A meeting of heroes: Selections from the Townsend Collection of Chinese woodcuts at the NGA

Shi Lu, A meeting of heroes, 1938–49, woodcut, printed in black ink, from one block; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Peter Townsend Collection, purchased with the assistance of the Australia-China Council 1985

Shi Lu, A meeting of heroes, 1938–49, woodcut, printed in black ink, from one block;
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Peter Townsend Collection, purchased with the assistance of the Australia-China Council 1985

To commemorate Art Monthly Australasia’s thirtieth anniversary this year, 32 Chinese woodcuts are on display at the National Gallery of Australia from the collection of over 250 presented in 1985 by the magazine’s founder Peter Townsend. In addition to the circumstances of their collection, which Claire Roberts has recently and amply covered (see August’s 300th edition), they afford a vital glimpse into modern Chinese history.

Those selected cover a period of 14 years, from 1935 to 1949 – a tumultuous time, as their subjects show. The first three introduce two key figures in the founding of the woodcut movement: writer Lu Xun (1881–1936), represented in a portrait by Ma Da (1940), who inspired many artists and remained a tireless patron until his death; and Li Hua, founder of the Modern Woodcut Society in 1934 and figurehead following Lu’s death.

Li’s works exemplify a central theme: the horrors of war. The 1940s in China was a decade of unrelenting conflict, marked by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and hostilities between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Guomindang or Nationalist Party (GMD). Two generations (1940–45) is a romanticised portrait of the military as allies of the rural population, prompted by Li’s role as an official GMD war artist. The bitterness of life exposes the true face of war: a blind, starving beggar, huddled in desperate attempt to seek shelter. Similar themes are taken up by Gu Yuan, Huang Xinbo and, in a gruesome image of soldiers drinking their enemies’ blood, Liang Yongtai.

A second theme is the CCP coopting of woodcuts. In A meeting of heroes (1939–49), Shi Lu depicts Mao Zedong as a friend to the people, discussing politics with model workers. The display concludes with two works in colour (of only seven polychrome prints) that typify their use as propaganda. Jiang Feng and Wo Zha take up Mao’s call to learn from folk art in their adaptations of traditional nianhua or ‘New Year prints’, celebrating communist values of literacy, hygiene and labour. Alongside monochrome evocations of death and suffering, such colourful images of happiness and prosperity demonstrate the range and artistic vitality of Chinese woodcuts during the 1930s and 1940s.

Alex Burchmore, Canberra