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Studying with Wang Chao in Hangzhou

Edward Luper, 'West Lake', woodblock print, 2019

Before the pandemic - what seems like an aeon ago now - but actually only in the summer of 2019, I had the rare opportunity to study and learn from an artist and printmaker I greatly admire. At his invitation I came to his studio in Hangzhou's China Academy of Arts for a week. But the situation soon became like what I imagined happened between Gauguin and Van Gogh at Arles... we just fell out. The reasons were probably a mix of artists' egos, personality, cultural misunderstanding, and different politics. It is an incident I deeply regret though, and I wish I could have handled it better.

Me with Wang Chao

Here, I have to admit that my Chinese, was simply not good enough to deal with the delicacy and sensitivity of the issues. My Chinese is in fact reasonably fluent, enough to make people think I am more fluent than I actually am. The problem though, is that there are still many subtleties I can't express or understand. The sort of jokes for example, that maybe would take someone living in a country years and years to fully understand. There were certainly little things I couldn't quite grasp deeply.

Wang Chao in his studio

The politics at the time (rioters in Hong Kong waving British flags), made me in China with rising nationalistic fervour, to be perceived as hostile and people were generally more confrontational with me if they found out I was British. I am not political at all, but my stance against violence of any kind against anyone (usually considered a moderate view) seemed to have put me in a difficult position with Wang who had a much stronger stance against the student protests. Nevertheless, I believed politics could be put aside and we could focus on art which is what I was there to do. My discussion on the topic never went further than "other countries medias always exaggerate other countries problems" (每个国家的媒体夸张了别的国家的问题), a rather banal statement, but which sadly was taken negatively by Wang. Perhaps the tone of my Chinese made it sound worse than it does in English? His dislike for me grew over time silently. He accused me of being left-wing, to which I didn't know how to respond (like I said, I'm not really political), because he also thought the British left wing were Anti-China? (I'm not sure where he got this from) or the insinuation that I was anti-Chinese? I'm not sure how I could have best dealt with this awkward situation.

Wang Chao at work

And then there were the intellectual disagreements. We naturally discussed woodcut prints historically, and Wang was convinced that Hokusai could not have used Prussian blue as it was too expensive; he must have used indigo therefore. Without any intention to harm though, I did wish to correct his error and show that the blue used in Edo Japan at that time was indeed Prussian blue. It is just a well known fact: the publishers advertised it at the time and would have paid for the pigment anyway, its not like Hokusai was printing it himself. He obviously didn't like my smart-alec correction. Again, I wish I had stayed silent. students shouldn't talk back to teachers in China.

Wang Chao using wood grain

I have the deepest admiration for Wang Chao and his art. After all, I went half way across the world especially to learn from him. My intention was eventually to study a Masters degree in printmaking with him. My week with him felt like a dream coming true. I also had the intention of buying some prints from him. The problem however, is that he wouldn't sell individually, but only in sets (at the time it was something like £10,000), which was well above my budget. Perhaps he thought I had more money than I did, and took my refusal to buy as something of a snub. I wish I could afford it though, his works are in museum collections around the world.

Wang Chao's prints

Nevertheless, I learnt some interesting things about printmaking from him. One technique I particularly admired was his use of wood grain. These are taken from wood shaving which are then ironed and glued to the section of the woodblock which you want to have the grain. The experience although brief, of studying in the China Academy of Art is also special. The buildings are beautiful and so is the campus.

Window from CAFA, Hangzhou

CAFA campus, Hangzhou...Isn't this very Squid game?

I was also quite surprised to see that Socialist Realism is still very much alive here.

So what did I get from all this other than the realisation that you should never meet your heroes? the experience upset me a lot, which is why I'm writing about it. I gave up any idea of moving to China or studying a masters and am far wearier in accepting invitations from anyone, especially artists. I suppose this was the point also that I decidedly gravitated more to Japanese art and away from Chinese art (which was my area of speciality as a doctoral student). It is hard when your artistic role-model rejects you. Perhaps I was just disillusioned...but naturally, I had to seek other teachers.


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