CLP 38: 2000 "How the Chinese Conquered Space (in Painting) and Lost and Found it Again." Talk for US-China Business Council dinner in support of "Culture and Civilization of China" project, New York

US China Business Council talk, June 1, 2000 (5/17)

(Something on the series, Jim Peck, etc.)

Anyone who studies Chinese culture over a long period, in the context of world history, is likely to be struck by a remarkable repeating pattern. Nothing is more characteristic of the Chinese than to do something first, to do it as well as it’s ever going to be done, and then to stop doing it, as if deliberately and almost arbitrarily. A well-known example of this is in science: up to the 14th century or so, China was well ahead of the rest of the world in technological and proto-scientific discoveries, but they never made the crucial steps that led in Europe to the development of an experimental science, the Industrial Revolution, and all the rest. I’m certainly not going to try to tell you why it happened that way, or didn’t happen; it’s a central problem for historians of China--one of them, my colleague at U.C. Berkeley David Johnston, has a lecture titled “Why the Chinese Didn’t Invent the Steam Engine” that proposes some answers. (Elvin book)

S. The pattern can be seen also in Chinese art: we could, if we wanted, write its history--which is arguably the longest continuous history of any artistic tradition--as a series of brilliant technical and aesthetic achievements that the Chinese, for whatever reason, don’t follow up. For instance, color printing: in the early 17th century, the late Ming period, methods of woodblock printing with multiple blocks for the different colors are used to produce colorprints of a refinement unmatched elsewhere else in the world. (In fact, it wasn’t practiced anywhere else at that time--it was essentially a Chinese invention.)

S. (Another example from the same period, an illustration to a popular play.) But instead of continuing to develop this art, the Chinese largely drop it, producing nothing of comparable quality in the 18th-19th centuries, leaving it for the Japanese to learn it from them and use it for the great Ukiyo-e colorprints that everyone knows. When the Chinese begin again in recent times to do serious color woodblock printing, they have to take the Japanese as their teachers.

S. The topic of my brief talk tonight follows this distinctive pattern: it’s about the Chinese conquest, and loss, and regaining (with some foreign help) of effects of space in their painting. (I’m talking mainly about interior space, as in a room; space in landscape is another, separate topic.) In the early periods, as in this tomb tile from the 2nd century A.D., interior space was represented by the placement of the figures and furniture on a ground plane--it was space between things. The people face each other across an interval, so there is space in the picture.

S. By the tenth century, when this famous painting was done--or, properly speaking, the original of this painting, since it survives only in an early copy, now in the Palace Museum in Beijing--by the tenth century, that method had been elaborated by the use of screens, beds, tables, and other objects, along with the figures, to produce a rich and readable interior scene. (It represents the story of a government official named Han Xizai who, when the state he served was nearing its end, began to hold wild and dissolute parties in his villa; these were observed and portrayed by a court artist who was sent by the ruler, and who hid himself in the house for that purpose.) The painting has been much written about, but most accounts of it fail to comment on its subtly scandalous character, perhaps because to the casual observer it looks pretty sober. One has to look longer to find the suggestive passages, the naughty bits. Note the bed at the right end,

S. of which this is a detail. The bedclothes are obviously occupied-- some lovely entertainer has laid down her lute to misbehave with one of the guests, in a space not at all concealed from the others, which makes it all the more improper.

S. A similar passage occurs further on, where Han Xizai is seen again playing a drum to accompany a girl dancing (the presence of a Buddhist monk again violates propriety) and further on, another bed with rumpled bedclothes,

S. this time next to an alcove where Han Xizai is seen again, sitting with four female entertainers, three of whom appear to be reacting to sounds from the other side of the partition.

