Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 22, 2002
Maxwell K. Hearn and Judith G. Smith, eds. Chinese Art: Modern Expressions Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001. 311 pp.; 183 b/w ills. $19.95 (0300091982)

Chinese Art: Modern Expressions comprises papers and commentaries from an international symposium held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2001. The publication brings together research by leading scholars on a variety of topics pertaining to Chinese modern art and encompasses a number of methodological orientations. Although the papers stay within the conventional time frame for China’s modern period, that is, between the mid-nineteenth and the third quarter of the twentieth century, they individually and collectively negotiate a nuanced reading of the period predicated upon shifting paradigms and fluid geocultural boundaries.

David Wang’s paper, “In the Name of the Real,” is a literary historian’s analysis of Xu Beihong, one of the most influential proponents of realism in the 1920s and 1930s. Years of training in the French academic system convinced Xu that verisimilitude, structured composition, and narrative clarity were the primary criteria for painting, indeed, the only worthy paths for modern Chinese painting. Giving voice to his detractors, including the poet Xu Zhimo and the painter Lin Fengmian, Wang exposes Xu Beihong’s anachronism and obstinacy. After critically reviewing Xu’s art, the author launches a more objective evaluation of his brand of realism, elaborating on its aims with reference to the political and intellectual climate under which the artist lived and to comparable trends in contemporary literature. This cross-disciplinary approach places pictorial realism and the practice of art within the larger sphere of Chinese cultural life in the first half of the twentieth century.

In “Painting and the Built Environment in Late-Nineteenth-Century Shanghai,” Jonathan Hay situates Chinese modernity in urban spaces. He explores the ways in which “buildings affect the subjects and styles of the paintings,” thereby asserting a symbiosis between visual display and its physical setting, a relationship too frequently ignored by art historians. Three types of public structures are analyzed: “architecture of permanence,” “architecture of displacement,” and “architecture of spectacle.” Of the three, architecture of spectacle has the greatest bearing upon Hay’s discussion of painting and could very well be the subject of an independent article. This structure refers to entertainment establishments characterized by bustling crowds, stairs and balconies, and the conscious emphasis on vision (to see and to be seen). These features, Hay argues, are “encoded” in the “sweeping movements, anecdotal detail, and oblique vectors” (79) of the mature Shanghai paintings of the 1870s to 1890s. He also asserts that certain motifs such as cats and birds, as well as the paintings’ narrow format and cropped compositions, were fundamentally derived from the experience of Shanghai’s urban enclosures. The paper’s merit lies in its complex analogy between patterns of pictorial description and the experience of architectural space, which renders local style into more than just a geographical notion. However, some of the characteristically “Shanghai” features Hay identifies had already existed in Ming and Qing urban centers. By ignoring these precedents, the author exaggerates the uniqueness of nineteenth-century Shanghai painting and potentially limits the temporal and geographical reach of Chinese modernism.

Eugene Y. Wang’s paper examines the resurgence of the age-old concept of xieyi, or “sketch conceptualism,” in twentieth-century painting. Xieyi is defined here as “highly abbreviated, sketchy forms” that “evoke conceptual overtones and spiritual resonance beyond tangible formal properties” (103). Wang argues that this set of qualities informed the art of the late-career Xu Beihong and of Chang Yu, a lesser-known oil painter active in Paris who produced still lifes and nudes in the style of the French modernists. The paper maintains that the sketchy manner observed in both artists’ works was indicative of a self-orientalizing tendency mediated by Western paradigms of abstraction and modernism. Formal evidence strongly supports a concordance between xieyi and Western abstraction, but Wang presents little hard data proving that the two artists were making explicit connections for this on the intellectual level. This is not to dismiss Wang’s arguments altogether. Many modern artists were indeed working to find similarities between Western and Chinese traditions but did not articulate their procedures in regard to specific pictorial mode. At any rate, Wang’s paper demonstrates the permeable barrier between the so-called Western-style and Chinese-style painting.

