Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

CLP 30: 1999 “Is There a Chinese Equivalent to Ukiyo’e?” Lecture, Columbia U

Columbia U. Lecture, March 3, 1999: Is There a Chinese Equivalent to Ukiyo-e?

Opening remarks. Thanks to John Rosenfield. Title: "Is There a Chinese Ukiyo'e?" would have been more catchy, but answer would have to be (even more unequivocally) no. I'm not going to get seriously into question of how paintings I'm dealing with differ from Ukiyo-e and füzokuga in Japan; that can come later. Only want to present a range of ptgs of the kind I'm working on now, ptgs that seem to me now to be closest Chinese equiv. to those Japanese types; and to talk abt the ptgs in themselves. Question of Ch. vs. Jap. in ptg is another big issue; I've addressed it on various occasions in dif. ways over the years; may do it again. But not tonight. Some parts of lecture were cannibalized from earlier ones--all my lectures these days tend to lock together this way. Hope those who have heard one or another of others won't be bored.

Story: Albert Skira, ca. 1958-59?
(After I had brought to show him lots of photos of Chinese paintings for my book, he finally protested: "Rocks and trees, Mr. Cahill, all you bring me are rocks and trees! My readers want to see pictures of people, and houses, and stories, not just rocks and trees!")
Edo exhib. in DC: slight twinges of impatience w. Chinese artists-- Expressed something of this feeling in my book The Lyric Journey.

My lecture this evening is drawn mostly from this book in progress, tentatively titled Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China (?) which deals with a large category of Chinese painting that not only has gone unstudied but hasn't even been recognized as a category. Some of the paintings may be known to you, but the artists probably won't be, since nearly all of them have been considered by historians of Chinese painting to be secondary or even minor masters, if noticed at all. And the paintings mostly have languished in museum storerooms or drawers, or in old collections, or have passed through auctions to disappear again into obscurity, since they weren't among the really prestigious kinds that museums and serious collectors pursue. And yet I will argue in the book, and here, that these paintings merit a place in our histories and exhibitions beside the better-known kinds from the same period--the later 17th and 18th centuries, sometimes these days called "High Qing."

S,S. (Shitao, Bada) The great artists known as Individualist masters were active in this period (names). Also contemporary with the artists I'm writing about are the "Four Wangs" & other landscapists of Orthodox school; in 18th cent., the so-called "Strange Masters" of Yangzhou; and, among others, the artists in imperial ptg academy in Beijing, which has received a lot of attn. lately. But in the midst of a general enthusiasm for the great diversity of styles and subjects that can be recognized in ptg of this exciting period, the enthusiasm somehow hasn't extended to these paintings, which have mostly found no place in our histories or our collections--.

S,S. Two popular prints of the kind often called (somewhat misleadingly , I think) nien-hua. (I think term should be reserved for popular religious prints, door guardians etc., of the kind purchased and pasted up at New Year's--not for popular prints generally, which were certainly for sale year-round--taken home by visitors to Suzhou etc.) Two 18th cent. examples. If question of Ch. equivalent to Ukiyo-e is raised, these are the things most likely to come to mind. Whole books written about them; and in China, whole departments in art academies devoted to them. They deserve this attn., to be sure, as interesting and attractive pictures. But what interest me far more, and what I'm pursuing, are certain kinds of ptgs. These somewhat escaped attn. when PRC scholars were looking around for popular kinds of art to study & reconsider, in early years; fell between--seen as bad high art, and consigned to study collections and junkrooms along w. fakes (which many of them are, in a sense), i/o being recognized as very good non-high art.

S,S. Here are two of them, just to occupy the screen while I talk some more--ident. In first part of lecture, slides will be shown only to exemplify points, won't talk about ptgs in themselves.) Part of the reason for the exclusion of these ptgs is that they are done in the conservative styles, sometimes called "academic" in negative sense, that had originated in the Sung dynasty (12th-13th cent. mostly) and continued to be used by professional masters of later periods. So these are not ptgs that feature the prominent, distinctive brushwork that was a large part of the basis of individual style in China--in fact, most of these ptgs can scarcely be said to exhibit individual or personal style at all.

-- S. (detail of Gu Jianlong) Another count against them was that they began as functional works (including, for the erotic works, the function of arousing), and weren't made primarily for aesthetic appreciation, as good ptgs were supposed to be. Also, many of them belong more, in their subjects and functions, to the popular culture of the time than to the literati, "high" culture, and so could be considered "vulgar." (So could Ch. fiction, until recently.) These three factors were enough to ensure their exclusion from the kinds of ptg that were collected and treasured, so that they survive only spottily, often through being falsely attributed to some early master, or misrepresented in subject--they had little commercial value in themselves, so they had to be misrepresented in some way to become saleable. And these false attributions have contributed further to their dismissal, since discerning collectors and scholars would think of the pictures simply as fakes.

