Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 2, 2022
Yi Gu Chinese Ways of Seeing and Open-Air Painting Harvard East Asian Monographs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020. 320 pp.; 67 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. $75.00 (9780674244443)

Yi Gu’s Chinese Ways of Seeing and Open-Air Painting provides a revisionist history of Chinese landscape painting from the early 1910s to the late 1960s. Foregrounding the importance of visual perception to modern Chinese art, Gu locates an “ocular turn” in landscape painting circa 1911 that shifted premodern Chinese painters’ preoccupation with the literary to a modern artistic subjectivity anchored in visual perception. This ascendancy of vision occurred when Republican-period painters, anxious to establish themselves as modern subjects, embraced open-air painting as a practice that underscored direct observation, linear perspective, and a pseudoscientific means to view the world. Continuing to explore the global flow of modern art that follows a spatial trajectory from Europe-America-Japan to China, the aim of Gu’s revision is not to contest the intransigent presence of the “West” as the bearer of modernization in Chinese painting. Rather, it presents a history in which the sites of exchange (driven, for example, by easy-to-follow British manuscripts on how to paint in watercolor) lay outside the canonical history of global modernism and the historical avant-garde. 

In the early twentieth century, Chinese painting (guohua) was a term used by writers to refer to work painted with brushes in ink on a ground of silk or paper, distinct from Western oil painting. Even though Chinese painting can be varyingly defined in relation to artistic medium, social organization, and the practice’s associations with forms of traditionalism, the most polemical discourse was established on the grounds of a binary between Western/modern and Chinese/traditional. To bypass this historiographical and methodological impasse, and situated among recent scholarship developed in visual studies and the history of science (for example, Tong Lam’s A Passion for FactsSocial Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900–1949, University of California Press, 2011, or Laikwan Pang’s The Distorting Mirror: Visual Modernity in China, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), Gu’s ocular turn connects the national-cultural contingency of seeing—the “Chinese ways” that are nonetheless plural—with the institutionalization and appropriation of a Western art practice that transformed modern art education and the terms of visual literacy in China. Historicized at the intersections of art practice, pedagogy, subjectivity, and the transforming nation-state, the ocular turn marks a story of the modern Chinese painter neither as a romantic rebel nor a mindless propagandist, but rather as a creative techno-bureaucrat actively participating in social education and control.

Following an introduction that positions the book methodologically and historically, the five chapters of this book develop in thematic and chronological order. Chapter 1 examines the role of open-air painting in relation to Chinese painters’ pursuit of a modern, professional identity. Initially promoted as the foundation of Western painting at the Shanghai Art Academy, xiesheng, which Gu translates as “sketching from life” (2), soon became recognized by the intellectuals of the New Culture Movement as a pedagogical process that could implement a new rule of cognition and promote a scientific way of seeing the world. Configuring the emergent order of a modern Chinese visuality, Gu argues that teaching open-air painting aimed to transform Chinese students’ ingrained ways of perception into vision regulated by Euclidean geometry and Cartesian perspective. By the 1920s, artists sketching outdoors became a recognizable image of modern art education. Frequently published photographs of Chinese painters working outside, looking directly at nature, and confidently transcribing the view of their homeland into compositions defined an important self-image for the modern painter seeking grounds for a new identity. 

Chapter 2 tackles the difficulty with which Chinese painters learned to incorporate the perceptual rules of Cartesian perspective. Gu’s argument is that the view-taking mode inculcated an unprecedented emphasis on the painter’s faculty of vision, severing it from a more indigenous sensorial experience that involved the artist’s whole body and his “spiritual resonance” (46) with nature. Gu begins the chapter by outlining the three techniques that together formed the foundation of a “view-taking mode” (43): the requirement that a painter should first locate a rectangular frame of vision (qujing), then within this frame establish a sophisticated composition (goutu) and construct a spatial relationship in accordance with Euclidean geometry and linear perspective (toushi). While both guohua and Western-style painters were eager to incorporate linear perspective into their practice, they struggled with the technique’s static, monocular vision. The sixty-degree cone of vision established by Renaissance perspective was in direct conflict with “the grand vista” and “mobile perspectives” (67) that characterize the monumental conceit of landscape painting in premodern China. Playing out the drama of this conflict, the rest of this chapter turns to two case studies—one focusing on guohua painters’ collective fascination with Mount Huang, and the other on Western-style painters’ frustration with West Lake—in order to make concrete the diverging visual interests of seeing monumental landscape and seeing with “scientifically correct” perspectives.

