Woodblock prints are often recognized as a Japanese art form, but the practice actually began in China more than a century before Japanese adoption. Now, a special exhibit in California is tracing the history of Chinese woodblock prints, with some items on public display for the first time.
The exhibit at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, brings together some of the best examples of Chinese woodblock prints made during the golden age from the late 16th to the 19th century. Some of the prints on display have never been seen by the public, like a Qing dynasty scroll on loan from the Shanghai museum.
Although China began woodblock printing more than 100 years before Japan, Japanese prints gained more recognition because of European traders. Eventually, in the 18th century, Chinese prints from Suzhou hub of woodblock printing were exposed to the west. That exposure to Europe was reflected in later Chinese woodblock prints.
European artists, too, tried their hand at the Chinese art form. Italian missionary to China, Matteo Ripa, was ordered by Emperor Kang Xi to copy woodblock prints. But instead of woodblock, Ripa made copper etchings. That glimpse into Chinese gardens sparked Europe's love affair with China's various art forms.
A French missionary and painter put it this way: "Everything is truly great and beautiful, both as to the design and the execution. The gardens struck me the more, because I had never seen anything that bore any manner of resemblance to them, in any part of the world that I had been before."