S,S. (Two birthday ptgs: for man, woman.) Some understanding of the original status of these paintings can be reached if we bring together three Ming dynasty texts. Two of them are lists of paintings that had been owned by the "wicked" Grand Secretary Yan Song (1480-1565). The longer of these two is an uncritical inventory of objects of value in Yen's possession--representing, supposedly, the wealth he had amassed through bribery and corruption--that were confiscated from his household after he was deposed and discredited. The shorter and more selective list was compiled by Wen Jia (1501-1583), son of the great literati master Wen Zhengming and himself a noted artist and connoisseur. The paintings that Wen Jia chooses to include in his shorter list are all by famous-name masters, except for a few anonymous pieces appended at the end. What Wen Jia is doing is, in effect, compiling Yan Song's "collection catalog," applying his skills as connoisseur to judge which pieces merited inclusion in it through being genuinely from the hands of prestigious name artists. The longer list, a simple, unselective inventory of all of Yan Song's hoard of valuable objects, contains hundreds of paintings, some with artists' names but mostly identified only by title or subject. In this, by contrast, more than half of the works are anonymous; many others are by Ming professional and academy artists, or are attributed to Song-Yuan masters--most of those in the last category, since they don't appear in Wen Jia's list, can be assumed to have been of dubious authenticity.

S -- (Detail from Zhou Wei) Among this larger group are many birthday paintings, presumably presented to this powerful minister by people who were currying his favor, together with auspicious images of other kinds-- pictures of Zhong Kui the exorcist of demons, narrative and historical pictures with political implications, popular religious images, meiren or beautiful-woman pictures of unidentified authorship, and a diversity of others. These, we can assume, were the paintings used in Yan Song's household for auspicious and decorative hanging; and they can be taken to represent some of the kinds of paintings with which my book is concerned.

S,S (A painting by Du Jin; a Zhe-school ptg--both works of the kind Yan Song presumably owned, but Wen Chia wouldn't have included in his "catalog".) It must have been common practice to make such a division of paintings, functional vs. "fine art," in the holdings of large, rich families, although the distinction need not have been made sharply. Proper catalogs compiled for later collections ordinarily don't include functional paintings of the kind so numerous in the Yan Song inventory, or works by recent and contemporary artists. However, such paintings could no doubt have been seen hanging, enjoyed but not aesthetically "appreciated" or treasured, in the houses of the same collectors. Their "collection" pieces could be shown with pride to knowledgeable visitors, besides serving as indicators of status and as investments, tangible signs of the family wealth, that could (unless badly chosen) be pawned or resold to raise money as needed. Their functional and decorative pieces were presumably passed down through generations as part of the family heritage, but were unlikely to enter the upscale art market, or to be acquired by serious collectors, except when furnished with false signatures or attributions aimed at legitimizing them. The likelihood of their long-term preservation was thus much smaller.

S,S. (A particularly grandiose birthday ptg by Gu Jianlong, which won't be in my book; a large birthday picture by the late Ming artist Ch'en Kuan.) The third Ming text, an especially valuable source of information on how paintings were hung in the houses of affluent and cultivated people, is a passage in the Changwu zhi, a book now well known through the study by Craig Clunas, who renders the title "Treatise on Superfluous Things"-- luxury goods, that is, which are not primarily functional. The author of the treatise was another descendant of Wen Zhengming, his great-grandson Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645). His book offers, among other things, advice to new collectors on such questions as quality and authenticity in antiques and how they should be conserved and displayed. Of special interest is his "Calendar for the Displaying of Scrolls," which is available in a translation by R. H. van Gulik. I'll read a few excerpts:

"On New Year's morning you should display Song paintings of the Gods of Happiness and images of the Sages of olden times. . . In the second moon there should be representations of ladies enjoying spring walks, of plum blossoms, apricots, camellia, orchids, and peach and pear blossoms. On the third day of the third moon there should be shown Song pictures of the Dark Warrior. . . On the eighth day of the fourth moon, the birthday of Buddha, you should display representations of Buddha by Song and Yuan artists. . . On the fourteenth day of that moon you should show images of Lü Dongbin, also painted by artists of the Song dynasty . . .

-- S. "During the twelfth moon there should be scrolls showing Zhong Kui inviting good luck and chasing away devils or of Zhong Kui marrying off his sister . . . (Late example in Freer)

"Further, on the occasion of changing your abode you may display pictures like that of Ge Hong moving to the Lofou Mountain, while on the occasion of an anniversary there should be shown images of the God of Longevity by artists of the Song Imperial Academy or representations of the Queen of the Western Paradise. If you are praying for clear weather, hang on your wall an image of the Sun God, and when praying for rain, pictures of transcendental dragons sporting in wind and rain . . .

"Thus all scrolls should be displayed according to the season so as to indicate the time of the year and the various calendar festivals."[1]Yan Song's inventory and Wen Zhenheng's calendar match up well: one could fullfill, more or less, the calendar's stipulations for what to hang by drawing on the pictures listed in the inventory. Together, they provide a good indication of the demands that were placed on professional painters, as well as on the antique market and the studios of forgers, who supplied "Song paintings" (such as are stipulated in Wen Zhenheng's list) for a demand that must have vastly exceeded the supply.

S,S. The urban studio masters we're considering responded to demands of this kind. But their output was by no means limited to domestic uses; they also, as we will see, made paintings intended for hanging and viewing in other settings and contexts--public and semi-public places in the pleasure districts of the cities such as restaurants and brothels. Some of them did illustrations to fiction and drama (such as this one, illustrating an unidentified story); many or most of them also represented subjects that can properly be classified as erotic, whether soft-core--meiren or beautiful woman paintings, with coded sexual messages--or hard-core, in the form of erotic albums. All these will be represented in my book, and guarantee that on the one hand it will be faulted by reviewers for not having a better-defined theme (fault of the artists, not me) and on the other that it will be filled with fascinating, little-known paintings.

