tend to forget the rigidity of the examinations. The depiction of the characters in this image is highly unrealistic and the decorative, colourful imagery is in great contrast to Hu’s woodcuts. These people were very happy and like in tradition of Chinese nianhuas and no hardships or sufferings can be seen on their faces. The rigidity, the great time required to learn for the exam and the corruptness were never mentioned. The reason why Lu Xun and the artists of the New Chinese Woodblock Movement were called revolutionary was that they depicted social sufferings as it was and added an addition of critical consciousness to these “educational art”.
As mentioned above, there seemed to be much irony as these young artists should lean from the west which were less experienced in woodcuts and were their enemies. However, it was precisely because they had been bullying and easily defeated them for so many times since the 1840s that open-minded Chinese intellectuals such as Lu Xun realized that in order to revive their dying country, the only way was to learn from the enemy and modernize. One way to do it was the redevelopment of woodprints and it proved to be successful. Though the masses might held hesitation in fully accepting these very foreign style of woodcuts, the messages that these prints sent were bright and clear. These woodprint artists were the first ones to represent the “real” people in these mass production prints. Across the country, a large number of woodcut societies united individual artists and formed important organizations that supported the production of exhibitions, publication and manifestos. They found their voice and the emotions aroused from being bullied by warlords and foreigners that they learnt to express through art signified dignity among the Chinese people and ignited the fire in the heart of Chinese people to fight against evil powers together as a nation.
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