From Spear and Dagger to Pure Art——On the Woodcut Art of Zhu Xuanxian /By Lin Mu
From Spear and Dagger to Pure Art
——On the Woodcut Art of Zhu Xuanxian (朱宣咸)
By Lin Mu
Famous fine art historian and critic,
Member of the Theory Committee of China Artists Association,
Former associate professor of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute,
Professor and master advisor of Sichuan University,
President of the Fine Arts Institute of Sichuan Normal University
The New Woodcut Campaign, initiated by the Lu Xun, the bannerman of proletariate culture movement in Shanghai, was actually born for the need of revolutionary struggle. Mr. Zhu Xuanxian (朱宣咸) had an enthusiasm on art from his Childhood, eager to learn drawing and be a painter. Due to progressive movement, it was natural for Mr. Zhu to devote into woodcut. His first untaught woodcut works An Unforgettable Night described his misery of participating in the student movement in 1946. Later, Mr. Zhu Xuanxian joined the activity of “the Association of Woodcut Artists” held by National Woodcut Association of China, in Shanghai, made acquaintance with many New Woodcut Culture Campaign pioneers such as Zheng Yefu, Yang Keyang, Shao Keping, Mai Gan, Yu Baishu and Zhao Yannian. Since then woodcut became his weapon in the progressive movement. In his own words, “At that time, I really regarded graver as the best tool for expressing my heart, what the knifepoint revealed is the blood and hatred in my heart.” He really used woodcut as weapon and tool. Of course, this is a weapon with deep emotion. From 1946 to 1949, a large number of this progressive woodcut pictures were published in various newspapers and periodicals, the contents were colorful, from opposing wars, giving sympathy on people, protesting the reactionary rule to yearning for brightness and aspiring to freedom. In the 23 existing works of that period collected in Collection of Woodcuts by Zhu Xuanxian, the social darkness and reaction are expressed in many points of view, such as Flames of War, For the Children and for Subsistence, People Who Lost Their Freedom and Furious Flame at Prison Bars, etc. From these progressive works, seemingly, we see a live young figure that concerns the world and are eager that the battle can wipe out the disaffection, while Drops of Blood and Tear curved in 1947, typically reflected personal emotion subsumed in the woodcut art.
Later, Mr. Zhu Xuanxian, who was marching into Sichuan with liberation army, settled in Chongqing (Chungking). He turned the revolutionary enthusiasm before the Great Liberation in 1949 into passionate praise for the new prosperous society. If the vivid love and hatred of Mr. Zhu before this period was to expose and lash the retroacting authority in progressive way, then in the representation for new China and new life, Mr. Zhu Xuanxian presented a series of poetic history paintings. Summer Night in the Mountain Area and Autumn Dusk of the Suburb expressed the agricultural production; Before the Steelmaking Furnace portrayed the steel workers; Swatting Files was the mirror of “Overthrow the Four Pests” Movement, Doctors in Countryside depicted the country sanitary work; what’s more, Reading at Night in the May Seventh Cadre School was reflecting political study, and so on. Like the painters in that period, Mr. Zhu Xuanxian’s paintings retained lively traces of important political, economic and ideaistic activities after the foundation of PRC. For the painters in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, it was natural and normal to truly reflect the reality and frequent political movements at that time. However, comprehensively viewing Mr. Zhu Xuanxian’s paintings, one unique characteristic is that political works were not dominating among all his works, and that, the obviously politicalized works by Mr. Zhu Xuanxian was handled with poetry and affection. Taking “Hongyan” of Chongqing as an example, which was painted by many artists, in Hongyan in Early Summer created in 1961, Mr. Zhu Xuanxian arranged the Eighth Route Army agency in golden sunflowers, with butterflies flying among blossoms under blue sky. This lyric dealing expressed the painter’s ingenuity breaking through the mainstream and his real understanding to the art as well.
In the times of extreme zealousness for political subject, Mr. Zhu Xuanxian seemingly became more interested in pure lyric subjects; most of his works expressed the appreciation and love to the beauty of nature, such as calmness and quietness in Summer Night in the Mountain Area (in 1958), pleasantness and leisure of thick leafy shade in The Banyan Lake in Dripping Green (in 1960), freshness in Early Spring in Countryside (in 1961) and calmness of returning crows in afterglow in Autumn Dusk of the Suburb (1962). Lyricism was sufficiently expressed in these paintings. In fact, that was a period when “Great Leap Forward”, “Great Steelmaking Campaign”, and “People’s Commune” were popular to the extent of craziness, and then came the disastrous period of “Three Natural Disasters Years”, however, the pursuit for beauty and fascination for art originated from his childhood, at that moment, revealed his vivid artistic character breaking through the mainstream. His yearning for natural beauty was brought into play thoroughly in 1980s and 1990s. And a richpoetry was shown in his recent works, such as Midsummer in the South – My Hometown, Morning at Riverside, Jialing River in the Evening Glow, Mountain Village in Spring and Bashan Mountains in Autumn Moonlight, etc.
The lyricism of woodcut by Mr. Zhu Xuanxian was strengthened by Chinese painting meanings contained in woodcut paintings. In fact, Mr. Zhu’s dream in his childhood was to become a master of traditional Chinese paintings. He had been learning Chinese paintings since his childhood. Even if he criticized the reality by forceful black-white woodcut, he never gave up his brush to draw traditional flower and bird paintings. After the foundation of PRC in 1949, his love to traditional Chinese paintings went along with the woodcut activities, so the well-defined meaning of traditional Chinese paintings always existed in Mr. Zhu Xuanxian’s woodcut works. We can get rich feeling of wrinkling method of landscape painting in the black-white woodcut Spring of Bashan Mountains, unique interest of landscape wash paintings in On the Jialing River, thin and mild coloring of wash painting in Early Spring in Countryside. Furthermore, the brevity and spaciousness in Spring Sowing largely displayed the quiet, elegant, and meaningful characteristic of wash painting. It is true that the traditional Chinese painting concept endowed freshness in his woodcuts. Apart from the watery and dripping effect of watercolor woodcut, ingenious handlings such as brevity of picture, object & blank arrangement, unique lines, combination of line and face, etc. made Mr. Zhu Xuanxian’s woodcut works gradually get rid of the pure European print painting style in 1940s, and form a Chinese style with its own character.
What is worth pointing out is that woodcuts by Mr. Zhu Xuanxian gave priority to multicolor; color in his woodcut works was always the important expressing language from 1950s to today except the pure black-white woodcuts in his early works. Maybe it is because this lyricist-like painter was in deep love with natural beauty and the unique charm of nature presented by color. Indeed, his favorite to the vigorous green, use of salmon in Jialing River in the Evening Glow, the orange rising sun in Morning at Riverside and representation for the dark blue moon night, all of these are the beauty which can not be displayed other than colors.
In the art career of more than half a century, Mr. Zhu Xuanxian experienced the road from a revolutionary soldier to a lyricist, and from the spear and dagger to the pure art. This is consistent with the development of Chinese art in the 20th century. Maybe the time value of his works lies in the study of them from this point of view.
In Chongqing, China, Spring 1998