I have been arguing in recent writings and lectures for a view of Chinese painting history that includes large areas which have been decimated, all but obliterated, because the Chinese literati writers didn't consider them worthy of preservation, but which can still be in some part reconstructed by looking long and hard in unlikely places, and knowing what to look for. What we call Ch'an or Zen painting of the late Song and Yuan dynasties was one such area--it's well known that it survives only through the historical accident of being collected and transmitted in Japan. The works of my "urban studio artists" make up another such area. We have to recognize, I think, that out of a huge output of pictorial matter, the Chinese arbiters of taste and quality in any period dictated what should be preserved and collected, mounted and remounted as the need arose, appreciated and written about, rescued from the burning house--what should, in short, make up the history of Chinese painting.

S,S. To make the point that this selection wasn't a simple matter of quality, I introduce this pairing near the beginning of my book. Among literati paintings are a great many amateurish, even inept works that fall within the Chinese critical category of fine art largely because of their authorship, or through their exhibiting some agreed-on characteristics of high art. The late Ming scholar-artist Li Jih-hua, for instance, was represented in the "Ming Scholar's Studio" exhibition of 1988 by his landscape handscroll of 1625 (at left) titled "Rivers and Mountains in My Dream." It was highly praised in the catalog as a work in which "the landscape serv[es] as a vehicle for the poet-painter to express his desire to rise above the vicissitudes of the mundane world." One can contrast this with paintings that seem to me of far greater interest and accomplishment, but that fall outside the pale, because they fail to rise above the mundane world, choosing instead to represent it in loving detail. The example at right is the first section of a horizontal painting, anonymous, probably 17th century, representing a New Year's celebration in the courtyard of a prosperous family.

S --. (detail of 1st sec'n) Rereading recently a familiar passage in the mid-12th century text Hua chi by Teng Ch'un, the account of how the author's father, in the course of examining paintings in the imperial collection, comes upon workmen using a Kuo Hsi landscape to wipe the table, I noticed an interesting term: Among the categories of paintings his father was examining were chia-ch'ing t'u, literally "family auspicious pictures," a term presumably designating paintings done for hanging or presentation on certain auspicious family occasions. I've been watching for later uses of the term--there are two in Yüan writings--and even more, for pictures that will fit into this category, and am somewhat surprised at how many there prove to be, once one begins looking. (The same is true, in my experience, of other subject categories that have not been pulled together--we believe they aren't there because we haven't paid attention to them.) This one is in the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, among hundreds of paintings considered "study pieces," below the level of what could be exhibited and published--until, in late 1994, we organized an exhibition titled "New Interpretations of Ming and Qing Paintings" made up in large part of just such works, and published a catalog in which they were taken seriously.

S--. (left part.) Among this painting's qualifications for neglect is an attribution to the early 16th century Suchou master Ch'iu Ying, who obviously did not paint it; once it had been judged a forgery, it could be rolled up and forgotten. But once unrolled again and looked at in itself, it proves to be a delightful work, which apart from its artistic merit supplies a lot of detailed information about how New Year's was celebrated in a large, well-off family in early Ch'ing China.

S,S. More common among such pictures are hanging scrolls, intended for hanging on special occasions. This one was brought to my attention by Jan Stuart of the Freer--although I must have looked at it a number of times during my years there, I had never paid special attention to it.

-- S. Detail. Maybe 14th cent. ptg? based on earlier model? Probably as close as we will get to kind of ptg 12th century writer was talking about. Women and children in a palace? or only a very rich household? celebrating New Year's.

-- S. Another detail. This is from earlier period than ptgs my book deals with, put in only to suggest how the earlier type might have looked.

S,S. This is the whole & main sec'n of another, mid-18th cent. in date. Sig. of artist named Leng Mei, but prob. not his--appears not to match his reliably signed works in style. Studio work by some follower. (Leng Mei's name will appear several times in this lecture, not because I'm so concerned with him as an individual artist, but because his name was so frequently attached to pictures of this kind.) Whether intended for the occasion of a birthday or New Year's (or a combination of the two--note child setting off firecracker), it appears to be, like the other, a generic scene rather than a specific representation of a particular event or family. Pictures of these categories were ordinarily offered to a general clientele, we can assume, and weren't "bespoke" or produced on individual order. This mode of production, together with the well-known Chinese bias against anything functional, were additional counts, in the eyes of critics, against paintings of this kind. (Describe)

-- S. Given these circumstances of creation, the sensitivity to human feelings and relationships that infuses the best of them is remarkable--here, the women of the household & the younger children.

-- S. The portrayal of the women, in particular, attributes more dignity and individuality to them, along with a sense of momentary feeling, than Chinese paintings commonly do. One of many reasons why these paintings deserve more attention is just that they portray simple human subjects and situations with a sensitivity not usually found in later Chinese paintings.

