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Visual History of China (Signed)
FINE ART PRINTS. New York, 1947. First edition lithograph depicting the ancient and modern history of the world's oldest continuous civilization. From the Visual History of Nations series.
A master of detail, Arthur Szyk evokes the delicacy and richness of fine embroidered silk in his presentation of China’s long and illustrious history.
The dragon (top center) plays a prominent part in Chinese art and folklore and is frequently portrayed with a ball or sphere nearby or in its grasp. The sphere has been interpreted as indicating something precious: a jewel or pearl (possibly of wisdom) that the dragon values and pursues. That orb’s role might be taken here by the yin-yang symbol which floats over the dragon’s head. The representation of yin and yang betokens the ubiquitous interdependence of opposites and the cyclic nature of creation and destruction.
Adjacent to the dragon are portraits of men who have had formative influences on China’s development. To the left is Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.), whose teachings on individual and social values set the foundation for how Chinese individuals lived their lives for centuries. To the right is Sun Yat-sen (1867–1925), a major force who spearheaded the end of dynastic rule in China in 1911 and replaced it with a republic.
The central section of the illumination is marked by strong saturated colors and a bold graphic style. Against a red background, black characters spelling “Republic of China” overlay a yellow Chinese symbol for long life. This is surrounded by four white stars on blue backgrounds, symbols of the Republic’s Nationalist government, which was founded after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century.
In contrast, the panels left and right of center are soft with pastel hues and supple lines. Here are represented the Eight Immortals. Typically associated with Taoism, these figures have had widespread presence in Chinese literature and art. These characters are said to have achieved immortality through their studies of nature’s secrets. Each epitomizes particular conditions in life, such as poverty, wisdom, strength, and femininity.
The Nationalist China logo anchors the bottom of the picture. To its left a man, possibly a scholar, holds two texts: one with “Confucius” inscribed in Chinese characters, the other with “Modern Science” in English, possibly referring to the 1940s cultural division between maintaining traditional values and embracing those of contemporary western society. The urn and fabric at bottom left remind the viewer of China’s many contributions to the fine arts. To the right, a peasant woman holds a bowl of tea. In the right corner are plum tree blossoms, the national flower of the Republic of China. The plum tree blossom motif repeats throughout the illumination’s borders, which also contain the names of Chinese provinces.
Visual History of China. First edition lithograph [Visual History of Nations series]. New York, 1947. Publisher: K. Bileski; Printer: Herman Jaffe. Image measures: 6½ inches x 8 inches. Sheet measures: 10 inches x 11½ inches. Fine condition.
Note: The left margin of this lithograph is wider than the right. All lithographs in the Visual History of Nations series were printed in this fashion, as they were commissioned as frontispieces for bound stamp albums. A wider margin on the edge closest to the binding allows both margins to appear equal when matted.
Publishing History: Arthur Szyk’s Visual History of Nations series consists of highly illuminated and brilliantly designed visual histories of individual founding and member countries of the United Nations. This series of images was commissioned in 1945 by Canadian philatelist and entrepreneur Kasimir Bileski and was originally referred to as The United Nations Series. Each print was created as an exquisite frontispiece and title page for a unique international stamp album. All images reflect the artistic genius of the 20th century’s greatest miniaturist illuminator and painter.
Of the approximately 60 colorful and highly detailed images commissioned by Bileski, only nine countries were completed (plus the History of Flight) and printed prior to Szyk’s sudden death in 1951.
Identification of the Graphics and Symbols of The Visual History of China (see below for key):
1. Symbol for the classical Chinese concept of yin and yang
4. Sun Yat-sen
5. The Eight Immortals
6. Chinese characters spelling “Republic of China”
7. Symbol of long life
8. White sun on blue background, symbol of the Republic of China
9. A scholar holding a book on Confucius and a book on modern science
10. The peasant farmer
11. An urn and fabric, representing the decorative arts