”Li Keran and His Exhibition Paintings” by Wan Qingli is an important topic and interesting paper. It examines the impact of public exhibitions on the stylistic evolution of the painter Li Keran, who was known for his robust brushwork and dramatic use of chiaroscuro. According to Wan, these features were inspired by the experience of seeing the calligraphy of the Shanghai master Wu Changshuo and the paintings of Rembrandt on exhibition displays. Wan goes on to delineate the artist’s creative synthesis of these prototypes, explaining the fine points of his brush work and ink method. The latter is a particularly rewarding part for the reader, as the technical aspect of modern Chinese art is seldom explained in detail in historical analyses. That Wan was once Li’s painting student also adds substance to the discussion. The paper further argues for the correlation between Li’s critical acclaim and his exhibition record. Wan maintains that Li’s success as early as the 1940s and his popularity in subsequent years were due in part to his active participation in public showings. Few historians have seriously examined, as Wan does, the significance of the art exhibition in the unfolding of Chinese modernism. The essay is a commendable attempt to forge a connection between the internal and the external conditions of art making.

The last two papers, by Lothar Ledderose and Qianshen Bai, study the textual arts of calligraphy and seal impression. In “Aesthetic Appropriation of Ancient Calligraphy in Modern China,” Ledderose focuses on the “Northern School” of calligraphy, which refers to a style of writing inspired by the archaic scripts found on archaeologically recovered stelae and bronze vessels. Calligraphy has no equivalence in the Western tradition, yet nearly the entire first half of Ledderose’s paper consists of a comparison between the Northern School and European architecture, citing similarities in their methods of dissemination and paradigmatic status among the arts. Comparative approach such as this no doubt helps establish the mechanics of history making, but European architectural trends and Chinese calligraphy are so unrelated that this approach seems extraneous to the appreciation of aesthetic principles and their practical applications. A more satisfactory discussion occurs in the second half of the paper, in which the author turns to specific examples of antique revivalism in modern painting and calligraphy. Among the works discussed are those by Wu Changshuo, Zhao Zhiqian, He Shaoqi, and others who exemplified the spirit of the Northern School. Though well known among specialists, this corpus of works has not received much scholarly attention outside China. Ledderose’s study is a welcome addition to current scholarship.

Bai’s essay “From Wu Dacheng to Mao Zedong: The Transformation of Chinese Calligraphy in the Twentieth Century” examines the changing status of calligraphy and seal impression among China’s political elite. The author focuses on the absence of seals in Mao Zedong’s calligraphy. Seal impressions have long been regarded as markers of “cultural sophistication and social status” (250) in traditional China, especially for a holder of public office. However, after 1949 Mao almost never used seals in his letters or in places where seals had been called for in the past, such as on door plaques. Bai suggests that this departure from tradition was Mao’s way of asserting the Communist new order, a political posture repeated by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. This text calls attention to a common denominator in the seldom-studied scriptive practice of recent Chinese leaders. Toward the end of the paper, Bai suggests that calligraphy, once a powerful emblem of the cultivated class, has largely succumbed to amateurism; at times, it is also turned into a form of entertainment. This study is not so much about criticizing Mao and his political successors as a reminder of the dilemma faced by calligraphy in the modern period. While there is a strong desire to preserve calligraphy as an intrinsic part of Chinese culture, the increasing alienation of its practitioners from the classical tradition makes the effort seem frivolous.

Chinese Art: Modern Expressions is a collection of thought-provoking narratives. The subject of modern Chinese art is presented from a variety of angles, from influence studies, to transcultural analysis, to discussions of social and political history. Expertly edited and with well-placed illustrations, the volume reads very smoothly. At the same time, it is also one of the more intellectually demanding works to emerge on the subject in recent years. Although not to be regarded as an introductory text, this publication is a valuable resource and an encouraging sign of the surging interest in modern Chinese art.

Aida Yuen Wong
Brandeis University