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Ultimate master of Mianzhu woodblock prints (2)

By Li Yuan (China Today)

11:14, July 26, 2013

   Eighty-three and Kicking

Li loves his work and life in general. He and his wife live in an old rented house in downtown Mianzhu. Both their son and grandson are in Gongxing, Li's hometown, where they have opened a Mianzhu woodblock printing school and do a brisk trade in New Year prints. "They've got their business, and I have my life," Li said.

Li gets up early each morning and works five to six hours a day. Doing what he loves obviously keeps him both mentally and physically fit.

Li believes that the quality of each print reflects the painter's mental state. He hence prefers to execute this stage of the work only when his humor suits. He decided this year to stop wearing reading glasses to give his work a more spontaneous quality.

All the paintings on exhibit in Li's studio are his own works. Their compositions are rich and varied, featuring intricate patterns, bright, bold colors and smooth, graceful lines. They include pictures, as well as calligraphic horizontal scrolls and semantically auspicious, concisely worded Spring Festival couplets to be pasted on doors, windows, calendars and decorative screens. Thematic sources include Chinese operas, local customs, famous beauties, symbols to celebrate weddings and other happy events, flowers, and landscapes.

Li paints on locally produced paper made from bamboo that grows in Mianzhu. The fine layer of dirt from Maoxian County in which he coats each sheet enables it to absorb and retain rich and durable colors. The use of this locally produced paper was formerly a special feature of Mianzhu woodblock prints. Most local artists, however, later opted for rice paper, which is much easier to produce.

Li's works epitomize the Sichuan style. The image of the God of Wealth Marshal Zhao Gongming, believed to bring wealth to the household, is crude with exaggeratedly wide angry eyes. The boldly colored Door gods, who ward off evil spirits with their iron whips, symbolize vigorous masculinity. Noble ladies are also portrayed in the racy, vital Si-chuan style that is in stark contrast to the mild, mellow approach that characterizes prints from southeast China.

Mianzhu woodblock prints stand out by virtue of the originality of the painting process. As Li explained, "Although printed from the same template, artists can nonetheless convey their own style through the painting process." He pointed out the folds on the Door god's robe in one print, saying, "These weren't on the template, but painted by hand, as were the mustache and eyebrows."

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