New Voices of an Age-Old Art Form: An interview with artist Cao Ou
By Yiwen Liu, CMA Curatorial Research Assistant
Reconstructed Landscape No. 10 by Cao Ou (曹欧, born 1987) featured in the CMA’s Chinese rotation Modern Impressions (through May 7, 2023, Gallery 240A) is a visually striking example by a contemporary artist to continue and revive Chinese woodblock printing (fig. 1). The work’s brilliant colors, geometric shapes, and the elaborate handscroll format demonstrate the ways in which a new generation of Chinese artists are exploring the potential of this very old medium. Woodblock printing was invented in China and has since then continuously played a vital role in Chinese culture and art from the Tang dynasty (618–907) until today.
Born in 1987 in Shandong, Cao Ou graduated from the China Academy of Art. He is now working as a freelance artist in the southern city of Hangzhou, famous for its West Lake and natural beauty. His works are collected in international institutions, including the British Museum, the Muban Educational Trust, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Mounted on a long scroll, Cao was inspired by the iconic blue-and-green landscape, A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (千里江山圖) by painter Wang Ximeng (王希孟, c. 1096–c. 1119), and transformed it in printed form by using traditional polychrome water-soluble inks. This kind of technique was developed in the late Ming dynasty (1573–1644) and officially named shuiyin (水印).
Wang Ximeng’s painting, now in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum, is an iconic landscape painting. Employing the blue-and-green color scheme from the Tang dynasty he uses delicate brushwork to depict architecture and human activities. Legend says that Wang Ximeng, an artistic genius who died at the young age of 23, completed the masterpiece when he was only 18. It is one of the best-known landscape paintings in China today. Its recent display in the Beijing Palace Museum and reappearance in pop culture, in the form of dancers dressed in blue and green performing a group dance and imitating the landscape, attracted much attention.
The print technique Cao used had an inherent connection with traditional Chinese paintings; both used xuan paper and traditional Chinese watercolor. However, Cao’s geometric blocky elements might remind some viewers of video games like Minecraft or Monument Valley. In an interview, Cao told me that although he did not have a specific game in mind when creating the reconstructed landscape, his generation grew up with the standardization of everyday items, and he developed an interest in repetitive and geometric forms since childhood. The woodblock printmaking, which involves repetitive acts of cutting and printing as well as creating rigid lines, became an ideal form for Cao to mimic the aesthetic that many of his generation became familiar with. The ancient printmaking technique and the modern industrialization, both groundbreaking inventions at their own time that caused changes to everyday life, are brought together in conversation on this handscroll.
Below is an excerpt of the writer’s interview with Cao Ou, originally in Chinese and later translated into English by the writer.
Liu: In your work Reconstructed Landscape you took the iconic Chinese painting A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains as your subject matter to reinterpret. Why did you choose this specific painting?
Cao: Reconstructed Landscape was my graduate project when I was pursuing my MFA degree at the China Academy of Art. Printmaking artists in China today are predominantly concerned about monochrome prints and lines. Chen Qi (陳琦, born 1963), for example, excels at elegant black and white prints. Wang Chao (王超, born 1974) is among the top artists when it comes to delicate lines. I want to distinguish myself from these masters. On the other hand, it is taken for granted that woodblock prints should not be too colorful, and I want to use my work to break the stereotypes.
A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains is probably the most famous blue-and-green painting in China, with exuberant colors. It is different from the mainstream literati taste (that contemporary woodblock artists are after). Therefore, I chose this painting as my model. Another reason is that the original painting is very large, around 11 meters long (and good for making an impact in an exhibition).
Liu: You have been studying and living in Hangzhou. Was the picturesque landscape of the West Lake a source of influence when you were creating the Reconstructed Landscape?
Cao: Right. I was born in the north in the city of Heze, Shandong, and most of the area there are plains. After I came to Hangzhou, I was deeply impressed by the hills and rivers there, which is distinctly different from the northern landscape. I became a hiker after I came to Hangzhou.
Liu: What kind of block did you use for the project? Did you count how many blocks you used?
