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Beauty of Strength: An Exploration from an Unexpected Encounter

Strength and InfluenceFeatures

It was a strange feeling: I felt as if I’d seen it somewhere, but I was sure I didn’t know this artist or his artwork.

I stood before Zhao Yannian’s woodcut, Lu Xun Is With Us. It was on exhibition in the Lu Xun Museum of Beijing alongside other 20th-century Chinese woodcuts. I was greatly surprised to learn at the exhibition that modern Chinese woodcutting was founded by Lu Xun, a household figure in China.

Commonly regarded as one of the greatest writers in early 20th-century Chinese literature, Lu Xun was also a social critic known for his sharp essays on the historical traditions and modern conditions of China. I knew him well as a writer and a leading figure in democratic revolution of his time, but not at all as an artistic pioneer.

Curious about this newly discovered identity of a person I thought I was familiar with, I delved into the history of modern Chinese woodcut and Lu Xun’s position in it. China was the birthplace of reproductive woodcuts, but original woodcuts, in which artistic design and actual carving were done by the same person, were developed later in Europe. Lu Xun was a pioneer in reintroducing these woodcuts back to China.

In the summer of 1931, Lu Xun invited a Japanese friend to deliver the first modern woodcut course in China for 13 students. To aid in the teaching, he brought foreign woodcuts he collected and helped translate Japanese into Chinese. He further put his collections into replicable albums and held exhibitions of woodcuts by young Chinese artists. In over 200 pieces of correspondence with youth artists, he offered earnest advice and encouragement. Although Lu Xun was not keen on creating woodcuts himself, he significantly promoted modern woodcut in China with constant efforts.

The striking woodcut by Zhao Yannian I encountered must owe to Lu Xun’s influence, but I still couldn’t explain my strange familiarity with that piece until I took a close look at Lu Xun’s collection: approximately 2,000 works of art by over 300 artists from nearly 20 countries. Among them all, Lu Xun admired Kathe Kollwitz’s works most. Kollwitz was a German artist of Expressionism and Realism, famous for her focus on the life and struggle of the proletariat and her ability to depict emotional impact in prints.

Kathe Kollwitz, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (1920)

That’s it! I recalled a woodcut by Kollwitz I learned about in art history class: In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (1920). It was created as a lamentation of Karl Liebknecht, an assassinated leader of the working-class revolt. In this piece, the crowded mourners construct a huge area of black and thus convey a depressive and heavy impression. The largest area of white among the darkness is the sheet covering Liebknecht’s body, highlighting how he embodied hope and faith for his working-class followers in despair.

Lu Xun Is With Us echoes this piece from form to essence. Zhao Yannian employs similar techniques of black and white contrast in depicting a similar theme of mourning for a great man. This woodcut was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lu Xun’s death. Similar to Kollwitz’s piece, it juxtaposes the mourning crowd and the deceased, although the overall composition is different. In this piece, the brightest white area is Lu Xun’s forehead, symbolizing his guiding and enlightening role in Chinese democratic revolution. His vanguard ideas were hope and light in darkness.

Zhao Yannian began to study woodcut in Shanghai in 1938, when the art form was burgeoning in China thanks to Lu Xun. It’s hard to tell whether Zhao Yannian had seen Kollwitz’s In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht before creating his own piece. Yet, he was surely, at least indirectly, inspired by her via Lu Xun, who never met Kollwitz in person, but kept buying her artworks overseas and introducing them to the Chinese public.

As my initial mystery was solved, a new one was raised. Why, among so many printmaking artists, did Lu Xun hold Kollwitz as his favorite?

Kathe Kollwitz, The Sacrifice (1922)

The answer became clearer as I learned about The Sacrifice (1922), the first Kollwitz piece that Lu Xun introduced to China in a newspaper in 1931. It depicts a mother reluctantly handing over her child with eyes closed in grief. Kollwitz created this woodcut in memoriam of her own son, who was sacrificed in World War I. Lu Xun, on the other hand, published and promoted Kollwitz’s piece soon after he lost his friend Rou Shi, whose mother happened to be blind. Not knowing that her son had already sacrificed his life in the fight for democracy, the blind mother waited for him to return home in vain.

Lu Xun must have been greatly shaken and moved when he saw Kollwitz’s piece. A piece of art connected two hearts in two different parts of the world. They reverberated with a shared grief of loss deepest in humanity.

Although Lu Xun didn’t devote himself to artistic creation in printmaking, he had more in common with Kollwitz than meets the eye. Mother and child, war and sacrifice, hunger and poverty, agony and grief, oppression and resistance: all are themes frequently explored in Lu Xun’s writings and Kollwitz’s art alike. Lu Xun criticized dehumanizing feudal traditions and cried out “Save the children!” in Diary of a Madman (1918), the first novel written in modern vernacular Chinese. Kollwitz depicted the eager eyes of hungry children in Germany’s Children Are Starving (1924).

No wonder Lu Xun readily embraced and spread Kollwitz’s influence. Their aesthetic and realistic pursuits coincided. Both, living in an era of change and a society of revolution, longed for “what could be” from “what was.” Both didn’t hesitate to admit the utilitarian purposes of their work. Kollwitz acknowledged she didn’t pursue art for the sake of art, but for change in reality. Lu Xun believed in the realistic power of novels to improve society and awaken the people from feudalism.

Perhaps they were not “pure” artists, perhaps scenes they depicted were not at all beautiful, but their endeavors shared a certain beauty — the beauty of strength. It was hidden in each forceful stroke of Kollwitz’s knife and Lu Xun’s pen. It was understood and lived by both. We might often find hatred in their works, but always, we find love. The strength they share is forceful, but more importantly, compassionate.

Sources:

“Lu Xun and Woodcut.” Shanghai Art Critique, August 12, 2019. https://www.sohu.com/a/333400724_488482.

Huang, Qiaosheng. “Thoughts on the occasion of the 130th Anniversary of Lu Xun’s Birth and 80th Anniversary of Modern Chinese Woodcuts.” Lu Xun Museum, July 20, 2015. http://www.luxunmuseum.com.cn/html/201507/a1285.htm.

Wang, Xiaoming. “Lu Xun.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lu-Xun. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Xia, Xiaojing. “Lu Xun’s aesthetic choice of Kollwitz’s woodcut.” Lu Xun Museum, February 16, 2011. http://www.luxunmuseum.com.cn/html/201102/a1011.htm.

Jiayi Liao is a 17 year old jigsaw puzzle player from Beijing, China. She's an explorer of the connection between different art forms and cultures. She believes in building bridges of understanding through writing.

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