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Rare Chinese Woodblock Prints on Display at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Hu Zhengyan, Chinese, ca. 1582-1672. Three Oranges on Knotted Stand, ca. 1633. Woodblock print in ink and color on paper, removed from bound volume of The Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting. Gift of Laurence Sickman.

KANSAS CITY, MO.- Visitors to the Chinese painting galleries at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will see rarely viewed 17th-century Chinese woodblock prints that are the world’s earliest true color prints. Cultivating Nature: Printmaking for Painting in 17th Century China, which runs through Feb. 6, features two albums made from color woodblock prints using a technique that involved multiple woodblock printing in multiple steps.

The albums were created to serve as manuals, giving instruction in how to create Chinese paintings using brush and ink. The pages in the albums are superb works of art in their own right.

Ling-en Lu, assistant curator of Chinese art and curator of the exhibition, first researched the prints and explored the artistic achievement for a paper to the 2007 Southern Graphics Council Conference in Kansas City. Later visits by scholars to view the Museum’s Asian print collection deepened her interest.

“Art historians consider these books to be the finest color prints ever in China,” said Lu. “There has been a great deal of research about the quality and technique of Japanese prints, but very little study about these Chinese prints.”
One reason may be the rarity of the objects.

Less than a handful of The Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting, ca 1633, are in existence, and the Nelson-Atkins is the only site outside the National Library in Beijing to have all 16 volumes. The Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual (1679-1701) is also rare, and the Museum is one of the few owners of all 15 volumes that comprise the album.

Lu and Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of Chinese art, selected four volumes plus a later reprint from the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual and 25 pictorial prints. They chose 12 volumes from the Mustard Seed Garden. Also in the exhibition are Chinese paintings from the Museum’s collection, illustrating the artistic milieu in 17th-century China and giving examples of Chinese urban culture of the time, which was dominated by literati artists.

“One of the things that opened my eyes was that the prints have their own qualities,” Mackenzie said. “They are not just a poor man’s version of a painting. They are wonderful and arresting works of art in their own right.”

The exhibition is unusual in that it not only shows the actual albums, but also displays individual sheets from albums that were deconstructed. The Ten Bamboo Studio Manual was given to the Museum in 1974 by the director at that time, Laurence Sickman, a specialist in Chinese art. Some pages from the volumes were taken out of the manuals so they could be displayed and appreciated as single sheets.

The manuals give instruction on how to paint common elements found in Chinese paintings: garden rocks, fruit, bamboo, grass, flower blossoms, birds. For example, the lesson on birds shows how to first paint the beak, then the head, body, wing feathers and lastly the feet attached to a branch.

The manuals provide scholars not only with information on how a painting was created at the time, but also show woodblock examples. Those are works of art in themselves and are much different from Chinese painting.

“The real revelation is that the prints hold up against paintings. They are a different art form. They’re not inferior. They have their own qualities: transparency of color and tonality and shading, a delicacy and understatement,” Lu said.

The nature of the woodblock medium placed restrictions on the artist, but, MacKenzie points out, challenged the artist with successful results. “You couldn’t do too much with a woodblock,” he said. “With a brush painting, you never knew where to stop and literally that’s the case in Chinese brush painting. But with these prints there is a sense of ‘this is enough.’”

It also leads to greater attention to overall composition.

The manuals made their way to Japan where they were re-published, and the Japanese became respected and admired for the compositions and color gradations of their woodblock prints.

The Chinese technique for making the prints is known as douban. However, Lu said, the details of the technique, as to how many blocks in a print and the specific skills of the printmakers, remain unclear. Lu hopes the exhibition will prompt additional research.

Among the Chinese paintings featured are the noted artists:

• Yun Shouping, Chinese, 1633-1690. Ink Chrysanthemums (recto) Fisherman's Joy among Streams and Mountains (verso), 1690. Folding fan, ink on gold-speckled paper.

• Xiao Yuncong, Chinese, 1596-1673. Striking Peak, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk.

• Ma Quan, Chinese, active 1700-1750. Three Beauties of Sizzling Summer, 18th century. Hanging scroll, color on paper.

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