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Last chance to view the birth of graphic arts, now at the Nelson-Atkins

One of the ancient Chinese images on exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins
One of the ancient Chinese images on exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins
courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

There’s a terrific alternative for those not particularly interested in Super Bowl revelry this Sunday, when Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will offer a final viewing of a rare and groundbreaking collection of Chinese color prints.

Though Japanese woodblock prints generally get the lion’s share of attention by graphic art fans (think geisha girls, sumo wrestlers and scenes of Mount Fuji), it’s the Chinese who not only invented printing in general, as early as the eighth century, but who pioneered the printing of color images, and that’s what this small but superb exhibition highlights.

On a recent tour through the presentation, Cultivating Nature, Printmaking for Painting in 17th Century China, which is displayed in a discreetly lit and humidity controlled room that the Museum devotes entirely to Chinese paintings and prints, Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of Chinese art, spoke with enthusiasm.

“This [exhibit] is a moment in time—the seventeenth century—when the Chinese gained interest in doing something unique that hadn’t been done before,” Mackenzie said.

He refers to the douban printing technique, which uses multiple cut wood blocks to produce a range of colors and impressions, allowing the artist to render a subtle painterly effect unavailable up to that time. In fact, a case might be made that the douban technique, which came about in a time of political turmoil (as the Ming dynasty was collapsing), but also of economic advance, represents the birth of modern graphic arts.

The exhibition explores the two earliest examples of the douban technique, The Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (ca. 1633) and The Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual (1679–1701). “They [the manuals] were both really…conceived as painting manuals, it was designed to teach you how to paint,” Mackenzie said.

Culled from an early Museum curator’s collection, the manual’s pages have been separated from their bindings for exhibition. There are lovely depictions of palms, orchids, weather-sculptured rock formations and serene human figures.

And although the goal of these manuals was the instruction of painting techniques, “The irony is that although this is supposed to be teaching you how to paint, actually, they’re already developing a woodblock style. It’s much more graphic, it’s simpler,” Mackenzie observed of the prints. “You begin to get the sense of very subtle shading…the way inks slightly merge and slightly fade away.”

Indeed, in our hyper-graphic, overly-wrought visual culture, it’s all too easy to overlook such subtleties, to forget that all the pictorial madness thrown our way via an increasingly complicated web of technical devices had to start somewhere, had to be invented. And that’s the real genius of this exhibit—this is where it all began.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is located at 4525 Oak Street, KCMO, and is open Wednesday through Sunday, with varying hours. Admission is free. Phone (816) 751-1ART (1278), or visit the Museum's website for more information.


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