-- S. I make this point, in the book, by juxtaposing the picture with a roughly contemporary painting of roughly the same subject, a collaborative work (typically) by several masters of the imperial academy, representing the Ch'ien-lung Emperor and his consorts and children-- the academy production seems, by contrast, cold and stiff, its high polish precluding any effect of spontaneity or direct expression of feeling. Artists of the academy were expected to produce pictures that were cool, even rather austere, in mood and highly formal, pictures in which anecdotal, humanizing detail had no place. (I have a chapter on the back-and-forth between these city artists and court acad. in Beijing--which is largely staffed by just these ptrs from Jiangnan cities; and I argue ... (etc)

S, S. What is embodied in the family occasion pictures, however, is usually not the particulars of the occasion celebrated but an ideal vision of it, or of the future it portends. This example in the Portland Art Museum, by the early 18th century master Leng Mei, who served in the imperial academy but also did work outside it, was probably intended for a wedding; but it is a wedding with children already in place. In another strongly gendered arrangement, the mother sits on one side attended by her daughters,

S --. and opposite her the father, a successful scholar-official, with two sons already headed toward the same career, as their actions and attributes tell us. Assuming that this was a wedding painting (as is strongly suggested by an inscription on it), it predicts, and in some sense participates in bringing about, these blessings for the newly-married couple.

S,S. A recent acquisition of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts represents another kind of ptg these artists did on occasion, the family group portrait, sometimes showing the family in their villa. (They also did single portraits, but since these have been much studied by others, I am leaving them out of this book.) At left is the first half of a handscroll, the earliest example of this sub-genre that I know, by the early Qing Suzhou master Gu Jianlong, who is taking on an unexpected importance in this book. The family portrayed is that of the artist's friend Wang Shimin, who was the oldest of the Four Wangs and the founder of the Orthodox School of landscape. A work by Wang Shimin from 1651 is on the right. In 1683, after Wang' Shimin's death, Gu Jianlong was shown this painting, and, presumably at the owner's request, wrote a long inscription on it, in which he recalls his friendship with Wang over some fifty years. Gu's inscription scarcely differs in any respect, even in its calligraphic style, from what one of the Orthodox-school landscapists themselves might have written. And Wang Shimin composed an admiring colophon for an album of copy-sketches after old paintings made by Gu Jianlong (now in K.C.),

-- S, Wang S-m in detail) and when he wanted a group portrait representing himself and his family in their residence, he requested or commissioned Gu to make it. Such a pairing helps us understand how these radically different kinds of painting could co-exist comfortably in their time. The disdain that Wang Shimin expresses in his writings for painting that fell outside his "Orthodox" lineage is directed toward contemporary landcapists of other, wrongheaded schools. Gu Jianlong was not a landscapist, and so was no threat to Wang Shimin's cherished beliefs. The pictures that Gu produced were not simply judged on the same scale as Wang's works and placed far below them; they represented (as both would have agreed) another kind of painting, different in intent and function. And the difference is fundamental to the argument of my book. In some part it is a matter of social-economic class: Wang Shimin, as scion to a wealthy gentry family and a direct pupil of the great Dong Qichang, could never have painted pictures of the kind Gu did, even if his technique had permitted it. And, although there is enough evidence to show that Gu Jianlong was quite capable of painting good approximations of Wang's landscapes if he had chosen to do so, the point is that no one would have asked him to.

-- S. The second half of Gu Jianlong's group portrait. (Describe) Earliest example I know of this type; Gu originated it? He's emerged in course of my investigation as a crucial figure in giving new life and new directions to profes. trad. of ptg, as rep. by low-level followers of Qiu Ying & Tang Yin (so-called Suzhou p'ien).

S,S. A simpler picture of this type is this anonymous work, of some elegance, probably 18th century in date, in the British Museum (details of the upper and lower parts.) The female members are set within the house and on the verandah, while the male members, seen outside, display different degrees of mobility in their placement and postures--the oldest of the males, presumably the father, has ventured out with a boy servant to gather herbs. This picture, by contrast with those shown before, appears to portray a particular family. Assembled and sensitively read, a series of such works (and there are others) could open up understandings of the dynamics of the family in late-period China that would supplement what written sources reveal.

S,S. A handscroll in the Tientsin Historical Museum which I saw in the original last year but can show you only in slides made from a small, unclear reproduction, is a complex and visually splendid portrayal of members of a rich family shown within the lovingly-depicted buildings and gardens of their villa. I was not allowed to make slides, and there is even a question of whether I will be able to reproduce a section or two from it. And, for the reasons outlined earlier, such a work is unlikely to be well reproduced or receive serious scholarly attention in China. It bears the seal of a certain Ch'ang-yin, unidentified, presumably the artist.

S,S. (If I hear scarcely suppressed groans from some in the audience who have heard, in one form or another, my lectures on representations of women in late Chinese painting, and are muttering to themselves: no, please, he's not going to give us those again! --relax, I am not. They will be off the screen soon, and will be followed by only a few others of the type, mostly new ones, that is not in my Met lectures.) In this large project, which has occupied me for some years, the first task that underlay all the rest was to cut through the facades of misdirection that have attached to these paintings over the centuries and try to see them as what they are. The work with which the whole project began, on the left, for instance, bears an inscription that would, if trusted, make it a portrait of the famous courtesan-poet Liu Yin, painted in 1643, after she had become the concubine of the prominent scholar-official Ch'ien Ch'ien-i. But any scholarly study that accepted and used the painting as that--and there have already been several--falls into the trap set by some Chinese dealer. In fact, it demonstrably dates from about a century later, and is a generic picture of a beautiful woman, not a portrait of anyone in particular.

