'The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting' is not only one of the most popular and most widely reproduced Chinese coloured woodcut series, it is also the perfect embodiment of the technical perfection and virtuosity of woodblock printmaking in the history of Chinese art. The manual's title is derived from the garden of the famous playwright and novelist Li Yu (1610–1680), who was lovingly dubbed 'Mustard Seed' because of his small stature.
The publisher of the three editions of 'The Mustard Seed Garden' was Li Yu's son-in-law, Shen Xingyou (active in the 17th century). He asked the contemporary painter Wang Gui to copy the model drawings of Ming-era artist Li Liufang (1575–1629) that had been created as teaching tools. Wang Gai spent three years expanding the original collection of drawings spread over 43 sheets. Once completed, they had more than tripled in number, to 133 sheets. Li Yu financed both the production of the woodblock prints and the publication of the finished manual, which was released in different editions. The first, published in 1679, focussed soley on landscape painting.
The second edition, published eight years later (in 1687), was devoted to the painting of the 'four nobles': plum, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum. By this time, several painters had been involved in the designs for the woodcuts, including Zhu Shen, Wang Zhi, Wang Qi, and Wang Gao. They were also involved in the editorial work. The third edition, also published in 1687, focussed on the rendering of flowers, birds, and insects.
The woodcuts were designed to look like paintings. 'The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting' was such a popular success that it spawned numerous reprints and reproductions and even imitations. More importantly, it had a profound influence on many artists (it was a manual aimed at budding artists, after all). For these artists, the illustrations in the book provided a set of practical models and imaginative sources of inspiration.
The exhibition reveals the reciprocal and delicate relationship between Chinese painting and Chinese woodblock printing. It shows how one affected the other, how an ekphrastic 'imitation' inspired other imitations or new creations, and, not least, how a tiny mustard seed triggered an avalanche in Chinese art.
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