S. A similarly sophisticated use of interpenetrating spaces appears in another tenth century painting, of a very different kind, this one in the Shanghai Museum. It portrays in great detail a flour mill powered by a waterwheel built over a canal lock. The social, technological, and commercial aspects of a whole industry are represented in this extraordinary picture--the grain brought by boats, weighed, and milled--the mechanism of the mill could be reconstructed from the precise information the artist provides; the manager dealing with the landlords and merchants in the upper left; and in lower right,

S. a place to spend some of the money they carry away, a wine-house drawn so meticulously that we are permitted to look through the upstairs window at banqueters around a table (and, to the left, at someone looking out of the window),

S. and below, at the entrance (which is blocked, as always, by a large wooden screen), we can see a servant, partly hidden, in the doorway--and, most amazing of all, a pair of calligraphy scrolls hanging on the opposite wall. The artist seems to be saying: What I’ve given you here is a complete world, a microcosm; the more you explore it, the more you’ll find.

S. This passion for intricate effects of space seems to have given way, in the period that followed, to a very different pursuit: the portrayal of monumental, spacious landscapes--mountain-and-river pictures, as the Chinese call them--which are the glories of Song dynasty painting. This is a section of an 11th century scroll painting in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. (I should add that if you want to contemplate these paintings longer, they are all reproduced in the 3000 Years of Chinese Painting book.) Landscapes of a comparable spaciousness and naturalism were not to appear in European painting for several centuries; and their appearance may well have been affected by contacts with China. There are those who believe, for instance, that misty landscapes like the one in the background of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa were inspired by Chinese examples that the Italian artists somehow knew about. I leave that question open.

S. This conquest of space in landscape is also short-lived: some time around the early 14th century the best Chinese landscapists appear to shift their interest to other concerns, especially ways of evoking old styles (without copying them) and of producing unsettling landscape imagery of a kind we might call expressionist. (Great landscape by Wang Meng, dtd. 1366, in Shanghai Mus.; was in the 1998 show of Chinese art at Guggenheim Museum in New York.) This, too, is outside our subject, and I mention it only in passing.

S. Paintings of figures in architectural settings, done between the 11th century and the 17th, are much simpler in their spatial layouts than the 10th century works had been; proper interior scenes disappear, to be replaced by a system in which one looks into an interior room from outside. In this 13th-century album leaf (originally mounted on a flat fan) we see a courtyard in the palace grounds; an imperial favorite has been summoned to the emperor’s bed in the middle of the night, and is being urgently awakened by a maid, while another picks flowers to arrange in her hair, and musicians and attendants wait to accompany her. The painting is a good example of the Chinese artist’s ability to embed a whole mini-narrative in a single picture.

S. All the foregoing was to introduce my main topic, which is a major theme in my book-in-progress: the rediscovery of interior space in Chinese painting in the early Qing dynasty, from the mid-17th century. (I should add that doing this book, and pursuing these lines of research, have drawn me into areas that are completely new not only for me but for Chinese painting studies as a whole.) By the 17th century, European pictures were to be seen in China in considerable numbers, some of them oil paintings but mostly prints (engravings), brought by the Jesuits, who had come to China in the hope of converting the Chinese to Christianity, and who were establishing missions in the Chinese cities. The pictures they brought had effects on the Chinese that they never intended. Most of them were religious images, such as this scene from a life of Christ, and they were mostly Flemish and Dutch, produced in Northern Europe. Many of them portrayed interiors with figures, with views beyond the foreground space into further rooms. This Northern European way of handling space, along with the heavy shading of the figures and objects, was taken up by many Chinese professional artists, of the kind I’m studying.

S. Some of them, especially in popular prints, attempted the southern European ( or Italian) system of linear, vanishing-point perspective, along with the device of having the things in the picture diminish in size as one moved into distance--which was certainly not unknown in Chinese painting, but hadn’t been used so systematically as this.