-- S. Moreover, it has been cut down from a composition that originally placed the woman in an elaborate interior, as is betrayed by another version (at right), similarly misrepresented as a self-portrait of the late Ming courtesan-artist Ma Shou-chen.

The argument being made today, with some vehemence, that denounces questions of quality and authenticity as elitist concerns, would like to divorce itself from connoisseurship to use the pictures as more or less undifferentiated carriers of pictorial information about social beliefs and practices. But the unstable positioning of the Chinese works, many or most of which are in some way misrepresented in period, authorship, and subject, presents to those inclined this way the hard fact that until the pictures are sorted out in some old-fashioned art-historical manner and set into their proper positions and relationships, a task requiring, alas, some exercise of connoisseurship, we will find them being introduced as referents or data for the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong situation. It will sound self-serving to say that uses of these paintings by specialists in other areas of Chinese studies will be insecure until the art historians have done their work, but it's nonetheless true.

S --. Placement of woman in boudoir would in itself would call into question the 1643 dating, since the placing of mei-jen or beautiful women in interior settings, their boudoirs, cannot on firm evidence be shown to antedate the K'ang-hsi period--this example, dated 1697, is by the Yangzhou master Yü Chih-ting--and was probably stimulated by contacts with European pictures of such subjects.

-- S. This engraving, for instance, appeared in Aloysius Kircher's illustrated book on China fill in thirty years earlier, in 1667. My point is not that Yu Zhiding knew Kircher's work--unlikely, altho not impossible, since Yu spent time at court--but that by this time a back-and-forth was going on bet. China & Europe that allowed such comings-together, each of the artists having some knowledge, but not full knowledge, of other tradition. (Describe.)

S,S. Continuing for a time with the meiren or beautiful-woman genre (treated also in earlier lectures, but in different ways), let me use it to introduce three large themes that are raised in my book, but can only be touched on here. One is the relationship of our city artists with the imperial painting academy in Beijing. It has usually been presented, when mentioned at all, in a way that now seems to me upside down, with the creative achievements taking place in the academy and then trickling outward onto lower levels. In fact, the court academy was largely made up of artists who had established themselves in the cities and were then invited to court on the basis of their skills; they brought with them, I think, more than they took away when they left (as many of them did.) In a published article (drawn from the book) I discussed the case of Zhang Zhen, a figure painter from Yangzhou who also specialized in dogs and cats--a painting by him at right. He was called to court under the Kangxi Emperor, and his son and grandson also served in the academy under the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors. A set of 12 large paintings of palace ladies done for Yongzheng, made originally as a screen to be used in the imperial garden called the Yuan Ming Yuan, is, I believe, a work by Zhang Zhen or his son or both. Around these paintings and others I develop an argument about the great attraction that the romantic "courtesan culture" of the Jiangnan cities held for the Manchu emperors, and the ways in which they tried to import some of it into the court for their private enjoyment--sometimes contrary to their own edicts. (This is further dev. in article appearing right about now, in Kaikodo 11, titled "The Emperor's Erotica.")

S,S. Another large and interesting theme, which I'd love to elaborate on but cannot at length, is the adoptions by these Chinese artists of compositions, themes, and representational techniques from European pictures that had become accessible to them. Here, a work by Leng Mei from the 1720s, and a Dutch painting by Gerard Dou dtd 1667. The route of transmission for some of these is still mysterious, but the similarities are far too close for coincidence, especially in the context of all the other evidence for Chinese borrowings from European pictures in this period.

S,S. Straying off subject again for a moment, let me remark that I will propose an account of how 18c Qing painters inside & outside court made use of elements of European style that will be quite different from standard ones, which focus on their adoption of Italian-style linear perspective. That now appears to me far less important than their development of compositions featuring complex spatial schemes, spaces opening beyond spaces, using illusionistic tech. from foreign pictorial art. Also shading-- (Jiao Bingzhen vs. Nadal.)

S,S. (Ch'en Mei vs. another) Not ideal pairings, but serve. (etc.)

S,S. A third theme that has emerged during the writing is the extraordinary versatility of these masters. The same artist, or at least the same studio, that produced the so-called portrait of Liu Yin also did a Buddhist subject, a white-robed Guanyin, in the Indianapolis Art Museum--again, correspondences in details leave no doubt--

S --. and then went on to paint the "Western Garden" picture (if it is that) in the Freer. These form a distinct stylistic group; they appear to be by some follower or followers of Leng Mei; I would like to know who did them. (Say a word abt Freer ptg.--size, etc.)

S,S. The romantic and the religious don't appear to be in conflict here, as the Guanyin exhibits many of the characteristics of the meiren or secular beauty, and the lovers seem absorbed in an almost trancelike state of amorous communion.

S.S. Since the artists produced these pictures for a diversity of needs in studios located in the bustling commercial and entertainment districts of cities, especially the great cities of the Jiangnan or Yangzi Delta region, it's natural that some of their most interesting works would reflect what has been called the courtesan culture, and the popular literature, mostly fiction and plays, in which its romantic ideals were embodied. They provide us with the best pictorial sources we have for visualizing that culture, in both its fictional and its real-life aspects. Here is another large ptg. by one of the small city masters, Hua Xuan (who was active in Wuxi), titled "Eight Beauties of the Hibiscus Terrace" (Detail shows how fig. come forward into viewer's space--very effective device adopted from Eur. pictures?

