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Printmaking in China (from Printmaking Today Vol 5 No1)

The cradle of screenprinting

Remembering the screenprinting workshop of the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Arts Printmaking Department by Li Shu Sheng translated by David Barker

This article by Li Shu Sheng first appeared in Chinese Printmaking, issue no. 5, June 1994, p~. 3-4.
It not only records a significant time in the development of printmaking in China, including the background to the making of China 's first screenprint but has much to say that will seem familiar to those of us who worked through the period of the change over to water-soluble materials in screenprinting.

Contemporary printmaking in China started in the 1930s, but due to the restrictive conditions of the time, priority was given to the woodcut. The Fine Art Department of Lu Xun 1 Academy of Fine Arts in the Yan An 2 of the war period more or less became a department of woodcut printing. It is clear that not only did printmaking give priority to the woodcut but, as a consequence of the lack of progress in the con-ditions for the many other kinds of artists at the time, every-body who came to work there made woodcuts.

After the founding of New China 3, the situation changed out of all proportion. Oil painting, traditional Chinese painting, watercolour painting and gouache painting all under-went massive developments. Not only was printing established in the academies as a specialist area of study but, as well as woodcut printing workshops, lithography and intaglio workshops were starting to be set up. The fundamental tech-niques of making prints are Western in form: planographic printing, intaglio printing, relief printing and stencil printing. Lithography belongs to planographic printing, etching belongs to intaglio printing, and the woodcut belongs to relief printing; only stencil printing remained for a long time without a proper category. In the period 1979-1980 the elderly printmaker Li Hua, then responsible for the teaching of the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Arts 4 Printmaking Department's research students, invited his fellow townsman Zheng Ke from the Chinese Central Arts and Crafts Institute to teach the research class.

Zheng Ke had studied in France during the 1930s; after returning to China he took up a teaching post at Guang Zhou 5 City Art School, becoming a colleague of Li Hua. At that time Li Hua was organising exhibitions of contemporary prints, and publishing about 18 issues of the magazine ‘Contemporary Prints.’

The majority of the organisation and design of these 18 issues became the responsibility of Zheng Ke. Almost 40 years later, the two elderly professors came together again to teach. On this occasion Zheng Ke, at the same time as he was teaching drawing to the printmaking research students, was bringing in books dealing with the making of screenprints and introduced the particular qualities and working methods of screenprinting.

This was the start of the introduction of screenprinting into the Central Academy.

Guang Jun, while a research student in the Printmaking Department, became interested in screenprinting and in 1979 he began to experiment with screenprinting at home, frequently making enquiries at printing and dyeing mills, asking for advice from printers of garments, skilled crafts-men in workshops making coloured flags and making his own comparatively simple screenprints. During this time he was submitting research reports to Li Hua. In 1980, among the pieces of work submitted for his post-graduate degree, Guang Jun included his experimental screenprint ‘Hello to Autumn’; this work was China's first screenprint.

In April 1981, Li Hua, Hu Yi Quan and Li Xi Qin formed themselves into a Fine Art delegation to visit the United-Kingdom. The visitors observed and studied Fine Art educa-tion in the UK, giving Li Hua the determination to establish a screenprinting workshop and begin an energetic promotion of its use, tasks he set about immediately on his return. He instructed Zhang Gui Lin to raise money to buy equipment and to go around every screenprinting factory in the Bei Jing, printing technology institute to ask for advice and gain some practical experience. At the same time, the Central Academy graduate Zhao Rui Chun was to be temporarily transferred to Bei Jing to be given joint responsibility for the creation of the new workshop.

In 1981, Li Hua and other like-minded senior print- makers initiated the holding of the first national Three Printmaking Techniques Exhibition of etchings, lithographs and screenprints, in the exhibition hall of the Central Academy. The exhibition was organised jointly by the Central Academy, Guang Zhou Academy of Fine Arts and the Zhe Jiang Academy of Fine Arts 6. It contained 268 works of which 117 were etchings, 95 were lithographs, yet only 28 were screenprints.

After the Three Printmaking Techniques Exhibition had been shown in Bei Jing, various institutions around the country looked to Bei Jing 7 to convene informal meetings and discussion groups, following which the exhibition toured to Zhe Jiang, Guang Dong, Si Chuan, Ji Lin 8 and other places. The exhibition was of tremendous value in giving impetus to the development of different types of printmaking, particularly to the flourishing medium of screenprinting. Since 1981 when Li Hua had formally proposed that a screenprinting workshop be established, three years had passed in making preparations and in the work of preparing the teaching programme; it was not until late 1983 that screenprinting began to have an increasing role in undergraduate classes. Zhang Jun was among the earliest students to attempt to adopt the qualities of screenprinting: he had completed his under- graduate work in 1982, work that was all in the new medium. In May 1983, as a way of opening up screenprinting , Shan Dong 9 Museum of Fine Art conducted a study class, attended by 30 persons and invited Guang Jun and Zhang Gui Lin, lecturers at the Central Academy, to come to Shan Dong to lecture.

On the 27 October 1984, as well as the second Three Printmaking Techniques Exhibition opening in Hang Zhou 10, the Three Printmaking Techniques Research Group was formed. As part of its initiatives in every area of activity, the Printmaking Department of the Central Academy formally established the screenprinting workshop in 1985. Now screenprinting and woodcut printing, lithography, etching and illustration could stand side by side in the five work-shops; this was the beginning of the teaching of screenprint-ing as a specialist subject in fine art institutions nation-wide. In order that the craft of screenprinting might be popularised and its creative use might flourish, from 1986 onwards -the Central Academy started to train the teaching staff of various fraternal institutions. Printmakers from He Bei, Si Chuan, Tian Jin, Guang Dong, Ji Lin, Shaan Xi 11 and so on, came to the Central Academy for advanced studies. The workshop teachers made use of the holiday periods to go to Shan Dong and Ning Xia 12 to hold classes, to lecture; going deep into the countryside to give impetus to the development and use of screenprinting across the nation. Yet everything provides its own headaches. The generation of screenprint artists who established the first screenprinting workshop also created exquisite screenprints.

