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This essay contains some recommendations for collectors of modern Chinese prints. It is a personal wrap-up of our experience in dealing in these stunning new art prints coming out of the country that had invented paper and woodblock printing long before the rest of the world began to use them.
First Publication: May 2006
Until a few years ago, modern Chinese prints have been practically unknown outside China. After the end of China's Cultural Revolution a new movement in Chinese printmaking has started in the early to middle 1980s. The movement was carried by two generations of artists. There were those born in the 1930s who paved the road and those born after world war II, mostly around 1950. The works created by these top leading printmakers can easily rival the works of their Japanese colleagues in craftmanship and in artistic expression.
The New York Times reported in an article by Carol Vogel published April 1, 2006 under the title China: The New Contemporary-Art Frontier of an auction at Sotheby's in New York of contemporary Chinese art. By the end of the day 220 out of 240 lots had been sold for a total of USD 13.2 million - "far above its high estimate, USD 8 million".
The market for modern Chinese prints has not yet developed in China. The nouveau-riche engage more in antique Chinese vases. Art prints are a typical middle-class market. With the booming Chinese economy a new-middle class will emerge and will sooner or later engage in buying objects of fine arts.
The edition sizes made by Chinese printmakers have been rather small - often miniscule. The artists produced mainly for their own fame. And fame came from being admitted to art expositions. China has a lively system of art exhibitions on province and on national level. But there has been no commercial market. Therefore you can find art prints created in editions as small as 10 copies.
Taking the growing Chinese economy and the small editions together, chances are high that sooner or later prices can be expected to go up for Chinese prints. Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's managing director in Asia and Australia was cited in the article mentioned above with the words "It was a market waiting to happen." The successful auction he had referred to consisted mainly of paintings, sculptures and other non-print art objects. For the print market one could currently characterize the situation as "It is a market still waiting to happen".
First of all you should buy art prints that you like and that appeal to you. There is a wide variety of styles and different techniques. We recommend to concentrate on buying art prints created by leading and established Chinese artists. You recognize these artists by their resum�s. They should have exhibited regularly at National Chinese Art Shows. Established artists are usually member of a Chinese art association. Only a few of the established artists have a record of exhibitions outside China. But most of the leading artists have received prizes and awards at National Chinese Art Shows.
Apart from the leading artists, it is always a good idea to keep an eye on lesser known, younger artists of course. Their art prints are usually cheaper and the edition size is small.
Most buyers of Chinese prints on artelino know Japanese woodblock prints quite well and are used to the Japanese washi paper or are familiar with Western papers like the French BFK Rives. The paper on which the early modern Chinese prints from the 1980s and 1990s and even after 2000 are printed, is usually of lower quality. This does however not influence the artistic quality of the prints. After artelino had begun to sell Chinese prints and the first money began to flow back to China, some artists made a joint effort and had ordered high quality paper from France. But it turned out that it was not necessarily ideal for Chinese printmakers. The technique of water-soluble inks does for instance not work well with this Western paper.
Another aspect that collectors should know, is print conditions. Modern Chinese prints have often creased margins and corners or ink spots - not unlike modern Japanese prints. It is a reflection of a different view of quality. And we have seldom had so many transport problems as with shipments from China. The Chinese artists and the few people who professionally deal in Chinese prints have little commercial experience and thus little experience in safe packing. Put for instance a pile of 30 prints into a tube with some bubble packaging material at both ends, and you can be sure that the prints will arrive with accordion-like creases on both ends.
Nearly all Chinese prints that we have seen had on the lower margin the signature, the edition number, the title and the date in pencil. Edition number and date are in Western numbers, the title and the signature are held in Chinese characters. We have experienced different dates for different copies from the same edition. It has a simple explanation. The Chinese artists of the 1980s and 1990s have created prints for national Chinese exhibitions - for fame and recognition - but not for a commercial market. There was no market.
Therefore some of the artists neither printed the complete edition nor did they sign the prints immediately, but when they sent them to an art show or when they sold them. Then they signed not with the year of the original publication but the year when they pulled the print and some when they sold the print. This is by the way, a quite common practice among contemporary Western artists as well.
We also encountered second editions of successful designs. They were marked as "B" next to the edition number like "B 3/50". We also found second editions that were harder to recognize. Lu Ping creates successful views of canal scenes from Souzhou. His second editions are recognizable by a different date.
We found also variations of printing for some designs. This happens when the artist does not print the complete edition at the time of the creation of the blocks and pulls copies many years later. The colors are no longer the same. We also found some prints with later changes to the design.
If you want to be sure to acquire a print that will not be followed by a second edition, buy a print made in reduction woodblock technique. This technique uses basically only one block to create a multi-color print. Each layer for one color is carved into the same block. When one color-layer is finished, the complete edition for this color is printed. Then the layer for the next color is carved and thus the old layer destroyed. The technique of the reduction woodblock print destroys the block during the process of creation.
To our knowledge there are roughly 800 printmakers in China who take regularly part in National Art Exhibitions. Out of these we would rank about 100 to 200 artists as leading.
In 1997 Christer van der Burg and Verena Bolinder-M�ller undertook a woodblock print purchasing trip to China. There activities culminated in a collection of 60 leading Chinese woodblock printmakers, the Muban Collection. The collection was later exhibited in London and published in two books about Modern Chinese Printmaking. The selection of the Muban Collection did certainly set a certain standard. But the collection includes only prints made in woodblock technique.
One of the greatest honors for a contemporary Chinese printmaker is the admission to the National Chinese Print Exhibition. The event takes place every 1-2 years. The last one was the 17th National Print Exhibition in 2005 at Guizhou Art Museum. It was accompanied by a lush catalog, available in Chinese only. Artists who have exhibited in one of these prestigious events are certainly a good collector's choice. The same applies for the general national art exhibitions.
We at artelino have offered only leading Chinese printmakers since the time when we presented Chinese prints in early 2003 for the first time. In our article section you find a large number of biographies of artists that have been presented to our clients and visitors since springtime of 2003. We cooperate closely with an art agent in China who is permanently on the hunt for new famous and promising new artists. And with many of these artists we are in direct and personal contact.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
.. more about Dieter Wanczura
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Works by emerging Chinese artists in BUYDIRECT.