摘要：阿尔布雷特·丢勒，《忧郁》，1514。版画，尺寸24x18.5cm 伦勃朗，《基督出现在众人前》。铜版画，八版第八件，尺寸35.6x45.5cm。纽约大都会艺术博物馆藏 弗朗西斯科·戈雅，《追溯到祖父》，《狂想曲》系列第39件，1799年第一版。蚀刻与飞…
 阿尔布雷特·丢勒，《忧郁》，1514。版画，尺寸 24x18.5 cm
 伦勃朗，《基督出现在众人前》。铜版画，八版第八件，尺寸 35.6x45.5 cm。纽约大都会艺术博物馆藏
 弗朗西斯科·戈雅，《追溯到祖父》，《狂想曲》系列第39件，1799年第一版。蚀刻与飞尘腐蚀版画。尺寸 36x21 cm
 巴勃罗·毕加索，《裸体模特和雕塑》，速写系列版画之一，1933。蚀刻版画，尺寸 44.5x34.3 cm
 巴勃罗·毕加索，《猫》，由乔治‧路易‧勒克莱尔，布封伯爵写的《自然历史》的配图，1942年巴黎Martin Fabiani出版。铜板蚀刻版画。尺寸 36.2x28 cm
The Etchings of Yan Shanchun
In his enthusiasm for every aspect of printmaking Yan Shanchun has established a unique position for himself among Chinese artists. In contrast with the West in which the achievements of the greatest painter - printmakers are recognized as being on the same level as their primary means of expression, in China printmaking was never regarded as a medium capable of independent expression on the same level as painting or calligraphy. Even today this is the case although there are generally departments of printmaking in the academies. Far too often prints are published under the name of established artists that are reproductions of paintings rather than fine art prints as generally understood.
In the West the earliest woodcuts were produced in Southern Germany around 1400, about 700 years after printing on paper as a vehicle for disseminating the Buddhist faith was invented in China. The principal intaglio (incised) techniques appeared in Europe about the same time, engraving evolving from the craft of goldsmithing and etching from its use on armor, and were soon taken up by major artists in Germany and Italy. Both Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498), and Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1480- 1538) produced magnificent prints but it was Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) who undoubtedly had the greatest impact on the medium and the prestige of printmaking.  In the complexity of its iconographic content and its technical mastery engravings such as Melancholia (1514) (Fig. 1) are on a par with his greatest paintings, a fact recognized by his contemporaries, both collectors and artists. While few of his paintings could be seen outside Germany, prints were the primary means by which Dürer’s reputation as one of the greatest living artists was established and by the first decade of the 15th century young Italian printmakers were using his works as models. In the 17th century Rembrandt owned prints by Dürer.
Over the next 500 years the range of techniques available to printmakers expanded to a remarkable degree. While many prints were utilitarian, primarily reproductive or illustrative, great painters such as Rembrandt (1606-1969), Francisco Goya (1746-1828), and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) were particularly innovative, their prints reaching the same level of attainment as their paintings and drawings. Between 1626 and 1655 Rembrandt made over 300 etchings and drypoints, ranging from small, informal figure studies to landscape and multi-figure compositions based on the OId and New Testament. Fascinated with every aspect of the complex procedures involved in printmaking, he experimented with different papers and frequently reworked his late prints, inking the plates in such a way that frequently the image is completely transformed. The drypoint Christ Presented to the People (1655) (Fig. 2), for example, exists in eight separate states.
Yan is a great admirer of Rembrandt and has commented that “the etching technique that Rembrandt employed is more spontaneous than Dürer’s engraving technique, his lines are wilder. He is less interested in registering details than in the texture of the lines and the quality of paper, and in establishing atmosphere. Through these means the viewer is able to concentrate on the image, as happens in his paintings through the infinite variety of his brushstrokes.” Etching is frequently used in association with other techniques such as drypoint and aquatint, resulting in more atmospheric effects as is the case with Goya’s etchings, (Fig. 3) and it is this versatility that appeals to Yan.
