17.11.2020 in Art

What is Woodcut?


For centuries, woodcuts have greatly contributed to Chinese folk cultures and prints. Woodcuts possess a long history in China, dating back to the Tang Dynasty. In fact, inventions of woodblock printing are among the most significant innovations made by the Tang and the Song. The movable type of the woodblock prints enables widespread publishing of texts as well as aiding in the dissemination of literacy and knowledge. Woodblock printing might have been inspired by the older use of stone and bronze seals to make impressions on silk and clay. At the end of the Tang dynasty, the process of woodblock printing on paper was brought to perfection. Once the woodblock printing became rampant, it stimulated the development of the paper industry which was more sophisticated. Different sizes of papers were used for different purposes. At its initial stages, woodblock printing was limited to uses such as printing books on medicine and agriculture. Additionally, it was also used to print charms, calendars, and calligraphy. However, significant developments were witnessed and soon commercialization of the printed books. Lu Xun played an important role in reshaping the old form of woodblock prints to its modern form and he remains an important icon in the reshaping of woodcut art and growth of the Modern Woodcut Movement.

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The Woodblock Printing Technique

Woodblock printing is a technique used to print texts, patterns or images and is currently being used throughout East Asia and in some other parts of the world such as Europe. The technique was originated in China. Until the 19th century, woodblock printing stood as the most common method used in East Asia to print images, texts, and books. When creating woodblock prints, the wood block is first prepared as a relied pattern. This means that the areas on the wood that show white are usually cut with a chisel, sandpaper or a knife. It leaves image or characters to show in black.’ If color printing is intended, multiple blocks are used, where each block has one color. The wood used for printing came mainly from pear or date trees. The texts to be printed on the woodblock were first written on a piece of paper. The paper was then glued on the woodblock. This would be done when the paper is facing face down. The characters were then carefully engraved on the wood. The surface of the woodblock would then be inked and later on covered with a piece of paper. When the paper was gently brushed over the engraved characters, prints were left on the wood.

Lu Xun and the Development of the Modern Woodcut Movement

Lu Xun is considered as the greatest modern Chinese writer in the 20th century. He is considered as being the commander and the pillar behind the Cultural Revolution in China. Many other artists who propagated social criticisms through fictional works during the 1920s to the 1930s have either been criticized or even partially discredited (Columbia University). However, the reputation Lu Xun has stood throughout the years. Lu Xuns achievement of preeminence can be attributed to many factors. One is this reason might have been the fact that he died relatively early during the communist movement, hence giving him no enough chance of being criticized. However, his sophistication in his writing style is a significant factor in the success achieved by Lu Xun. He was authoritative and brave in his art work, giving him a special place in the hearts of the Chinese people. His sophisticated in writing style lends itself to some various interpretations. Lu Xun is best known for the short stories that he wrote.

During the 1920s and the 1930s, Chinese writers and artists were greatly distressed by the political as well as the social disasters that had befallen their beloved country. Some of these writers put their faith in ideological movements as well as concentrating on writing propaganda prices which advocated for both social and political revolution. However, most of the doctrines of the Chinese art and literature works which were revolutionary in nature were hardly literary. In essence, they were more concerned with offering a political solution to the problems which were witnessed in China rather than concentrating on lifelike characters, deep insight of the human nature of the realistic situations. Other Chinese writers did not know the right and certain solutions to propose to the then problems. As a result, these writers ended up using their fiction instead of sensitively describing the current plight of the people of China.

However, Lu Xun did not adopt any of these options. In the early years of the 1920s, Lu Xun did not feel total optimism that social change would radically occur in China. Similarly, he did not project situations in his fiction. Further, Lu Xun did not just offer descriptions of the suffering that the Chinese people were passing through. However, he used exaggerated characters and vivid analogies to present his vision of the Chinese society. The darkness and intensity make the story of Lu Xun a disturbing and a moving experience. Through this, Lu Xun led to the rise of the modern woodcut movement.

By the start of the 1930s, most of the Chinese arts were caught up in the midst of Chinese politics. Woodblocks were straightforward arts in the current of Chinese politics at this particular time. The Modern Woodcut Movement which was witnessed in 1930s and 1940s was begun by Lu Xun, a writer and a scholar. For a long period now, the Chinese had used woodblock prints for different reasons. Significantly, the technique was used by the Chinese in the mass production of Buddhist devotional arts. Therefore, the Chinese would use the technique to pass important devotional information. Similarly, woodblock prints were also used to illustrate popular books as well as creating some sophisticated landscape. This was done in the traditional way.

It was during the 1930s when the woodblock art was reshaped. Lu Xun passionately promoted the art during this particular age. This led to him being referred as the founder of the Modern Woodcut Movement. Although the initial purpose of reshaping the art was to be used for political purposes, the art has gained a lot of popularity, and as such, it is used for many purposes today. The Creative Print Movement saw the creation of some arts which would later inspire the Chinese. For instance, the Roar China print was perhaps one of the most famous and significant early prints which came from the Creative Print Movement. This would serve as an inspiration to the people of China in facing the increasing Japanese aggression. In this particular print, a Chinese giant is depicted, blindfolded and bound, heavily roaring as he finds a knife to free himself. This portrays the Chinese people as powerful people who can help themselves out from the Japanese aggression. After the Japanese protests in 1919, Japan was viewed a major threat to the sovereignty of China. By 1930s, a puppet state was set up by Japan after it had taken over significant parts of Manchuria. In 1932, Shanghai was attached directly by the Japanese, an attack which acted as retaliation to the anti-Japanese protests witnessed earlier on. The anger of the Japanese aggression played an important role in heightening the nationalism of the Chinese people.

