Woodblock prints from three Asian traditions

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Woodblock prints from three Asian traditions

“Red Blossom,” an exhibition at Ilmin Museum that brings together contemporary woodblock prints from Korea, China and Japan, draws our attention for two reasons. One is that it’s evidence of a kind of labor that is often missing from contemporary art. Another is that it chronicles the different approaches to printmaking in three Asian countries, each of which has a unique style and tradition.
The purpose for the production of modern woodcut printing in China, for example, was a highly political one. Japan approached it from a purely aesthetic point of view, based on the tradition of ukiyo-e prints, a 300-year-old woodblock technique. The printing culture in Korea, on the other hand, started out from a primarily functional motive, focusing on the production of illustrated manuscripts.
The exhibit at Ilmin showcases a variety of styles. The dominant images in the Chinese prints are from propaganda posters, though the contemporary use of political imagery is much less explicit than in the case of these artists’ predecessors, whose posters were mostly black and white and were more straightforward.
The images here are much more subtle ― as in the work of artists like Zhang Min Jie, who uses sharp engraving techniques to depict a dynamic crowd engaging in bizarre body movements. The ambiguity seems deliberate, in order to make it hard for viewers to identify the figures’ gestures. It’s uncertain whether the figures are dancing or marching, whether they are a military unit or ordinary civilians.
In the case of Zhang’s “The Orchestra and the Flying Man,” it seems likely that the artist is challenging Communist ideas by questioning the position of an individual within the mass. Considering this, the artist’s reputation within his country seems to suggest some tolerance for creative expression in modern China.
The Japanese section features artists like Morimura Rei and Karasawa Hitoshi, whose work illustrates some of the key concepts of the ukiyo-e tradition.
On the museum’s first floor, an astonishing collection of Korean woodblock prints that were produced during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties are on display, including various manuscripts and old maps that are national treasures.
A majority of the works that make up the contemporary Korean prints depict local landscapes. Jung Bi-pa focuses on Korean mountains; Hong Seong-woong’s images come from Buddhist temples and mountain castles across the country.
One curiosity about the Korean section, however, is that it does not include the artists who produced underground prints as part of the Minjung pro-democracy movement. For Koreans, these are icons of woodblock printmaking. But the decision may be meaningful in and of itself, as an illumination of the artists’ motives in switching from political art to landscapes. The history of North American art, in which artists frequently expressed their country’s attributes through grandiose depictions of its topography, might suggest a context for this change of themes.
As mentioned, the exhibition also raises the issue of labor in contemporary art. Prints have become less valued in Korea as stylish forms of contemporary art have been imported from the West; the gallery’s display of original wooden panels reminds us of another way of thinking about reproduction and craftsmanship.
In China, too, this art seems to be fading. “Active critics in present-day China write little about woodcut prints,” writes Li Wei, one of the artists in the exhibition. “Instead, their passion is for paintings... Young Chinese printmakers pursue new forms while they accept new ideas, notions and expressions influenced by Western modern art.”

by Park Soo-mee

Admission is 3,000 won ($3). Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays and holidays (closed Mondays). Use Gwanghwamun station, subway line No. 5, exit 6. For more information, call (02) 2020-2055.
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