by Lucy ArchibaldPart Two of the Ashmolean’s Chinese Prints exhibition showcases the work of established Chinese printmakers to Western audiences for the first time. The Chinese tradition of print-making is over a thousand years old, but this modern collection is more dynamic than dusty. Without the shock value of a more avant-garde exhibit, it is subtly disarming for its plethora of “alien” terms and references to less than familiar print techniques and events from Chinese history. Nevertheless, the colourful range of styles, subjects and images on offer – spanning a period of Chinese history which has evolved at an unprecedented rate – is both satisfying and stimulating. If you consider Chinese prints synonymous with water lilies and perhaps the odd reed-warbler, this collection will subvert your expectations. The exhibition does include Zheng Shuang’s Black Peony, White Peony, which is representative of the artist’s exclusive interest in floral subjects post-1970, but in general, the collection is indicative of the powerfully politically charged tendencies of print-making now. Perhaps the most moving of these is Wong Gongyi’s delicately entitled Autumn Wind and Rain (1980) which depicts at severely intimate quarters Qiu Jin, the poet, revolutionary and symbol of female independence, who campaigned against the binding of women’s feet and selling of women into slavery. Wong Gongyi’s print depicts the moments before her execution; monochrome and cut with hard lines, the medium of the piece seems to reflect its unsettling subject. This anguish is further reflected in the artist’s description of the creative process: “…dripping with sweat and tears, in a small storage room, my heart filled with grief and indignation.”Equally unsettling, perhaps, is the sense of a pervasive propaganda “theme”, particularly in the work of the 1950-70s. Next to Qiu Jin’s intense and unsmiling face is a representative of the Sichuan School – Xu Kuang and A Ge’s The Master (1978), depicting a Tibetan farmer in the Soviet style with axe in hand as a grinning and accessible heroic figure. In Reading Hard (1962) another Tibetan figure, a male shepherd in this instance, sits placidly reading amidst a monochrome yet bustling pastoral scene. The artist, Li Huanmin, seems to suggest that Communism has thrown off this individual’s shackles and in contrast he now sits reading. The description of the subject “reading hard”, however, seems intended to collide the leisure of reading with hard work and thus imbue the subject with a level of Communist acceptability. The artist acknowledges this political dimension to his work, regarding it as providing historical insight at the level of the individual: “I depict people, their noble characters, their rich inner world and their graceful bearing, because people are the motive force of history.” Zhang Chaoyang summarised his artistic project rather differently: “Beauty and freedom have been the goal of my aesthetic pursuit.” Yet he represents a strikingly similar scene in his autumnally-hued Heroes and Heroines Are All Around (1970) which (rather obediently, we suspect) chronicles a harvest scene in the midst of the Cultural Revolution when the artist volunteered to go to the Great Northern Wilderness. Subsequently, Zhang Chaoyang’s work was to become less propaganda-influenced and instead preoccupied with female classical beauty. This development is perhaps prefigured in the pretty girl clad in communist garb, who sits scribbling in the foreground of the scene. This recurrent artistic focus upon an individual pulled from a crowd seems somewhat incongruous with the political systems they articulate.The most recent work demonstrates a more satirical or at least enquiring edge. Kang Ning’s Forest (2004) in particular shows a progression from the earlier prints, while Li Yili’s Hometown Record with its mingling of realist and fantasy elements enacts his artistic intention to ‘create’ “…one’s ideal world” rather than merely document that already in existence. Short, if not sweet, this concise exhibition will certainly leave you with plenty to ponder, and is the ideal reason to finally (!) make it through the doors of the Ashmolean. Chinese Prints runs until the 24th of February.