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Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement (review)

From: China Review International
Volume 16, Number 2, 2009
pp. 271-275 | 10.1353/cri.2009.0050

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

With this impeccably researched and beautifully illustrated volume, Xiaobing Tang has written the definitive account of a significant yet understudied topic within English-language scholarship on China: the modern woodcut movement that revolutionized Chinese art in the early 1930s. Tang traces its genesis and subsequent dissemination through the Nanjing decade (1927-1937), specifically, from the inauguration of Nanjing as the new Nationalist capital in 1928 to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937.

The first three chapters reconstruct the historical and institutional context of the early decades of the twentieth century, addressing the key artistic movements and personalities that populated the cultural-artistic field of modern China in the prewar era. Alongside visual artists such as Liu Haisu, Lin Fengmian, and Xu Beihong, the activities of prominent public intellectuals and writers such as Cai Yuanpei, Tian Han, Ouyang Yuqian, and Guo Moruo are also surveyed. One chief protagonist of Tang's engaging narrative is Lu Xun, who is widely acknowledged as the "spiritual patron of the woodcut movement" (p. 4). All three chapters begin with the year 1928, a crucial historical moment in which artistic production started to be institutionalized by the newly-established Nanjing government. They vividly flesh out the excitement, energy, intellectual diversity, and animated spirit of discussion of the time—especially in the commercialized and cosmopolitan environment of Shanghai.

Chapter 1 examines various proposals for art instruction on a national scale, in particular Cai Yuanpei's advocacy of "aesthetic education" (meiyu), and traces the emergence of a notion of "art movement" since the second half of the 1920s. Tang details the major debates of the period relating to the modernization of the Chinese visual arts and highlights the decisive role played by Chinese students in Japan and Europe in the introduction and dissemination of foreign styles and aesthetic concepts. The question of function or purpose of the artwork, which constitutes a central aspect of avant-garde theory, is repeatedly addressed in this and other chapters, and so are related notions of autonomy and "art for art" (the "ivory tower") as opposed to "art for life" (the "crossroads," p. 35). This moment was critical in the history of Chinese art, as new trends and schools emerged and cultural producers constantly redefined their historical mission and social role. The "meaningfulness and consequentiality of art" became persistent concerns (p. 3), and increasingly greater emphasis was laid on art's closeness to life praxis and on the artist's direct involvement in social reform. The woodcut movement, too, came to address questions of function and purpose, but their responses and approaches to contemporary events "would be critically different" (p. 4) from those of other promoters of aesthetic modernity and cultural reform. This difference, along with its anti-institutional disposition, political drive, and innovative visuality, became the key marker of distinction of the modern woodcut community as "a truly avant-garde movement" (p. 218).

Chapter 2 deals specifically with the literary field and its intersections with the visual arts. The intellectual journeys of Tian Han and Guo Moruo from Japan to China, their subsequent involvement with the Creation Society, and its shifting ideological orientations testify to the increasing appeal of left-wing political theories and artistic conceptions since the late 1920s. Emergent notions of proletarian and revolutionary art and literature, also shaped by Marxist movements in Japan, paved the way for the advent of the first generation of modern printmakers in the early 1930s.

Chapter 3 introduces Lu Xun's long-standing involvement with the visual arts field, his interest in modern Japanese and European prints, and his advocacy of the "creative woodcut" (chuangzuo muke) as a truly modern, vigorous, and revolutionary art form—a belief that would direct his unremitting patronage of this medium until his death in 1936. The key artists, exhibitions, and publications that contributed to the flourishing and expansion of the movement are comprehensively surveyed in chapters 4 and 5. The start of the first Shanghai war in January 1932 and the resulting escalation of anti-Japanese sentiments and cultural activities in Shanghai and across the country—documentaries, photo-reportages, cartoons, and other visual works—exerted substantial impact on the new generation of young printmakers. Tang...



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