The greatest painter-printmakers including Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Edvard Munch (1863-1944 ), Pablo Picasso and more recently, Jasper Johns (1930-) have all been major innovators, none more so than Picasso who over a period of more than 70 years made over 2,400 prints, etchings, engravings, drypoints, aquatints, lithographs and linoleum cuts. He made etchings throughout his life, from the Saltimbanques Suite in 1905 to the Suite Vollard (1930 - 1937) (Fig. 4) to the 347 Series in 1968, finding the technique the most direct way to convey the purity of his drawn lines, but Yan is less drawn to these than to Picasso’s more atmospheric prints. He has a particular affection for the 32 illustrations Picasso made for the Histoire Naturelle by the 18th century French naturalist and polymath Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (Fig. 5). Picasso loved animals and created a series of humorous images in which the etched line is far overshadowed by the use of aquatatint. Yan has commented how in “works such as these the gap between the indirectness of prints and the directness of painting is closed. Perhaps we can invent a new compound term, printing –painting. This is the direction in which I am trying to move.” 
Earlier this year I went to visit Yan Shanchun at his office in the Shenzhen Fine Art Institute with which he has been associated since 1993 . While I was there we had a wide-ranging discussion about print-making and I was also able to watch him make several prints, a rare opportunity. Yan is a well-respected painter and academic who has written extensively on many aspects of classical and contemporary Chinese art but whose all-consuming interest for the last few years has been print-making. In fact he feels that in his prints he has been able to achieve levels of expressiveness that he has only glimpsed in his earlier work.
Certainly he has reached a level of refinement in his prodigious output of etchings that is impossible to achieve in the more robust ink and acrylic medium he uses for his paintings but begging to differ with the artist, it is all a matter of degree! His large paintings which verge on abstraction retain in the multiple layers partially visible beneath the surface references not only to the appearance of West Lake in Hangzhou with which he has been familiar all his life but to the long history of its representation in ink painting and poetry. This accounts for the powerful effect these apparently bland canvases have on the perceptive viewer. In contrast the prints are small enough to be held in the hand, traditionally the preferred way for viewing these intimate works of art, and are characterized by an infinite variety of marks and surface effects, all coalescing to give just a glimpse of the atmosphere of the lake. It is an entirely different approach.
Yan Shanchun’s office in the Institute is small and simply furnished, lined with bookshelves and numerous earlier works stacked against the walls. A small table top press, stacks of copper plates and gampi (Japanese tissue paper) indicate that we are visiting the premises of a print-maker but with the exception of a container of sulfur, the bottles of olive oil, soy sauce and Brasso on the shelves would be equally at home in a well-stocked kitchen or supply closet. Yet it is with these simple materials that Yan creates his poetic etchings, as intense and multi-referential as the briefest of Chinese poems. How did he arrive at the point in which print-making resembles alchemy?
Yan graduated from the Print department of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou in 1982, the same year as Huang Yong Ping who was about to adopt a radical approach to art making through his association with Xiamen Dada. Yan followed a more conservative path and chose to investigate new approaches to ink painting but about 1987 began to concentrate on scholarly and theoretical studies, ranging from The Literati and Painting: Painters in Official History and Fiction to commentaries on the work of Huang Yong Ping and Wang Guangyi. He remarked that while his preference is for art that is related to traditional Chinese values however much modified they might be, he still feels the need to understand types of art that he does not really appreciate. During this twenty year period he traveled widely in France, Germany and Italy, studying the works of European Old Masters, Western contemporary art and the great print makers from Durer, Rembrandt and Goya to Picasso. By 2007 when he returned to painting he was 50 years old, an artist with a well-stocked mind but only a small body of actual works, who was closer in kind to Chinese literati of the Ming and Qing dynasties than the successful professionals whose work was already achieving record prices at auction.
After tentative beginnings, Yan’s paintings soon increased in scale as the lessons he had learned from Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly were fully absorbed. Seen from afar Yan’s largely monochromatic canvases appear to be virtually abstract but closer inspection reveals multiple layers of pigment, concealing evidence of facts he has observed and memories of countless works of art from the past that have lodged in his mind. In this respect, among twentieth century artists he admires he is closest to Cy Twombly to whom the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome were primary sources of inspiration. To many observers Yan had fully succeeded in achieving his goal of capturing the Chinese spirit in acrylic and ink painting yet still he was not satisfied. It was at this point that he returned to print making.
