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In September 2008 the First Yunnan International Print Exhibition took place in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, a leading printmaking center in today's China. Dr. Yin Shuangxi, one of the official judges, contributed an article to the official catalog with a few passages about the current situation of the Chinese art market.
First Publication: November 2008
The decoration of this page is exclusively dedicated to Mr. Wen Mujiang, the winner of one of two gold prizes of the First Yunnan International Print Exhibition.
1879 prints from 1013 artists in 45 countries have been received. After two rounds of evaluation the jury members who came from China and from abroad, selected 179 pieces for the exhibition. This is a ratio of 1 : 10. Out of the 179 selected works only two received a gold prize - Wen Mujiang, China and the Australian Wayne Andrew Crothers.
We at artelino are especially happy for Mr. Wen Mujiang. We have presented his works since 2006. Our Chinese art agent discovered Mr. Wen Mujiang when he still created his usually large reduction woodblock prints on the balcony of his apartment. It was the only place where the artist had enough space to work.
We found on page 16 of the catalog an article by one of the judges, the Chinese art critic Dr. Yin Shuangxi with an interesting passage about his view on the current art and print market in China.
"In the past few years, China has witnessed a dramatic boom in the art markets, especially in the painting markets. The traditional Chinese painting markets, however, after a dazzling climax, have already declined while the sculpture and woodblock print markets have not yet developed. The major forces that have rapidly driven up the prices of Chinese paintings are not artists, galleries or collectors in the traditional circulation system of arts, but speculators with art funds or grubstakes. "
"Layman investors have been easily persuaded to purchase trite works by eloquent auctioneers. Many artists have lost the motivation and ability to create in their pursuit of profits in the fickle markets."
"Healthy art markets are necessary, especially for the further development of China's woodblock print. Rational engraving artists should seize the historic opportunity and devote themselves to the creation of block print works. Capitalists are after profits. Woodblock print, sculpture and portrait may become the next target for investment in future because of the much larger appreciation space here than in other areas. Chinese engraving artists ought to face the market ordeal with excellent works of art and a calm attitude."
In my view an excellent comment on the situation of the current market in contemporary Chinese art. Over a period of only 2-3 years the art world has seen exorbitant prices paid for contemporary art works at auction houses in New York, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Paintings by Chinese contemporary artists were among the top 10 best sellers with prices of up to $5 million.
For quite some time it looked like the worldwide financial crisis had no influence on this art price bubble. But when the crisis turned into an economic turmoil in September, the art markets reacted. Latest results from the big auction houses show results of only 50% of expectations.
As Dr. Yin Shuangxi points out, the market for Chinese art prints has never been part of this art bubble. The record prices for Chinese paintings were the result of not more than a few dozen "investors".
A solid development of the Chinese print market requires a broad demand either by the Chinese middle class or by foreign art buyers or better by both. Every now and then record prices have been reported by Chinese auction houses in 2007 and 2008 for art prints. But overall these prices are not the result of a substantial demand from a larger audience, but are the result of the activities of very few collectors or art dealers.
Chinese printmakers continue to create their art prints in very small editions due to the lack of demand. The small editions keep these prints interesting for collectors.
Modern Chinese prints came into the awareness of a small minority of art lovers only a few years ago. Before, the activities of Chinese printmakers were practically unknown - inside China as well as outside. Those who saw modern Chinese prints for the first time were usually thrilled. These art prints were stunning in several aspects. First of all, they were so different in subjects from what Western art lovers were used to. They were also not comparable to modern Japanese prints. These images were a refreshing, new light in the art market. And secondly, Chinese artists have gone through excellent and profound training at the Chinese art academies. Thus, modern Chinese prints demonstrate a high level of craftsmanship which is often missing in art objects by Western artists who try to compensate a lack of craftsmanship by "creativity".
In my opinion it is now important that Chinese printmakers keep a high level of craftsmanship and of Chinese identity. The worst mistake that Chinese printmakers could do, is to follow international trends and fashions. In order to develop a sound market, Chinese prints should remain "Chinese" in subjects, techniques and level of craftsmanship.
It might be tempting for some artists to go for instance into digital art produced in front of a computer screen. But in my view, the best of all techniques for Chinese artists is the woodblock print, especially the reduction woodblock print. It is rooted in Chinese tradition and the results achieved by such top artists like Li Yanpeng are unique and more than convincing.
The state of the economy, and especially the state of the financial markets, have always been closely connected to the art market. In the past the market for more expansive art works has followed this rule more closely than the market for art prints. Art prints are not only a collectors market but also a consumer market. The percentage of those who buy art prints to decorate their homes has grown over the last decades, and the percentage of the classical collectors has diminished. This is not specific for Chinese or Japanese art prints, but an experience made by art print dealers in general.
The global recession will probably hit "consumer spending" in print art more than the spending by collectors. The experience of artelino's auction results since early September when the whole mess set in, shows a rather stable buying pattern by serious collectors.
In my view, the Chinese print market will face a difficult period over the coming one to two years. The good thing is that there are no prices to come down because they have never gone up significantly. Regarding the very small editions, the price level for modern Chinese art prints is quite low.
Periods of recession should be seen as a chance for renewal, improvement of quality and fresh ideas. Chinese prints are excellent and have developed a "face" of their own. The only thing that I am afraid of is that Chinese artists might lose their own identity and begin to tinker with international patterns of dullness and boredom like most of the architecture that has disfigured Chinese cities during the last years.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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Works by emerging Chinese artists in BUYDIRECT.