Maybe you haven't visited our archives for some time... and you have not read Professor Zhang Zhi You's article about Chinese bookplates... you can find it at http://www.fisae.org/Zhang.html
But today, your webmaster brings you a new view: an article by Peter Ford, a British artist who - unlike most of his Anglo-saxon peers - uses metal engraving and etching to express himself. He is also, to my knowledge, one of the very few British artists who still makes ex-libris today. He has a gallery in Bristol, the Off-centre gallery, which shows work by many East European artists and is open to the world. VERY un-insular!
Peter has been to China recently and also attended the Beijing Congress (he was the only member of the Bookplate Society to do so). As he is very observant, very knowlegeable on art and printmaking - and enjoys ex-libris, he sent a short article on Chinese bookplates to the Bookplate Society, where it has just been published in the September 2008 issue of the Bookplate Journal. I am grateful both to Paul Latcham (the editor) and to the author of the article, for their authorisation to web-publish it below!
Bookplates in China
When compared with Europe, the history of bookplates in China is relatively short. Before the arrival of the idea of artist-designed labels to identify the ownership of books, Chinese book collectors used the traditional stone seal with hand-carved characters. This is still popular and is often printed in red ink at the lower margin of artworks on paper.
Name seal of Peter Ford, by Hao Qiang
The first notions of the bookplate were brought into China at the beginning of the twentieth century by Chinese artists who had visited Europe or North America. A few pioneering figures began to make bookplate designs in the 1930’s. The Modern Woodcut Printing Association was founded in 1934. An issue of its journal published in 1935 included an announcement of twelve new bookplates made by members. However events were about to get in the way of further expansion. Here I will quote from my best information source, the essay ‘Ex-libris Art in China’ by Professor Zhang Zi Hu –
‘Between 1938 and 1976, China experienced successively: fighting an invading army, civil war, the establishment of the new China and the development of socialism. Until the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and during this historical period, ex libris art in China suffered forty years of apathy.’
The resurgence began in 1980 and it could be said that it is still underway. I will list just a few pointers or landmarks. In April 1984 the Chinese Ex-libris Association was established, initially with about five hundred members. Now the membership is numbered ‘in thousands’. Also in that year fifty-six ex-libris by thirty-two Chinese artists were displayed at the FISAE congress in Germany. In 1988 the Chinese Ex-libris Association was accepted as a new FISAE member at the twenty-second congress in Denmark. The catalogue of the twenty-seventh congress held in St.Petersburg in 1998 lists and illustrates more designs by Chinese artists than by artists of the host country. For the millennial congress held in Boston, USA, a third of the artists in attendance and a quarter of all works shown were Chinese. As readers will know the thirty-second FISAE congress will take place in Beijing in October of this year. The current enthusiasm of Chinese people for the bookplate as a focus for design and as an object for collection is possibly unmatched internationally. This opinion was reinforced by my recent personal experience in Hangu, north-west China.
My own bookplate making career began in 1989 when Professor W.E. Butler explained to me the conventions of the form which I had seen in exhibitions in Russia and Poland without knowing exactly what they were. I think that within the quite small group of British contemporary artists who sometimes make bookplates I am the only one using etching for most of my designs. Also I have been quite active in sending my prints to competitions abroad. On more than one occasion I have been the sole British representative. My good fortune in being invited to take part, at my hosts’ expense, in the international Hangu, China, Bookplate Exhibition last October I attribute to the presence of my name in various internationally circulated catalogues such as the excellent volumes published for the 1995 Belgrade 'World of Ex-libris' and the first Ankara Ex Libris competition 2003.
The Hangu catalogue features the work of thirteen European and eighteen Chinese artists. Seven of the Europeans and most of the Chinese team travelled to Hangu despite adverse weather conditions. What impressions of contemporary Chinese bookplates stay with me after that experience? Woodcut is still the predominant technique as it is for Chinese printmaking on a larger scale. It is curious that these dexterous artists have not taken to wood engraving. Many of the Chinese bookplates displayed in Hangu were bright, colourful and more likely to make you smile than frown. They often featured traditional subjects and glimpses of regional customs and dress. Typically these artists print on lightweight paper and their designs are practical. They feature the name of the dedicatee clearly and the printed images are of a size that will fit comfortably in a book. The text, though always legible, is usually subservient to the image and not often integrated imaginatively with it. This reservation could also apply to many contemporary bookplate designs from other parts of the world. The most surprising work that I saw in Hangu was the series of seven screenprints by Zhao Fangjun celebrating the Chinese space programme. These, plus some portraits of political and cultural figures from 20th century Chinese history, were the only diversions from the more timeless subjects of landscape, traditional architecture, still life and the human form.
Woodcut by Xu Yingwu , 2005 Plastic cut by Zhang Zhiyou , 2006
Screenprint by Zhao Fangjun, 2005
In the months leading up to the Beijing Congress I am sure there will have been a great leap forward in Chinese bookplate production – and probably much reworking of the Olympic symbol and related themes. It is my guess that in the Beijing International Competitive Exhibition there will be more evidence of Chinese artists and artists of other nationalities using CGD – computer generated design – as a main process or as one technique in association with others. Perhaps in this area lies the main hope of attracting the interest of students and a new generation of younger artists to the challenges of bookplate design in the 21st century.
Peter Ford R.E. R.W.A.