Yan remarked that when he graduated the material used in print making were very poor, the sulfuric acid used in poorly ventilated studios being very bad for the health. In 2010 he found a solution to this problem. Wang Gongyi, a printmaker who had graduated from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts two years before Yan, returned to China after spending two decades in Europe and the United States and recommended that he should try a technique she had first used when she was working at the ALMA Printmaking Studio, Lyon, France in 1992. This explains the presence of the containers of sulfur and olive oil in Yan’s studio. Instead of corrosive acid he uses a mixture of the two substances to etch the copper plates.
I watched while dabs of the olive oil/sulfur mixture slowly corroded the surface, turning black as the process began. In a text written in 2014, Yan  has noted that this technique “gives more freedom than the traditional sulfuric acid, and it is also more direct than the mezzotint or sugar-lift methods. It mainly uses the reaction between sulfur and the copper plate to produce recesses for the ink. It can convey the effect of brush strokes, and the layers are also more subtle. The drawback is that the reactions are unpredictable and not stable, the residue is weak after corrosion, and not suitable for making multiple prints.”
In his paintings inspired by West Lake, he is able to suggest the expansiveness of the lake receding into the distance through veils of mist even although he is as concerned to preserve the integrity of the painted surface as the most committed Modernist. In the prints it is another matter altogether. Although the spatial treatment of landscape in some of his earlier prints owes more to the Western landscape tradition than it does to Chinese painting, he now focuses on details – leaves, a tree-trunk, a reed – and ambiguous forms to suggest the poetic atmosphere that has always been associated with West Lake, even today when it is located at the center of a thriving city and is always crowded with tourists. Much depends on chance effects as he waits to see how the copper plate reacts to the olive oil/ sulfur combination. As already noted, this can never be predicted. Inspired by these abstract forms, he then reaches back into his memory-bank of images derived equally from nature and art and continues the process, etching each plate five or six times if necessary, until he senses that no more needs to be done.
Intuition is paramount in his creative process, as it is in the preparation of the copper plates for printing. For cleaning them he prefers soy sauce to all the other traditional materials used for this process. Disliking strong contrasts, he uses only a small amount of ink, just enough to sink into the crevices, then polishes the plate with his hand until a very thin layer is left over the entire plate. This is a very sensitive process, requiring all the technical skills and versatility that he has gained through ceaseless exploration of the print medium. The final step is to run the sheets of the damp gampi paper through the hand press in order to mount them. His involvement with this final aspect is crucial as the application of too much or too little Japanese glue to the reverse of the gampi paper can have disastrous consequences.
Oddly enough, the effects that Yan aims for in his etchings owe more to collotype, the photographic process that is notable for its ability to print fine detail and for the fidelity with which it reproduces gradations in tonal qualities, than to etchings by any of the artists he admires. While he was still a student (1980) he discovered a book Be An Sheng Mo, a collection of reproductions of works by Zhao Zhiqian published between 1918 and 1928, that left an indelible impression on him. He greatly admired the quality of the printing and still has it in the back of his mind when he prints his own etchings. Yan has given an eloquent summary of the effect he is trying to achieve: “The effect is very similar to collotype printing which I adore, and the effect is similar to the West Lake that I remember. Especially by using Japanese gampi paper for printing, the image has a luminous quality like that achieved by silver print photography, endowing the image with a heavy metallic feel comparable to my feelings about the West Lake: clear, remote, tempered, and classic.”
Paradoxically these classical qualities that he admires are achieved through a technique that is anything but orderly and predictable. There has been a tremendous outpouring of prints since he made his definitive return to the medium in 2010, 500 hundred at least, but since he cannot control the etching rate only 100 or so are considered worthy of preservation. What he can control, however, is the printing process itself and here he is unrelenting in his perfectionism. Thoroughly disenchanted with the industrialization and commercialism of most print- making today – of course, there are exceptions as he is first to admit – he attends to every step in the production, from the inception of an image somewhere in the back of his mind, to its hesitant materialization on the copper plate as the olive-oil/sulfur mixture spreads and penetrates the surface, the lightest possible inking and the most precise mounting imaginable.