--S. This large-scale work--more than ten feet wide--was first published in a 1914 catalog by the Shanghai dealer E. A. Strehlneek, who also sold the "Western Pavilion" picture to Freer. Paintings of this kind, like Japanese Ukiyoe prints in standard account (maybe revisionist rereading), seem to have been appreciated in that late period more by westerners than by Chinese, and thus often passed into foreign collections. (They were relatively inexpensive in China because Chinese collectors considered them low-class. When a history of Chinese painting collecting is written, there should be a chapter titled "In Praise of Bad Taste.")

-- S. More recently this work was acquired by a Hong Kong dealer, and it's now in a U.S. private collection (where I saw it recently & made slides.) In Strehlneek's time it was said to be a group portrait of the eight concubines of the Ming artist Tang Yin, but that's another example of the kind of misrepresentation that these paintings commonly suffer. The women must be eight courtesans or prostitutes on the balcony of a brothel, smiling and gesturing to attract men in the street, or perhaps in a courtyard below.

--S. The gestures the women make and the things they hold (flowers, a fan with butterflies, a Buddha's-hand fruit) are coded invitations of a kind that I explored in my lectures on images of women in late Chinese painting. Besides the signature of Hua Xuan the "Eight Beauties" painting bears a cyclical date that probably corresponds to 1736.

S,S. Meiren or beautiful women pictures were a specialty of some of these artists. My long section on them in this book, although it will attempt to sort them by type and locale, even by individual hand for a few, will arrange them mainly on a loose scale, stretching upward or downward as you prefer, from cool to warm to hot--referring, of course, to the intensity of the erotic charge they carry. At the cool end is this handsome picture in the British Museum. It has been catalogued and reproduced as a "Portrait of a Lady," but no proper lady would have herself portrayed in such a provocative pose or with so much of her upper body exposed. She is, once more, a woman of the courtesan-concubine class; the signs that attribute cultivation and intelligence to her only heighten her desirability.

S,S. Another at "cool" end--in fact, not properly a meiren picture at all--is this very handsome work by Cui Hui, an imaginary portrait of Song poet Li Qingzhao (etc.)

S,S. Warm category: ptgs in which erotic content is relatively subtle. This is Leng Mei ptg dtd 1724 in Tientsin Art Museum. Another good example of how painters of such works made use of western-derived illusionism for their effects: drawing viewer into woman's space, making her seem palpable. Also, of course, provocative posture and look. And Buddha's-hand fruit.

S --. But most striking in this ptg: (describe)

S,S. Near the "hot" end is this painting in the Chicago Art Institute--the slide, borrowed from the Princeton slide collection, identifies it as a "portrait of a court lady." But what we see is the voyeur's dream, the self-aroused woman spied through a window, engaged in something close to masturbation. Both this and the British Museum picture are supposed to be by Leng Mei, but aren't--his is a kind of catch-all name for such paintings, since he was one of the few relatively well-known artists who did them.)

S,S. When I saw the previous ptg at the Chicago Art Institute last spring, the curator also brought out this, a gift, never exhibited. (etc.)

S,S. Another category of paintings that has not been effectively mined is the erotic albums, of which many examples survive from the later centuries, at least from the early Ch'ing on. Dismissed by mainstream sinologues as crude and prurient, they have been written about chiefly by people with scanty qualifications to deal with them, even to separate the larger number that are indeed crude and repetitive from those examples that are in no way inferior in quality to paintings of other subject categories in the same periods. These are two leaves from an erotic album, sold several years ago at auction, by Hsü Mei, who was one of the artists called to court to participate in the production in 1713 of a handscroll titled Wanshou tu celebrating the 60th birthday of the K'ang-hsi Emperor. It takes a sharp-eyed viewer to spot the erotic imagery in them--a tiny glimpse of engaged genitalia in the further room of one leaf, or

S --. the intricate pattern of voyeurism, facilitated by translucent pants, in the garden scene (point out in detail.) But these, too, are revealing images--somewhat slanted and special, to be sure--of family life in early Qing China, of a kind that are not otherwise easily to be found.

S,S. Another high-quality album is the one now owned by Hugh Moss in London, with seals of Leng Mei--but again, I don't think it's by him. (Describe.)

S,S. Intimate scenes of life in large, well-off household--including sexual life, but not only that--can be found also in the leaves in two albums, apparently from the same hand or at least the same studio, dating around a half-century later, the mid or later 18th century, that passed in recent years through New York auctions (where I made slides of them) and then disappeared, at least from my view--if anyone can tell me where they are, I'll be grateful. (One of them is part of large series or set produced within the Ch'ien-lung court by some court academy master whom I can't identify. Article coming out ...) I've shown and discussed the openly erotic leaves of these albums on other occasions; here are two in which the couples are engaged, not in sex, but in romantic and domestic pursuits that are presented with genuine tenderness. Again, where else can we find these qualities in Chinese painting?

