Woodcut PrintsARTICLE BY NG WOON LAM
Artistic Significance of Woodcut Prints – Heritage of Singapore Traditional Art.
The glorious history of Singapore woodcut print can be attributed to the early Wenman Gie (文漫觉) publications, which translate to The World of Culture and Cartoons. It was started by Dai Yunlang in 1936 as a Sunday art feature on Nanyang Siang Pau (南洋商报, Nanyang Business Daily). Dai was a China immigrant who later migrated back to China. The main objective as described by its name, was to use monoprint cartoons to propagate political messages. This was the early introduction of woodblock prints to Singapore’s art scene. The knowledge of woodblock print was also passed down from Dai to the educators at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) where this knowledge grew in importance during the early days of visual art training at NAFA . Woodblock thereafter became a main art form among renowned NAFA artists. That was one the platforms that the socialist fine art concept was introduced to early Singapore art scene. Among the important artists, painting artists Koeh Sia Yong, Choo Keng Kwang and Lim Yew Kuan, art educators and Artist Lim Mu Hue, Foo Chee San, Tan Tee Chia, See Cheen Tee and their peers created a great collection of woodblock prints and many of them are on show as a part of the permanent collection of National Gallery, Singapore.
As an artist and art educator, I have chosen to discuss this matter from a perspective that is related more to the artistic language of woodblock prints in Singapore than its history. While the history has been documented , the significance of the artistic knowledge which involves a combination of multiple space and design concepts are rarely covered. Woodblock prints, due to the simplicity of mono color, as compared to any painting medium, the language of visual space construction and pictorial plane design becomes the heart of its composition.
Nude Dancers, Woodcut 1909, composition (irreg.): 14 3/8 x 21″ (36.5 x 53.4 cm); sheet (irreg.): 16 7/8 x 26 7/16″ (42.8 x 67.2 cm), by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner .
Coincidently, early 20th century was the period of rigorous development of the modern art language in the West. Looking at German mono prints, a print ‘Nude Dancers’ by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, with the artist’s statement recorded, “There is no better place to get to know an artist than in his graphic work”, clearly indicates the artist’s intention inclines heavily towards design of pictorial plane . He chose to reduce the need to depict the complexity of visual space and focused completely on the design and the subject matter (the figures). The space is suggested by the size and layout of the figures.
The sense of flat design is not seen significantly in these early Singapore woodblock prints. Taking the most prominent printmaking artist, Lim Mu Hue’s artworks as examples, his artworks showcase a strong sense of space layout — the images of Chinese orchestras, the size of the figures, the interplay of positive and negative shapes (printed (black) and non-printed (white) surfaces), the layout of ground and backdrops. He applies space layout adapted from Chinese landscape painting; the formation of space through overlapping shapes and interchanging positive and negative patterns. Koeh Sia Yong approached mono prints from a painting artist’s perspective. He also applied the concept of Chiaroscuro , an old master technique, for his woodblock print, ‘Extortion’ to depict the depth of space like Caravaggio’s paintings. His language was similarly inherited from social realist art style which has a Russian origin.  His figurative form language
 Chiaroscuro: A method that an artist uses light and shadows to depict forms of space.
therefore connects with the Renaissance form language that the Russian art schools continues to adapt till today as they did not experience as much the Western European Bauhausian art revolution during the early late 19th to early 20th century. Similarly, his peers of the same period, like Choo Keng Kwang and Lim Yew Kuan who were also painting artists selected a similar approach to create their mono prints.
In depicting his subject matters, Lim Mu Hue brilliantly and characteristically presents his figures. This form of simplification recorded the stories and historical moments with great artistic precision , thereby forming a different perspective in retaining our rich cultural heritage. Adapting the strength of storytelling from the age of political cartoons, Lim uses a closed form approach which isolates each figurative element like an illustrator. However, with his distinctive space layout, the overall composition of each print does not lose its sense of visual flow. The audience is guided rhythmically through the whole space, reading every part of his planned stories.
One additional element that these artists inherited from China woodblock print is the character of their knife cuts. Chinese ink painting values its calligraphic execution. The brushwork is the heart of Chinese ink presentation as indicated by Xie He’s (谢赫) “Six Methods in Creating Art”(六法论) . The knife cuts imitate the calligraphic strokes to depict the concept of ‘strength’ in Chinese calligraphic brushwork. This expands the artistic content of the woodblock prints.
The presentation of this important era of art development writes a wonderful record about this significant milestone of Singapore’s art history.
Tju, L.C., Political cartoons in Singapore: Misnomer or redefinition necessary? The Journal of Popular Culture, 2000. 34(1): p. 77-83.
Kirchner, E.L., Nude Dancer. 1909, Moma: USA. p. Mono Print.
Kian, C.K., Channels a & Confluences: A History of Singapore Art. 1995, Singapore, Singapore Art Museum.
辛晔, 浅析谢赫 “六法论”. 2003.
Memories Etched on Prints
by Lim Mu Hue
MISSING OUT ON SCHOOL
by Koeh Sia Yong
TEH TARIK MAN
by Lim Mu Hue
ROTI PRATA MAN
by Lim Mu Hue