“Constellation—Yunnan Printmaking Since 1978” is a comprehensive presentation of representative artworks from three generations of Yunnan print artists over the past forty years. These artworks are a great presentation of the creative environment of Yunnan printmaking, and a microcosm of the historical genealogy of heritage and development in Chinese printmaking.
Yunnan is located on China’s southwestern frontier. With its long history and vast territory, it is extraordinarily endowed in cultural resources, with the cultural landscape of twenty-six ethnic groups living in harmony and an astounding natural landscape providing an incredibly diverse tableau of art and culture marked by decentralization and tolerance. This unique cultural and geographic environment has nourished a uniquely Yunnanese artistic scene, which since the 1980s gave rise to wave after wave of modern art groups such as the Shen Society, the Yunnan School, Yunnan Print Art, and the Southwestern Art Research Group. This comprehensive exhibition and documentation of works across different periods reveals the great creative achievements in Yunnan print art, and will assist in research of its genealogical thread and creative shifts.
Printmaking was for a time a very avant-garde art form in China, and holds a unique place in the history of the New China. It advocated active intervention in social life and the expression of the profound changes taking place in society, with powerfully Socialist visual cultural traits. Early Yunnan modern print art was also influenced by the leftist cultural movement, and was an important part of China’s new woodcut movement. Yunnan’s first resistance-themed black and white woodcut appeared at the early date of 1935. After that, the Yunnan Daily arts and culture magazine Southern Wind published a large number of woodcut prints, and the creation of print art, mainly woodcuts, rapidly developed in the province. In the spring of 1939, the National Arts School moved to Anjiang Village, in Kunming’s Chenggong district. During its one year sojourn in Kunming, the school held multiple exhibitions, the second of which, Resistance Painting Exhibition, mainly focused on woodcut prints, and published a book of resistance-themed serial comics in woodcut. The arrival of the students of the National Arts School further promoted the development of the New Woodcut Movement in Yunnan.
For a time after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, local artists and military artists formed the main ranks of creators in Yunnan printmaking, who created a large number of print works depicting the lives and production of military personnel and civilians, reflecting a shift in the direction of print art in the new era. With the establishment of a printmaking degree focus at the Yunnan Arts University Fine Arts Department in the 1960s, the school began to engage in systematic training of talent in printmaking, and there emerged a number of well-trained print artists in Yunnan. Woodcut printing, both in black and white and color, seems to be the only creative approach in printmaking in this period. In the 1980s, various folk-based printmaking groups emerged, and the level of print creations saw a stable rise. By the mid to late 80s, Yunnan printmaking began to stand out in the national art scene, with works from Yunnan winning gold, silver and bronze medals at the National Fine Arts Exhibition and the National Print Art Exhibition, and the unique reduction woodcut printing method becoming a sensational phenomenon in regional art. Yunnan print art enjoyed a high level of recognition in the creative context of the time. Yunnan reduction color woodcut printing creatively developed the traditional reduction woodcut printing techniques, incorporating drafting, engraving and printing onto the same printing panel for a free and more direct creative process. This unique method thoroughly employed the language of painting, laying down a black or dark base color and then adding layers of increasingly bright colors, the layers of oil-based ink producing a unique surface texture and a final work with rich, thick colors and powerful carving language. Among the award-winning works during this period, more than half were created using the reduction woodcut technique, and embodied a powerful modern awareness and local sentimentality, thus establishing a unique visual language for Yunnan printmaking.
The “purification of the language of print art” became the shared consensus of printmaking in the 1990s. As printmaking grew as a department in the academies, the education system and education facilities grew increasingly comprehensive, expanding the mediums employed in printmaking. Works using copper engraving, lithography and silkscreen printing became more commonplace, breaking the monopoly of woodcut printmaking. After the year 2000, academy printmaking took the lead in scholarship and creation in the field, gradually forming a new vital force in Yunnan printmaking. This period saw the emergence of a new group of young printmakers whose works focused on creative concepts and self-expression. International exchanges in print art expanded the academic field of view for Yunnan print artists, bringing the scene from a state of monotony and isolation into one of multidimensionality and openness. The international artistic language of “printmaking” became an important medium for cultural exchange. The use of an entirely new stance for the intervention into socio-cultural practice on a “contemporary” and “regional” foundation became the calling card for contemporary Yunnan, with the values of openness and diversity driving the growth of tourism and culture in the province. At this time, print art was no longer just a creative technique or artistic language, as artists began to highlight its “educational function” and “medium properties.”
Modern printmaking, which began in the New Woodcut Movement of the 1930s, now has ninety years of history. Chinese print art gradually cast off the heavy burden of its revolutionary history, and turned from without to within, engaging in deep exploration of the self. The ancient artistic medium of printmaking has undertaken different missions during various periods of history. To this day, within the shifting creative context, the medium continues to move forward along the path of exploring its own value, and by innovating in its creative thinking, expanding the medium and materials, and making breakthroughs in expressive form, continuing to satisfy the ever-changing aesthetic experiences and spiritual needs of audiences. “Yunnan printmaking” stands as a specimen of the art form in China. After undergoing periods of inheritance and innovation, glory and anxiety, it eventually found stability, in which the vitality of its artistic language held strong regardless of political demands or the state of the market. As the times have continued to change, contemporary print art shines ever brighter.