New Emissary

Made in China

A new art exhibit features Chinese printing, a technology pioneered over 1300 years ago.

Global Art Report

(‘Global Art Report’ is a series of dispatches exploring Asian art from abroad, by Diplomat editorial assistant, Amy Foulds.)

The Printed Image in China: From the 8th to the 21st Centuries

Tucked away on the fourth floor of the British Museum, it’s hard to believe the serenity found in the space reserved for the Printed Image in China exhibit, especially considering it’s only a few steps from the Egyptian galleries bustling with school excursions and hordes of camera-wielding visitors.

But for this I was grateful when I visited recently, as the delicate Chinese prints on show can only be truly appreciated from up close and have a much greater impact without distractions.

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China has been using printing technology for longer than any other country, over 1300 years, and this exhibition cleverly took me on an illuminating journey through its long history in as few as 120 prints from the British Museum’s extensive collection—one of the most comprehensive in Europe. As some of the works on display have never been exhibited before, I felt privileged to be able to pore over their every detail, aided by the very convenient viewing rails at a perfect height for propping myself up for hours on end.

There was also a feeling of romanticism in discovering some of the exhibition’s oldest pieces. Such works include 8th Century Buddhist scrolls from the Silk Road found in a dense cave system, in the unforgiving heart of the Gobi Desert, by archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein in 1907. And accompanying these religious images is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest dated printed book, which, considering its age at almost 1200 years old has survived and kept it’s crisp lines surprisingly well. It hardly looks any more dog-eared than some of the modern books on my shelves at home.

From here the exhibition jumps about 800 years to the 16th and 17th centuries and colour debuts in the printers’ technique. Initially it took a little while to convince myself that the gradated strokes of colour in the floral prints were not in fact brush strokes, such was the light touch and skill of the artists. Moving away from such pieces produced within elite circles however; over to the more popular mass-produced prints depicting mythical door guards and scenes from the world of entertainment, I found that much of the subtlety was lost in favour of brash colours and crudely drawn designs.

After a brief stop to examine the European influence of copper plate engravings commissioned by Qing emperors to record their battle victories, I found myself in the more familiar realm of the 20th century. To my eyes the cartoon-like propaganda prints and the more haunting images of the hardship of war seemed far removed from the delicate arrangements of centuries gone by, although no less striking and beautiful.

Finally, the inclusion of a series of intricately carved woodblocks still bearing their individual colours was a nice touch and helped to establish a sense of continuity throughout the exhibition, despite its varied subject matter.

Having previously had a much greater awareness of Japanese ukiyo-e (genre of Japanese woodblock prints), this retrospective on the Chinese form brought a welcome new dimension to my knowledge of printed art. And overall I was very pleased to see the traditions and culture of printmaking continuing even in today’s digital age.

The Printed Image in China exhibit at British Museum in London runs through September 5. Admission is free.

Image: Flower Basket, by Ding Jinchang, 17th century, China, printed in colour on paper, ©The Trustees of the British Museum