S,S. The best of the erotic albums, as a group, may offer the closest pictorial equivalents to the novels Jin Ping Mei and Hung-lou meng in portraying subtle interrelationships, sexual and other, within an upper-class Chinese household. One might argue that it was exactly the illicit status of these paintings, their association with outright erotica and their dismissal as pornography from the realm of polite aesthetic appreciation, that freed the artists to transgress as well the established boundaries of taste that barred them from depicting subjects of this kind, and even more from investing their depictions with such nuances of feeling.

-- S. We might think that this kind of ptg limited to erotic albums; largely true; but also hanging scrolls? such as this, which went thru auction, disappeared-- (etc.)

S,S. Returning finally to the question of court and city paintings in the late period: a number of the large collaborative works produced by academy artists, sometimes with help from painters temporarily engaged from outside, have recently begun to be studied and included in our histories. Notable cases are the two series of long scrolls depicting the southern tours of the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors, the objects of special research by Maxwell Hearn of the Met in NYC. They are splendid productions, especially the Ch'ien-lung series--these are two sections from the scroll in the Metropolitan Museum depicting the Emperor's visit to Suchou, ending with the Tiger Hill outside the city. The project was accomplished over a period of six years, between 1764 and 1770, by the court artist Xu Yang--who himself came from Suchou--no doubt with the help of assistants, who go unnamed. The scrolls include a lot of detail of street scenes and urban activities, but the figures and buildings are rather repetitive and stiff. These scrolls may in the end leave us with a desire to escape from the grandiose display that was laid on everywhere the emperor went, to look into everyday urban life as it continued after he had gone home to the palace.

-- S. The same Xu Yang had painted another panoramic scroll of Suchou for the Emperor in 1659, again ending with the Tiger Hill; this, too, is very informative as a cityscape but offers only a rather cool and distant view, in which the figures and shops and boats have a somewhat ready-made character and lack liveliness, as the detail reveals. It is as if the artist and his assistants were not really much interested in the daily life of the city, besides being too respectful of the emperor and the court to inflict such trivialities on them. We may wish that we could move in for closer and more intimate inspection of some of the activities portrayed, and persuade the people engaged in them to relax a bit, act as they do when off camera.

S, S. Here, again, one of the forgotten urban-professional artists obliges. Around the same time that Hsü Yang and his workshop were producing the "Ch'ien-lung's Southern Tour" series, in 1768, an unnamed painter, presumably a small master of Suchou, was engaged to do a scroll commemorating a visit to the Tiger Hill by Su Ting-yüan, who had served for five years as magistrate of Chiang-su, and who was invited on an outing to the eastern suburbs of the city by a Mr. Lao. We see Su and some of his entourage in this detail from near the beginning of the scroll. His is a much more modest procession than Ch'ien-lung's, the central part of which appears in the slide at right.

S,S. More of Su's party. The faces of his companions appear to be portraits, and presumably include his host Mr. Lao, the one who engaged the artist (unnamed but designated in the accompanying inscription as a hua-shih, professional master) to do a pictorial record of the visit. Whether the painter accompanied the group and made sketches as they moved about or simply was familiar with the shops and restaurants at the foot of Tiger Hill is not made clear. The scroll, not surprisingly, is in a western collection, that of a retired British diplomat living in the suburbs of London.

S,S. The outriders leading the procession, with standard-bearers proclaiming the coming of the magistrate of Chiang-su, pass by an antique shop; below, gentlemen are seen partying in pleasure boats on the canal, eating dinner and playing music. Further on we find a welcoming party including an elderly couple and what appear to be two beautiful entertainers, who are being ogled through a kind of monacle by one of the waiting men. The boat below, empty except for the boatmen, is ready to accomodate Su, his guests, and the entertainers. The contrast between this and the imperial scrolls typifies the relationship between "high" and "low" in paintings of this kind: it is the "low" example that provides an abundance of particulars specific to the time and place, along with a kind of witty social commentary,

S,S. and even betrays some interest in the feelings of the people who appear in it. Servants in a restaurant by the canal buy fish and prepare dishes, carrying them to banqueters in the upstairs room, while a female servant hangs the laundry and two women eat their dinners as they wait, we imagine, for a call to entertain guests. Another woman entertainer, in the detail at left, gazes moodily out over the water as her child tugs at her; three simple bird-and-flower pictures pinned to the wall behind suggest a way of life that is simple but not without its small refinements. Such a scene may recall the lovely entertainers in Japanese prints by Harunobu (in exactly this period) who have come out from the party to stand alone on the verandah, subtly expressing melancholy in their postures and faces.

S,S. It is paintings like this that allow us to escape somewhat the conventions of the iconic mei-jen type of single beautiful-woman pictures, designed as those are to cater to the special desires of male gazers, and see deeper into the lives of the women--although, of course, these too would no doubt be seen to follow other conventions if we had more of them. A group of richly-robed, geisha-like women with gold hair ornaments, again accompanied by children, pass the time between entertaining guests in a boat; a boat-girl waits below a bridge, hoping to attract a passenger, while her little boy peeps through the door.