Expanding on the incongruity of visual traditions outlined in chapter 2, chapter 3 examines how the strong force of the ocular turn wrote a tradition of perspective back into the history of traditional Chinese painting. As with the previous two chapters, Gu’s argument is most compelling when she zooms in on the discursive. Moving through the writings of painter Hu Peiheng (1892–1965) and Yu Jianhua (1895–1979), Gu focuses on the work of Republican theorist Zong Baihua (1897–1986) and how he mobilized premodern painting theories to articulate a distinctively Chinese mode of constructing perspective. In this Chinese iteration, artistic vision is characterized by the “three distances” that wander from “high to deep, from deep to near, and then stretch horizontally toward level” (96). Distinct from the static monocular vision of linear perspective, this indigenous Chinese perspective is mobile, itinerant, and characterized by an understanding of space as rhythmic and musical. While aligning Zong’s theorization with contemporaneous work by Western sinologists, Gu emphasizes the nationalist sentiments that motivated a collective endeavor to anthologize and theorize Chinese painting during the Republican period. Caught in the race to prove that Chinese painters did, in fact, invent perspective first, Zong’s reformulated history of Chinese painting in effect confirmed the centrality and significance of optical vision for guohua painters.

Chapters 4 and 5 turn their focus on the heightened political conditions under which Chinese painters practiced landscape painting in ink and in oil. Chapter 4 examines open-air painting during wartime China (1937–45). Using the extensive outdoor sketching experiences of Guan Shanyue (1912–2000) in Macau, Guilin, Sichuan, and the northwest during the Sino-Japanese war as a case study, Gu provides a political reading of guohua that connects the medium’s artistic agency with direct observations of reality and traces the historical motivation to make this traditional form a meaningful part of war resistance. While previous narratives on wartime art in China have tended to highlight the success of left-wing art in mediums such as woodblock print and cartoon, Gu brings our attention to the ways in which Guan rechanneled the monumental conceit of Chinese landscape painting to suit the wartime desire to see China as a strong, resilient nation-state. Gu’s beautifully crafted formal readings of Ten Thousand Miles of the Li River (1940) and Camel Bells beyond the Great Wall (1943) show us the ways in which Guan downplayed the technical aspects of brushwork (cun) while highlighting the handscroll’s formal capacities to render majestic views. Moving from Guan’s landscapes that index the atrocities of war, to compositions that function as visual metaphors of heroic militarism, and finally to sketches of national reconstruction sites that hesitate to cohere as a triumphant state view, this chapter also underlines Guan’s ambivalence toward the Nationalist government, ultimately presenting a powerful tension within the monumental visions of Guan’s wartime paintings.

The book’s final chapter discusses open-air painting in the socialist era (1945–66). Gu focuses on two particular events—the Jiangsu Painting Institute’s sketching tour in 1960 and the 1961 trip to Tibet by the oil painter Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010)—to argue that state control during early socialist China did not manifest in the formulation of a stabilized socialist style in painting (be it socialist realism or revolutionary romanticism). Rather, the party-state called for an incessant renewal of artistic styles to render its own ideological program of continuous revolution and progress. Calling for a “poetics of vision,” views of the party-state demanded that Chinese painters not only see reality, but also offer reality an artistic treatment. Individual perception, composition, and color thus became tools with which Chinese landscape painters demonstrated their own stylistic transformations, as they learned to see as new socialist subjects. In the rare case of oil painter Wu Guanzhong, the artist’s focus on the moment of perception functioned, in Gu’s reading, as form’s “last fortress” (219), granting a liminal state of autonomy for the artist and the artwork.

The book concludes with an epilogue that turns to the criticality of contemporary artist Qiu Zhijie (b. 1969) and his social-investigation tours. Conceived as a critique of the ocular turn in modern Chinese art pedagogy, Qiu’s reinvented art-school tours are not only research laden, repositioning the artist as a researcher, an anthropologist, and a sociologist, but also aim to cultivate among his students a sensitivity to the politics of seeing and the socially constructed nature of visual desire. Gu writes in her introduction that the ocular turn in early twentieth-century Chinese painting “revealed the initial formation of a modern subject who had little ground to envision him- or herself as independent from  . . . the nation-state” (8). In the epilogue, we are standing from a privileged viewpoint to see ourselves not only as national subjects, but also individuated, critical, investigatory, commercialized, “post-socialist” subjects. In between these prominent frames of visual reference, we have perhaps also accrued ways of seeing that are more elusive, less defined, and kinder both to the land and to ourselves.

Xiao (Amanda) Ju
Department of Art History, University of Rochester