S. By the mid-18th century or so, some Chinese artists were quite capable of making strikingly, almost photographically realistic paintings using western perspective and shading and heavy colors, such as this one, from a series of pictures of Chinese interiors, probably done for foreign visitors. But linear perspective was never more than an exotic trick in China; no major artists used it, and it was ultimately rejected by Chinese painters and their clientele, who felt about it as we do about 3-D movies: a good trick, but what does it have to do with art? Western studies of the influence of European art on China have all concentrated on linear perspective, and so have missed the point about what the Chinese artists really adopted enthusiastically from European pictures, which was

S. the Dutch system of showing interiors spaces opening back into further rooms, or through windows and doors. This example was painted in 1738 by an artist working in the imperial court, where the Sino-European mixed style was enthusiastically promoted under the tutelage of European Jesuit artists also serving there. (Describe).

I want to go back a bit, though, and show how painters outside the court, working in the real cultural centers of China at that time, the great cities of the Yangtze River region--the ones my book is mainly about--were taking new ideas from European pictures, especially Western-style shading and the representation of interior space, and using them in their own original ways. (The Chinese virtually never copied the foreign works, but only borrowed techniques from them.)

S. This painting was done in the mid-17th century by an artist named Gu Jianlong, and represents the 8th century emperor Xuanzong spying on the famous beauty who would become his favorite consort, Yang Guifei, as she bathes--he’s in the upper right, she is seen in lower left behind a split-bamboo blind. It doesn’t look especially convincing spatially to us, but for Chinese viewers of the time it must have been strikingly so, in the way it encouraged the viewer to explore the spaces visually, looking through openings and behind and around things. This was not entirely new to the Chinese--we saw it in the 10th century paintings. But they had stopped doing it for centuries, and perhaps forgotten how to do it. One is reminded of the case of astronomy: when the Jesuits came to China in the late 16th century, they found sophisticated astronomical instruments there that the Chinese (so the story goes) had forgotten how to use.

S. The viewer is turned into another voyeur, along with the emperor. The figure of Yang Guifei in this painting scarcely seems voluptuous to us; but again, it satisfies different, Chinese criteria for what is sexy. The image of the nude (or nearly nude) woman in China is another theme I’ll explore in my book, to correct the common impression among Western writers that it’s unknown in Chinese painting.

S. A bit later, in 1697, an artist active in Yangzhou named Yu Zhiding did this picture of a beautiful woman playing the board game weiqi (go) with herself while she’s waiting for her husband or lover to come. The shadowy areas under the table and behind the curtain reveal the artist using illusionistic effects learned from European painting that will draw the viewer into the picture in exciting new ways.

S. That one was done by a Chinese artist trying to look European, this was done by a European artist trying to look Chinese. It’s another picture of a woman in her boudoir, a print from a book about China published in Amsterdam only thirty years earlier, in 1667, with illustrations based partly on Chinese pictures brought back by travelers, partly on imagination. The Dutch artist does his best with the Chinese robe and the bronze vase and the wallpaper, but misunderstands how hanging scroll paintings were displayed, and drapes one of them awkwardly over the table. My point isn’t that either artist saw the other’s work, but that there was a lively interchange going on between Europe and China at this time, in the arts as in other spheres.

S. Pictures of that kind, showing women in interiors, belong to the Chinese category of paintings called meiren or “beautiful women.” They had been popular in China for centuries (although you don’t read about them in the histories), and now the new European techniques for making the pictures appear astonishingly real made them even more popular. Dutch artists also produced pictures of women in interiors, often their boudoirs, for their customers; these also had erotic overtones, giving the viewer a privileged, voyeuristic look into places he ordinarily couldn’t see. This one is by Gerald Dou, dated 1667, a woman looking into a mirror and having her hair done by her maid. Note the heavy curtain that is pulled back theatrically to reveal the scene.