In today’s competitive art world Yan Shanchun is an anomaly. Modest in demeanor, he has never clamored for attention, preferring instead the quiet cultivation of personal interests that for centuries characterized the behavior of Chinese literati. He has maintained a certain distance from the developments in contemporary Chinese art that have occurred in the last 30 years, equally detached from the cultivation of ink painting as an end in itself and the multitude of different approaches ranging from oil painting to performance that characterizes the work of younger generations of Chinese artists. As a result there is nothing forced about the hybrid quality of his oeuvre which results not from theoretical posturing but from the slow assimilation of influences both from classical Chinese culture and advanced art of the twentieth century.
Believing that “artists should participate from the beginning to the end as a creator”, Yan Shanchun creates prints that speak to the connoisseur, an endangered species perhaps, who appreciates the finesse of his technique and the subtlety of his imagery. Involved in every stage of the mysterious procedures that have preoccupied some of the greatest artists since the Renaissance, he has adopted a quietly revolutionary approach that is no less powerful for its reticence.
Although Yan Shanchun has produced fewer paintings during the last six years, he did not stop entirely. In fact there has been an ongoing dialog between his prints and his painting, the unpredictability of his printmaking procedures leading to an even greater fluidity in his paintings. Although the thematic content did not change, the manner in which he approaches it has undergone a remarkable transformation.
In the paintings of 2005 the landscape format of the canvases and the use of acrylic on canvas resulted in a group of works that were primarily inspired by the tradition of Western landscape although the subdued palette revealed only qualified acceptance. The following year he tried a much more calligraphic approach, virtually abstract as in West Lake 03 (2006), but the most important development occurred when he began using paper mounted on canvas as support, which he covered with multiple layers of acrylic, ink and color. Although there are often references to specific landmarks in Hangzhou such as Ruan Gong Islet and Su Causeway, their material presence is only hinted at through the use of thinly diluted washes of pigment. Delicate and atmospheric, the paintings of 2008 are remarkable accomplishments, worthy additions to the long tradition of visual representations of West Lake in classical Chinese art without making any stylistic references to it.
Working with evident delight and on a much larger scale in 2009, Yan Shanchun emphasized the physicality of the surface of his paintings, producing a series of works that he titled West Lake in my Dream. His greatest achievement until then, these paintings were the last to have been completed before printmaking became his primary focus. The challenge of representing the multiple associations of West Lake on the diminutive scale of a copper plate, however, was bound to affect his painting once he returned to it with renewed enthusiasm as has happened in the last year. In the medium size canvases that he has mostly favored, the scenery is evoked through details such as a single willow tree or even, as in the late Nymphéas of Claude Monet, through reflections on the surface of the lake even although they verge on abstraction. The influence could also go the other way as in a group of canvases, experiments in layering and the use of color that Yan Shanchun regards as studies for prints.
After five years of printmaking and a sparing production of oil paintings, Yan Shanchun had gained enough self-confidence to resume working on a monumental scale as in Lake Shore # 1 (2016), the culmination of six years of musing and experimentation. Executed in a palette reduced to shades of white, black and grey with only hints of color, there are glimpses of West Lake, particularly in the right hand panel, but the primary means of conveying the poetic atmosphere is through the wide variety of means through which the pigments relate to the surface of the canvas, whether applied in thick, viscous layers that are scraped until underlying strata dimly emerge, or thinly diluted on the paint integument and allowed to drip. More than ever, the elusive quality of Yan Shanchun’s paintings derives from the perfect match between his deep absorption in the cultural associations of West Lake and the spontaneity of his technique. To varying degrees, each painting is an exploration of the surface of the canvas, of opacity and translucence, of glimpses through the surface and strokes applied to it, of marks that appear to refer to specific objects or locations and others that are accidental.
From now on it seems probable that Yan Shanchun’s fascination with printmaking in all its aspects, the ability to create atmospheric and poetic effects on a small copper plate, will continue to have a profound impact on his paintings.
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