Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement, by Xiaobing Tang. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. xii + 300 pp. US$60.00 (hardcover).
Interestingly, woodcut prints resonate with traditional Chinese painting. They are executed primarily in black and white, and on paper. They resemble the rubbings of famous paintings and calligraphies, in which black and white are often reversed. In the process of creation, the cut of the knife into the wood is as economical, expethent, simple and direct as is the brush on the paper. Fike the mark of the brush, the cut of the knife cannot be erased: once executed it must be accepted, or else the work must be discarded and begun anew. For centuries, woodcuts have been used in China for illustrating books, journals and painting manuals, for vernacular New Year's pictures, for visual journalism and, in the late 19th century, for disseminating anti-Christian and anti-foreign propaganda.
Nonetheless, in the late 1920s and early 1930s woodcut prints became the central axis for a radical restructuring of artistic institutions, practices and authences in China. In this meticulously researched chronicle, Xiaobing Tang argues that it was "the most consequential art movement in modern China" (p. 1). Self-consciously connected to international influences and political expressions, the proponents of this movement argued for a new theoretical raison d'être for the practice of art. They presented new subject matter and reorganized heuristics of visual representation, advocating direct representation rather than indirect symbolic imagery. They replaced Confucian and Daoist visual schémas of harmony with depictions of unpleasant and disharmonious social conditions. In so doing, these artists created a modern, left-wing art designed for the common people (dazhong yishu) and intended to lift the level of the urban proletariat's artistic appreciation, at the same time as leading them toward a collective political "awakening". In keeping with this dual mission, and in contrast to traditional private and élite networks, woodcut artists developed public and populist systems for artistic display and circulation. In sum, the modern woodcut movement created a divergence between "art as a cultural tradition and institution" and "art as direct political expression and intervention" (p. 159).
Tang's chronicle is peopled by familiar and expected figures such as Cai Yuanpei, Fu Xun, Fiu Haisu, Fin Fengmian, Guo Moruo, Tian Han and Xu Beihong, but the interstices of their moments upon the stage of history are filled with a seemingly endless array of supporting players, complex intersections of discursive positions, friendships and enmities, motives, decisions, opportunities and happenstances. This micro-management of the narrative gives the book its rich texture.
Chapter 1 introduces the reformist discourses and practices of the first two decades of the 20th century, when numerous advocates proposed to reform Chinese painting by incorporating Western "realist" techniques. By 1912, Cai Yuanpei was theorizing esthetic education (meiyu) as a basis for social stability and harmony. The New Culture Movement (1917-mid-20s) sought to bring China to modernity through Western scientific rationality and democracy. Chinese art students who had studied in Europe were returning with the goal of creating a distinct modern Chinese art - Lin Fengmian and Xu Beihong being the most influential.
Chapters 2 and 3 detail various rival discourses of the early 1920s, which mainly argued "art for art" (subjective expression) versus "art for life" (realism, naturalism). …