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The Printed Image in China, at the British Museum, review

Friday 21 May 2010

Langues :


The British Museum’s main exhibition of the moment, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, triumphantly reveals the vital role played by sketches and studies in the development of new ways of seeing and thinking in 15th-century Italy.

Many of the innovations it charts, such as the discovery of mathematically calculated perspective, or the meticulous scientific studies of Leonardo da Vinci, were only enabled by developments in technology that made paper cheaply available for the first time.

Without mass-manufactured paper, certain types of thought and experiment were simply impossible, and the same holds true for the spread of literacy and the rise of the readily available book: the new papermaking technology of the Renaissance also acted as a catalyst for the invention of printing, developed by Gutenberg in the mid-15th century.

A rather smaller, less heralded BM exhibition, which has just opened in its prints and drawings department, quietly sets such cultural achievements of western Europe in a global context.

The Printed Image in China from the Eighth to the 21st Centuries, a show drawn from the entire range of the museum’s collection of Chinese prints, serves as a reminder that mass-manufactured paper and, indeed, printmaking had been developed in Asia almost 1,000 years earlier.

It opens with what’s considered ’the earliest extant, dated woodblock print in the world’, the frontispiece to the so-called Diamond Sutra. Commissioned in 868, it is an image of startling intricacy that shows the Buddha, cross-legged and calmly impassive, sharing pearls of wisdom with a gnarled disciple who kneels before him in supplication, as all manner of fierce beasts and divine beings look on.

The scene is so rich in detail and so refined in technique that it evidently represents an already mature tradition of image-making, although just when the Chinese invented reproductive printing remains a matter for speculation.

The exhibition contains a number of more rudimentary woodblock-printed scrolls, recovered by Marc Aurel Stein from the Thousand Buddha Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, on his second Silk Road expedition in 1907.

Some of these, such as the myriad identical figures of a seated Medicine Buddha repeated over a scroll five and a half yards wide, were created as early as the end of the seventh century. A period later remembered in European history as the Dark Ages would be for ever associated, in China, with the spread of enlightenment.

The rise of Buddhism, which promoted the mass production of sacred texts and images to spread the faith, was a crucial driver in the development of the Chinese print. Depictions of Buddhist deities were created to aid prayer and encourage devotion.

Some of the most beautiful examples in the present show date from the Tang or early Five dynasties, such as the sinuous figure Avalokitesvara, who stands draped in robes in the centre of a lotus blossom.

The devotee who once owned this image of a statuesque Boddhisattva would have known every last line cut into the wood-printer’s block, from the figure’s detailed toenails to the little branch of willow, symbol of healing, held in its right hand. The caption down the side of the print includes the instruction: ’With pure heart, every morning, recite the Boddhisattva’s name a thousand times.’

From the earliest prints associated with Buddhism, the viewer is transported to the courtly and sophisticated world of Ming dynasty-China and beyond. Some of the most stunning images in the exhibition are a set of early 18th-century illustrations to the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual: closely observed, brilliantly realised depictions of lotus flowers with worm-eaten foliage, irises in full bloom, rocks furiously patterned with lichen.

Created using a sophisticated system of multiple printing, which gives them their rich palette of colours, they amount to a kind of garden preserved in portfolio form.

Such images, a Chinese equivalent to the botanical studies and still life paintings of the West, combine an intoxicating sense of nature’s profusion with a countervailing aesthetic of spareness and rigour.

This is particularly evident in studies of grasses, bamboo plants and leaves, where the use of the reserve or blank area of the print is so daring that it pushes the imagery – slight, subtle movements of leaf or shoot, wavering in space – almost to the point of abstraction.

From such sophisticated expressions of elite Chinese culture, the show switches suddenly into the world of the popular print, with a series of wonderfully fierce images of warriors whose function was to guard ordinary Chinese households against evil spirits.

Bring-in-Emoluments Military Door Guard is a blaringly multicoloured, prolifically bearded and axe-wielding example from the 18th century, but the tradition of such figures would continue well into the modern period: Door Guard Yuchi Gong is a suitably bulging-eyed, green-garbed guardian spirit from the early 20th century.

This dizzying kaleidoscope of the exhibition accelerates as it reaches the modern period, culminating in a room devoted to the stridently political work created by the artists of the so-called ’Modern Woodcut Movement’ in the early decades of the 20th century; the somewhat sinister effusions of Maoist orthodoxy created by China’s army of artistic equivalents to the Soviet Socialist Realists; and a scattergun smattering of work created in the past 20 years.

The Printed Image in China offers a broad overview of the BM’s extensive but little-known holdings – which amount to one of the largest and most comprehensive of such collections outside Asia.

Perhaps inevitably, it makes huge leaps through time and space, but overall this is an engaging and bewilderingly rich primer in the 1,400-year history of the Chinese print.

Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk

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