S. Here is a Chinese painting from the 1730s by an artist named Leng Mei, obviously imitating the Dutch type, which he must have known from prints--the correspondences are too close for coincidence, especially as there are no Chinese precedents for them. I don’t have a color slide of this picture, but I can show color details of

S. another by the same artist, painted in 1724 (color details in a moment.) Western devices of illusionism were especially effective in pictures of a single beautiful woman shown in her boudoir, because they were so convincing visually that they seemed to invite the viewer (male, of course) into the picture where he could imagine engaging physically with the woman. We read in fiction of that time where someone mistakes such a picture for a real woman, and talks to her. (We might recall that American pin-up pictures by such artists as George Petty and Anton Vargas were always shaded realistically with an airbrush, to make them look 3-dimensional, almost palpable.) The woman’s pose here is very provocative,

S. as is her gazing directly out at us, with what we would call a come-hither look. Her touching her lips with her little finger is an expression of sensuality in China, and a turn-on.

S. The lower part of the pictured is even more suggestive, if one reads it in a kind of Freudian way. The painter, using the western technique of shading, has created a hollow space in that area of the woman’s lower body, and she thrusts into it a rolled-up book--which, when one reads the carefully-written characters on it, turns out to be a book of love poetry. These pictures, once they are decoded, often turn out to be positively lurid; but the Chinese have forgotten the code, and neither Chinese nor western scholars have paid serious attention to them, as I am now trying to do

S. A little-known artist named Hua Xuan, working in Wuxi in the early 18th century, did this large painting (it’s nearly 11 feet long!) of eight beautiful women on the balcony of a brothel looking down, holding flowers and other objects that send erotic signals, and gesturing invitingly. It may have been done for hanging in an establishment of that kind; it hangs now in the living room of a private collector in Boston, who loves it. (Serious Chinese collectors would never think of owning and showing a picture of this kind.) The eight women are subtly differentiated in facial shape and color--they may represent particular women--and are given volume and a sense of real presence by shading. Moreover, they lean over the railing and beyond the pillar at one end into the viewer’s space, another device taken from European pictorial art.

S. A detail of one of the women, the owner’s favorite and mine. All this belongs to a popular tradition within Chinese painting, and one that has been so neglected and even scorned by the Chinese that it’s hard to piece together again. But that’s what I’m trying now to do, along with my Chinese collaborator on the book, Yu Hui of the Palace Museum in Beijing, who will explore some areas that he’s better equipped to handle than I. I want to emphasize this aspect of the Culture and Civilization series, the advantages of collaboration: the Chinese scholars have better access to the materials, a better control of the texts, and an insider’s view of the whole tradition; but the foreign scholar can ask questions, and follow lines of investigation, that haven’t been asked or pursued by the Chinese, and that often are more or less taboo within the Chinese tradition.

S. I’ll conclude with an early 18th century painting by a little-studied artist named Cui Hui, in the Palace Museum in Beijing, an imaginary portrait of the famous 12th century poet Li Qingzhao in her study. I offer it partly to counter any impression I may have given that paintings of women in China all have erotic overtones and show the women only as objects of male desire; this one gives Li Qingzhao the stature and dignity she deserves, and is a decidedly cool picture. But I show it also to make a final point. Scarcely anyone but an art historian would look at such a picture and be aware that the artist was borrowing from foreign sources (in the spatial scheme, the depiction of the furniture, and so forth.) And these foreign-derived elements will seem irrelevant to the whole nature of the work, because they’ve been so thoroughly absorbed into a Chinese subject and a Chinese image. But the borrowings are there, and they allow the artist to create effects that he otherwise couldn’t, such as the feeling of being able to enter into the picture space (Li Qingzhao is gesturing to a chair, as if inviting a fellow-poet into her study)

S. or the sense of real presence in the image of the woman. The idea of “influence,” with one culture imposing itself on another, usually a stronger one on a weaker one, is objectionable when thought of that way, and it’s generally avoided by cultural historians today. But a recognition of the ways in which artists and writers and others working in one tradition could appropriate freely what was useful to them from another and use it for their own, independent purposes is, I think, not only unobjectionable but a quite proper way to think of fruitful cross-cultural interaction. And the whole basis for our Culture and Civilization of China series is just that, with scholars inside China and others outside working together, learning from each other, appropriating ideas and information and methodologies from each other, contributing their particular strengths, producing books of a kind that neither we nor they could do alone. Thank you.

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