“The only way to educate the masses is to be their student,” stated former leader of China, Mao Zedong. The exhibit Woodcuts in Modern China: Towards a Universal Pictorial Language does just this. It serves to educate the masses through an intricate display of woodblock prints that are more than just “simply wonderful,” as one Colgate student declared at the exhibition in the Picker Art Gallery Wednesday, January 21. These aesthetically pleasing woodcuts also provide a form of social critique about the changing times in China from 1937 to 2008.
It was absolutely astonishing how many people came to the opening of this grand artistic endeavor. Perhaps the large showing was due to the fact that this ravishing exhibit was the first survey of modern Chinese woodcuts in the United States, or perhaps the turnout was because the woodcut showcase was accompanied by an extravagant display of delicious Chinese food. Either way, the crowd was well deserved since Colgate University, in fact, owns the country’s only significant collection of woodcut prints from the Chinese Revolution thanks to Emeritus Professor of Geography Theodore Herman and his wife.
One specific woodcut piece piqued interest due to its colorful and theatrical representation of a Chinese woman. This artwork, entitled Peking Opera Character, commented on the reemergence of creativity in the Cultural Revolution of China. And so, one realizes that each and every piece at the Picker Art Gallery has a distinct and rather meaningful background. Each woodcut serves as a form of visual language for the common man. Each woodcut presents past events that have shaped current history. This juxtaposition of politics and art was so beautifully set forth by the timeline in the forefront of the exhibit that intertwined the history of China with the history of woodcut paintings. Thus, the Chinese woodcuts provide more than simply an artistic form of expression; they provide a social, political and economic statement about the atmosphere in modern-day China.
“The value of art is determined by the depth of its relationship to society not by the differences in style,” Xu Bing said, a renowned Chinese artist who helped make possible the Woodcut in Modern China exhibit. The concept of bridging the gap between cultures was furthered by Xu Bing’s creation of A Book From the Ground, an internet-based pictorial chat program that creates an intimacy between the Picker Art Gallery and the Clifford Art Gallery. This system of digital connection between galleries, between the young and old and between the United States and China seeks to support the overall notion of a global world. And so, through the use of woodcuts, this presentation establishes a universal pictorial language in which the boundaries between Eastern and Western cultures are slowly broken in the Year of Chinese Art.