The boldness, as well as the simplicity of the print depicting China as a roaring lion, was a feature that would lead to the reshaping and revival of woodblock prints. The arts done by Lu Xun were of great inspiration to the Creative Print Movement. He had portrayed woodcut art as a major platform through which the Chinese people would be liberalized. These prints contained clear and touching nationalistic messages. Additionally, the woodblocks also portrayed other themes such as social protests. The woodcuts made in this period harnessed the efforts of young Chinese patriots who stood up to call for resistance to the invaders. Further, the young artists boldly criticized the national government for its failure to take a stern action against those who were invading their country. In 1937, the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war played an important role in reshaping the woodblock prints. Significantly, the woodblock prints joined the two major themes of this time; social protests and patriotism, which were boldly supported by Lu Xun. This rapidly increased the popularity of the art. As at this particular time, most of the woodblocks made were in black and white, dark and somber. These colors were symbolic of the suffering as well as the despair experienced by the Chinese people.

Although Lu Xun was initially trained as a medical doctor, he came to strongly believe that the plight of the Chinese people could only be improved through widespread dissemination of literature and art that was socially aware. The artists who remained in the cities which were controlled by the national government specialized in caustic social as well as political themes in their arts. However, the other artists went to the Liberal areas, which were located in the north. The work of these artists was actively patronized and encouraged by the communist party, which occupied the northern areas. Essentially, the main themes for these artists focused on revolutionary social as well as political changes that were taking place in the areas controlled by the communist party. Gu Yuan emerged as a famous artist during this time. For instance, one of his famous arts was the art that portrayed tenants asking for a rent reduction from their landlord. Ideally, the aim of this was to depict how people were rising to fight oppression. Social change was also a major theme portrayed in the art. Many other woodblock artworks were done and which depicted the political as well as the social evolution experienced in China at this particular time. Some of the arts even depicted the support for the Communist Red Army. This served as an awakening for the Chinese people to fight for their interests. Essentially, the people had felt that the nationalist government had failed in protecting them. Inspired by Lu Xun, there were some artists who were already travelling throughout the entre country distributing woodcut prints which contained ideological messages by 1940s.

After the Peoples Republic of China was formed in 1949, woodcuts still continued to be among the most favorite forms. After the communists came to power, the wood prints tended to be much positive and portrayed optimism of the people. Particularly, most of these prints portrayed accomplishments witnessed under the leadership of the communist parties. Although Lu Xun was neither an official nor an active member of the Communist party, his focus on the exploitation of the working class and peasants tended to fit well with the message of revolution that was advanced by the Communists. Ideally, the people felt that their efforts had paid off and it was now time to celebrate the work of their hands. Peasants, as well as workers, were highly glorified. This was coupled with a celebration of liberation. Through ought the 1950s as well as the early 1960s, woodblock prints remained political. However, they now started to incorporate some social aspects. Such prints illustrated the kind of accomplishments that had been witnessed under the socialists constructions as well as bringing new order in China. The artists who were influenced and inspired by Lu Xun shifted their focus to concentrate mainly on the inequities which were suffered by the lower classes in the society. The new form of world cuts tended to abandon the white and black color which was initially used to portray somber, pain and suffering of the Chinese people. As a result, the prints now were more generous in color, a fact which saw the rise in the use of colored woodblock prints. Further, more pleasant domestic scenes started to appear. However, these scenes were still charged with some political message.

As portrayed by the above insights, woodcuts as a medium of art underwent significant renaissance during the 20th century. The reshaping of woodcut art by Lu Xun redirected the subject matter, making woodcut to be considered as a western and a modern thing although the art of woodblock printing traces its origin in China as discussed earlier. This drastic Renaissance introduced realistic as well as expressionist techniques into the traditional folks about the Chinese. In an attempt to forge a new identity of the Chinese people, the woodcuts sought to communicate the political as well as the social status of the Chinese people. The modern Chinese woodcuts offer a record to the revolutionary causes that significantly changed the Chinese culture, politics and the society at large. The modern woodcut movements view China as being a country that had undergone numerous profound reforms other than revolutionarily reforms. Further, the artifacts view China as a country that has a renewed sense of pride in its culture.

After the death of Lu Xun, Lu Xun academy of art was set up. This would play an important role in instructing the modern artists of propaganda, most of who were influenced by Lu Xun. The modern woodcut movement that started at around 1930s introduced a bold expression of early zeal for both social and political revolution among the people of China. However, the woodcuts which were used in the mid of the 20th century tended to return and focus more o the traditional artistic folks. This was mainly used by the communist party in its bid to propagate its politics majorly among the illiterate Chinese citizens throughout the country. This can be therefore viewed from the perspectives of two legacies; the critical realist and the social realist. Although the two realist legacies can be viewed as propagating different agendas and having quite a different audience, they both played an important role in reinventing the technique of woodcut prints. Ideally, the legacies have greatly informed new as well as innovative expressions of woodblock prints which have been witnessed in the later years of the 20th century and early 21st century. The modern woodcuts movements have returned to pursue the critical aesthetic which was Avant Garde in nature. The modern woodcuts grapple with a different China.


Having a long history in China, wood cuts have a greatly contributed to Chinese folk cultures and prints. Inventions of woodblock printing are among the most significant innovations made by the Tang and the Song. Woodblock printing is a technique used to print texts, patterns or images and is currently being used throughout East Asia and in some other parts of the world such as Europe. It was during the 1930s when the woodblock art was reshaped and Lu Xun remains an icon for the rise of the new woodcut movement. At this time, most of the Chinese arts were caught up in the midst of Chinese politics. Significantly, the Creative Print Movement which was supported by Lu Xun played an important role in reshaping the old form of woodblock prints to its modern form. Lu Xun is therefore viewed as an important icon in the modern woodcut movement.

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