Cao: There are mainly two types of wood used in today’s woodblock printmaking in China: Chinese linden wood (椴木) and pearwood (梨木). Chinese linden wood is good for large blocks, while pearwood is good for details. For example, printed illustrations from books like the Ten Bamboo Studio Painting and Calligraphy Handbook (十竹齋書畫譜) (fig. 2) and Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (芥子園畫譜) used pearwood for the expressive visual details. I used both kinds of wood in my work. Pearwood for the details of the trees and Chinese linden for the larger parts of the mountains.
I used the ancient technique called douban (餖版), which utilizes multiple blocks, each with a different color, to create a multicolor printed image. The sizes of the blocks I used vary. The largest is larger than a hand’s size, and the smallest is like a strawberry’s size. I did not count how many blocks I used. But I think I used over 1,000 pieces of blocks.
Liu: That is a lot of blocks! How long did it take for you to make the print? What kind of technical difficulties did you encounter during the process?
Cao: It took me almost one year to finish. During that year, I spent over eight hours every day at my studio. To achieve the richness of the colors, each block needed to be printed onto the paper at least three times. Take the area of the mountain for example, if a mountain part has five shades of blue, I need to print each shade three times, and it would take at least 15 times printing to finish that area (fig. 3). The preparatory drawing took me only one month, and I spent the rest of the year carving and printing. The printing process took even longer than the carving!
Liu: We often imagine the creation of an artwork as a spark of talent, but your story highlights the arduous nature of printmaking — it takes time and labor. Thank you for sharing! The work collected in the CMA was originally made as a set of 10 woodblock prints but later mounted as a long handscroll. You even included seals and inscriptions. How did the work develop from multiple prints to a complete handscroll?
Cao: My preparatory drawing was a long handscroll. But the medium of print does not allow me to create a piece of that size. So I divided the drawing into ten sections. That way, I can exhibit them either individually or piece them together as a handscroll. My graduate project was later exhibited as a handscroll.
The original work only contained image. When the Muban Educational Trust in London purchased a set of Reconstructed Landscape, Ms. Zheng Haiyao from Muban suggested I could try adding inscriptions and seals. So I asked Suojian, then a student from the calligraphy department at my school, to write something that expresses my envision of the work. As for the seals, my father-in-law helped me find an elderly seal master in my hometown and made them.
I only made two handscrolls of Reconstructed Landscape; one is now at Muban, and the other is at the CMA.
Liu: It is our honor to have one of the only two complete handscrolls of your Reconstructed Landscape. Your work reminds some viewers of video games, especially Minecraft. Did you have that in mind as a model when you created the work?
Cao: Actually, I had not heard of Minecraft when I created the work. After I finished, someone told me about the game. I had a look, and they did have some similarity!
I have been sensitive to, or interested in, repetitive forms since childhood. That is why I wanted to do something geometric for my graduate project. I am doing some paintings right now, and what I paint also involves geometric forms. I used to play games like Tetris and was impressed by its pixelated design. Maybe I was subconsciously influenced by those games.
When I was doing my work, however, I was not thinking of games. In my generation, architecture, cars, they all become standardized and repetitive. I want to find something that could speak for this phenomenon.
Liu: What do you think is the fundamental difference between printmaking and painting?
Cao: The biggest deference to me is that while a painting is finished once you create an image on one surface, printmaking requires transferring the image onto different surfaces. Behind that process is a great deal of invisible labor.
Liu: Does the difference influence your works?
Cao: Of course. For example, for a preparatory drawing, I can use as many as 20 colors. But for a print, I have to eliminate 10 colors. This requires an artist’s ability to capture the most essential elements.
Liu: At the end of our interview, do you have any thoughts you want to share with the viewers in the US?
Cao: Woodblock print is a unique art form in China with a history of over one thousand years. Many oversea viewers’ impression of woodblock print might still be the traditional prints, but Chinese artists are trying experimental artistic creations. This, I think, is thanks to Mr. Chen Qi, who devoted himself to the development of the contemporary woodblock print. I know him personally and I sometimes ask for his advice. Since I graduated, more and more artists are doing woodblock prints.
Liu: This is great news. I am looking forward to seeing more of your artworks. I am also hoping that more and more talented young artists like you can bring your artworks to the international audience, so that we could know more of the charm of contemporary Chinese woodblock prints. Thank you for your time!
 Anne Farrer, “Judge’s Comments,” in Regeneration: The Making of the Prints, ed. David Barker (London: Muban Educational Trust, 2022), 20.