A new exhibition at the Zhejiang Art Museum is revealing the ancient art of woodblock printing. China invented woodblock printing more than 1,000 years ago and the exhibit showcases the origins, variation and revival of the old technique from the Buddhist sutras in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to the public art project in modern times.
The exhibition, presented in five parts, encompasses around 140 pieces of antiquity and contemporary artwork made by using woodblock printing techniques.
"Printmaking is a universal art language. And among all the techniques, woodblock printing is purely Chinese," said Ying Jinfei, curator of the show. "When it came to Japan it became Ukiyo-e, which greatly influenced the Western art world later on. That is exactly what we intend to do now with this exhibition."
The earliest woodblock printmaking as an art form is found in the frontispiece of Buddhist sutras. The Diamond Sutra, dated back to AD 868 was discovered in the Mogao Caves in the present Gansu Province in 1900. It is now part of a collection at the British Library.
The exhibition also puts together some rare antiquarian books, mostly from Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. A great many are private collections and have scarcely been exhibited in a public museum.
There are illustrations from a popular novel at that time, illustrations on a go manual, and also colored letter sheet manuals and painting manuals.
The early day woodblock printing was in black and white. When the multi-color printing technique called douban (饾版) appeared in the late Ming Dynasty, artisans used it to reproduce ink-wash paintings themed with flowers, birds, vegetation and fruit.
Prior to the invention of douban, people used multiple blocks to replicate colors on paper, which is a waste of materials and hard to ensure its precision. The douban technique however, allowed people to "print" multiple colors on paper using one block at the same time by cutting it into separate pieces, each corresponding to a small part in the painting. It represents the highest level of Chinese craftsmanship in ancient times.
"It's not a dull, mechanical reproduction of the original work. Douban printmaking can imitate the passion and style of a painter's brushwork. Sometimes even the painter himself could not identify if it was a remake or not," said Ying Tianqi, a contemporary printmaking artist whose works are also featured in the exhibition.
If the manuals of painting and calligraphy are typical of a literati's taste, douban used in the Chinese New Year pictures is much more a reflection of the folklore traditions.
The Chinese New Year pictures refer to colored woodblock prints that usually hang on walls or doors during the Lunar New Year festival. A lot of them feature certain gods or deities that are believed to cast out evil spirits and bring luck and prosperity to the family.