‘Beloved’ by Zhao Rui Chun, ‘The war horse hesitates’ and ‘A drawing of picking lotus flowers’ by Guang Jun, ‘Morning light’ and ‘Ancient China’ a set of ten works by Zhang Gui Lin, ‘A dozen New Year cakes’ and ‘Dancing lions’ by Zhang Jun, were all in the footprints of the pioneers. Another of the myriad aspects is the sacrifices they all made, paying an extremely high price. It has come to be said just how disgusting, crude and simple the working conditions in this first screenprinting workshop were: one that was both without skylights or ventilation equipment, with a water supply that was barely adequate for a 12 square metre workshop and where the smell of all kinds of volatile materials made it difficult for people to breathe. The air pollution and the pollution of the running water eventually caused a large tree growing in front of the work-shop to die.

Already subjected to a Department that paid scant atten-tion to warnings of bad maintenance and monitoring, and a work load that often caused classes to be suspended, the teachers were brought close to the point of sealing the doors. The lack of realisation of the seriousness of the toxic and pollutive nature of the materials used in making screenprints together with their love of the cause of printmaking allowed these printmakers to disregard the awfulness of their envi-ronment. They were still not in the least bit negative in the workshop, working around the clock and, in spite of the poisonous pollution, able to solve a great many technical problems. Finally tempered by their difficulties, they were to emerge with their own individual styles. The value of their indomitable struggle and selfless dedication to the pioneer-ing spirit is beyond praise. Still the knowledge of contem-porary scientific techniques was inadequate and the lack of awareness of the toxic nature of the materials had to be overcome. This was also a valuable lesson to bear in mind. These aspects of the situation are hard to imagine when one is admiring the beauty of screenprints.

During the course of the workshop's continuing striving for improvement, Guang Jun went to France in 1987 to study the Fine Arts. When he returned home he brought with him complete information of the organisation of foreign work-shops to provide the Academy's Printmaking Department Screenprinting Workshop with a basis for consultation. It was only in 1988 that the workshop expanded the work area. Thanks to the progress of printing technology in China it was already possible to manufacture a non-toxic diazo photosensitive emulsion; this gave a new impetus to the development of printmaking in the country and satisfied the workshop's increasing measures to exclude pollutants. During the making of prints, experiments started with non-poisonous and non-pollutant materials actively to improve the work-shop conditions.

Screenprinting has accomplished the making of a new kind of picture; there are important reasons for these devel-opments. The first is its suitability for contemporary needs: screenprinting techniques reflect the contemporary development of scientific techniques. They allow the use of photography, photo-sensitive materials, photocopies of real objects, many kinds of cut stencil techniques; one can also achieve meticulous and authentic effects in pictures by artifi-cial means that one could not possibly draw, satisfying the people's new demand to appreciate beautiful things. Screenprinting is also able to make use of the possibilities of print-ing of colour fades, gradual changes, overlappings etc., many of the ways of making beautiful prints and attaining fascinat-ing artistic charm. Screenprinting is also capable of a range of sizes and of being printed on materials of different quali-ties, it is able to utilise many kinds of material and is also able to adapt to different kinds of textures, thereby expanding the medium of printing.

The second reason is that in accomplishing the art of the screenprint, the printmakers in the Academy's screenprint-ing workshop grasped the true spirit of work, much to the credit of individuals. Since being able to control screenprint-ing techniques, they had simultaneously solved the big problem of a 'Chinese' quality for screenprints. They were not copying or imitating styles from abroad; on the contrary they dedicatedly created a Chinese style of art that a Chinese audi-ence loved to see, a Chinese way of seeing things. The printmakers drew nourishment from the deep emotion and artistic expression within Chinese traditional painting, choosing rural themes, using life as their starting point. ‘King of the clocks’ and Spirit Road’ by Zhang Gui Lin, ‘Bei Jing’ by Zhou Ji Rong, all silently transmit the profound feelings of the nation. Guang Jun has undertaken a long search for the interest and charm of the scholars13 paintings; their use of gorgeous, lucid and lively colour, succinct descriptive models from a multitude of artistic forms call for deep thought. The consequence of their hard work was that this new art form very quickly came to stand like a giant in China's art and liter-ary circles, taking root in the fertile field that is the life of the nation.

  • Translator's notes:

  • 1. Named after the famous writer Lu Xun, who, with his friend Uchiyama Kanzo, pioneered a revival of interest in the woodcut in China in the early 1930s. The Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts was relocated to the city of Shen Yang after 1949. --- Return

  • 2. Yan An, a town in northern Shaan Xi province became the seat of the Chinese communists' provisional government after the Long March in 1934. --- Return

  • 3. On 1 October 1949. --- Return

  • 4. Hereafter referred to as the Central Academy. --- Return

  • 5. More commonly known in Europe as Canton. --- Return

  • 6. Recently re-named 'The China National Academy of Fine Arts'. --- Return

  • 7. i.e. the Central Academy. --- Return

  • 8. Provinces in China. --- Return

  • 9. i.e. Shan Dong province on China's eastern seaboard. ---Return

  • 10. The major city in Zhe Jiang province. --- Return

  • 11. Provinces and cities in China. --- Return

  • 12. A province in northern China bordering Inner Mongolia. --- Return

  • 13. 'scholars' paintings' refer in a general way to paintings of the Ming and Qing dynasties, 1368- 1912. --- Return

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