S,S. Equally entertaining and informative are depictions of the toy shops for which the Tiger Hill was famous. In ch. 67 of Hung-lou Meng we read a description of a group of them brought back for Baozhai by her brother from a trip to Suzhou: she gives a few of them to Lin Daiyu, in whom they bring on "a severe attack of nostalgia" for her home city. The "novelties from Hu-qiu-shan" or Tiger Hill describedinclude "little mercury-filled automata who turned somersaults when you put them down on the floor or a table, automata with sand-filled cylindrical bodies whose arms and heads move when you set the sane running, and lots and lots of scenes from drama made up of tiny figures molded in colored clan . . ." (Hawkes v.3 pp. 311-316.) In a shop of this kind selling dolls, the bespectacled artisan touches up the head of one of them; in another selling roly-polys, like the Japanese Daruma dolls, the shopwoman is observed by a man with spectacles, while in the back room an older woman sews costumes for the toys. Pictures like this one persuade us that there was a Chinese equivalent to Ukiyo-e (and also Fûzokuga or genre painting), but that unlike the Japanese works, subjects of a vast literature, it has gone largely unnoticed. How far it can stiill be recovered is a question for the future.

-- S. Finally, at the entrance to a temple, behind a row of monks, is a booth selling objects not easily identified, where one can also buy unmounted mei-jen pictures, the Metropolitan Museum's so-called T'ang Yin beauty on a banana leaf, a bird-and-flower picture, or a landscape in the manner of Ni Tsan, according to one's tastes and needs. And these are only a sampling of the delights offered by this scroll. No misdirection is involved here--the painting presents itself as nothing other than what it is. But its honesty goes unrewarded; it bears the compounded stigmata of anonymity, functionalism, popular style, and engaging subject matter; no respectable Chinese connoisseur would do more than glance at the opening passage before rolling it quickly up again.

The point I want to make strongly, and have tried to make in relation to the series of works introduced tonight, is that it is not merely a matter of the excluded categories of Chinese painting being, on the whole, equal in quality to the more familiar kinds, if we can expand our criteria of judgement; they exhibit qualities that cannot easily be found among the accepted categories. This is because the artists who did them were permitted, by their very exclusion from the realm of "polite" painting, to infuse their works with expressions of human feeling and warmth, incident and drama, close observation of the world around them, more relaxed renderings of scenes of everyday life, that were taboo for their critically more elevated contemporaries. High quality in Chinese painting had been implicitly defined as the absence of just those qualities, which marked the lower levels of the art, since true connoisseurs were not supposed to succumb to such blandishments; and we have unthinkingly and uncritically accepted this version of the matter. Another generation of searching out, reattributing, re-ordering and re-assessing these paintings will be needed before we can make with confidence the kind of statement I am about to make as a conjecture. Certain areas of subject matter and expressiveness that we have assumed to be missing from Chinese painting, areas that are taken for granted in the European and Japanese painting traditions, may prove to be missing only from the "official version" of the art. They may, that is, turn out to be there after all, once we look outside the conventional boundaries, beyond the walls that the Chinese literati critics have erected.

S,S. (Dark slides.) There will no doubt be some in this audience, and in other audiences, who, after seeing and hearing all this, will feel that the Chinese connoisseurs were right all the time, that what I have shown is indeed low-class and trivial, afflicted with bad brushwork, and so forth. But that response only testifies, in my own thoroughly biased view, to the success of centuries of indoctrination. My hope is that those people will be outnumbered by others who are open to liking and admiring these pictures, as I do. Those among Chinese painting specialists, especially younger ones, who share my enthusiasm for these pictures have their task ahead of them, a task for which my book will only point the way. It is a major expansion of the visible regions of Chinese painting, a remapping that incorporates the kinds I've shown and others. The remapping will always be spotty in some areas for which the survival rate has been poor, for reasons I've suggested. But even these areas are not altogether beyond recovery, and will certainly reward our efforts. In addition to the little-explored holdings outside China, there are many lesser, little-known collections in China, belonging to art colleges and other institutions and individuals; and even when the committee of distinguished connoisseurs currently making its rounds of mainland collections has gone through their holdings and published those pieces judged worthy of attention, or the institution itself has published a volume of what it considers to be its best paintings, we can be sure that these will still be confined mainly to the name-artist category, and that works of the excluded kinds will continue to languish in obscurity, until attitudes change and someone takes the trouble to dig them out and make them accessible. In any case, we can assume that each of the paintings I've shown represents what was originally a large genre or subject category, and even allowing for the bad survival rate, there usually will be enough others extant, if we can locate them, to permit a kind of reconstruction of the type or genre, and the addition of it to our understanding and our histories of Chinese painting.

Other difficulties will arise in the study of these paintings, even after they've been located and set properly in place through the practices of connoisseurship and art-historical analysis. Paintings of the hitherto excluded kinds are likely to present interpretative problems more difficult than those posed by name-artist paintings, at least as those problems have been construed in our studies. Taking an artist as a focus greatly facilitates the formulation of a research plan: one can look into his biography and his writings, go about seeing and studying his works, analyze his style and his development. Whole symposia have been held, in China and here, that never got beyond those concerns. Paintings of the kinds I've talked about today don't offer such easy handles for grasping; they raise harder questions--but for me, at least lately, and for a growing number of others, they are very absorbing questions, opening new areas of research. And specialists in the future will identify and address still more interesting and complex questions, beside which mine will appear simplistic. But one must make a beginning, and my book is meant as no more than that.

Thank you.

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...