Art to tempt the Ming consumer

Art in China - Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China
July 31, 1998

Art in China is a functional interpretation of art in the contexts of tomb, court and temple ranging from the prehistoric until the early 1990s. The last two chapters deal with the correlate themes of art in elite society and art in the market place. Pictures and Visuality is a more restricted engagement with ways of seeing pictures during the last hundred years or so of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), in which "pictures" denotes almost everything visual from paintings, prints and maps to scenes on luxury items of porcelain and lacquer.

The account of calligraphy in Art in China is excellent. Much of the known history of calligraphy is contained in sources written for artists by artists who defined calligraphy as - akin to painting - an individual writer's execution of forms with a wet brush on silk or paper. Craig Clunas accepts this traditional formulation of the imperial period as his starting point for discussing calligraphy, and claims that writing emerged as an art form only in the early centuries of the Common Era. Some might contest that this view excludes earlier writing, and discounts what surely have to be regarded as earlier calligraphic forms inscribed on huge numbers of bronze vessels and weapons from the Bronze Age.

Perhaps, therefore, Clunas's definition of calligraphy as an art form should be qualified with the notion of individual authorship, since in this sense the father of Chinese calligraphy, Wang Xizhi (303-61), was an individual of the fourth century whose towering artistic position remains uncontroverted by any predecessor. The safe survival of the canon of Wang Xizhi's style was ensured by tracing 419 surviving notes and letters carving them on woodblocks in 992, an event among others that Clunas describes with typical lucidity. It was a treatment of the Wang Xizhi heritage of remarkable contrast to Tang times (618-907), when Wang's writings were used as a kind of "letterset" resource that could serve within obvious limitations for models of each character of a newly commissioned inscription.

Particularly welcome are Clunas's comments on late developments in calligraphy, which include the remarkable re-interpretation of the earliest imperial epigraphic traditions in the scrolls of Deng Shiru (1743-1805). Deng was one of a number of Qing artists to be influenced in this direction by an upsurge of interest in antiquity during the 18th century, and some of their work is now visible in the newly appointed calligraphy gallery of the Shanghai Museum. Another subject of discussion is the work of Xu Bing, whose invention of a totally asemantic and aphonetic script resembling Chinese characters has been exhibited in the form of limited editions of traditional woodblock printed books. The result, for audiences who read Chinese, is both an eerie recognition of traditional forms and an utter failure to read and understand a single "word" of the text in front of them.

The production of art on a purely speculative basis, in Clunas's and many other historians' view, began in the Song dynasty (960-19). However, even if not on the same scale and despite their currency in the less urbanised landscape of the late Tang, the massive commerce in costumes, equestrian apparel, gifts and dining equipment to supply weddings, funerals and examination results was predicated on a basis of supply well ahead of demand. Some epitaph stones were cut with all-purpose texts that had been prepared well in advance of whatever client might appear with a funeral to be arranged. Books too, particularly dictionaries, in a pre-printing era, were produced as fast as copying allowed by family concerns, some of whose superhuman speeds of writing became the entertaining subject of apocryphal record. Even religious paintings, as Clunas remarks, were executed with blank cartouches awaiting the names of pious donors. What was new in the tenth century, then, was the scale of these operations, an aspect in which Clunas has certainly not overlooked later periods.

The vibrant, southeast cultural centres of the lower Yangtze delta of the late 16th century form the backdrop of Pictures and Visuality. The place and period produced probably the richest and most eloquent statements concerning which cultural products were intended for which audience, attainable by which constituencies, and desirable at what price. The staggering wealth of contemporary sources dealing with these questions is itself a cultural phenomenon of huge import. These sources have remained barely recognised or even known outside China, but Clunas's understanding of them and the cultural products upon which they are premised is probably unrivalled.

His enquiry into visual culture in Pictures and Visuality deliberately avoids any firm grounding in a division of paintings and other visual images. Indeed, he looks well beyond the confines of an established tradition that elevates qualities of spontaneity and strength in a painting's brushwork and deplores the effects of mere mimesis. Mimesis failed, in a much-worked dictum, to go "beyond representation". Such a theory, sanctioned by most Chinese writing on the subject, has always sat uncomfortably beside those large sections of the Chinese corpus of paintings that fail to meet its criteria. Clunas presents a fascinating case for understanding what is represented in paintings along with pictures on other media as the subjects of "iconic circuits": the same scene or image might appear in lacquerwork or ceramics, or else in more than one painting yet subject to highly differing treatments. Clunas argues that during the Ming period a growing estrangement arose between self-referential styles termed "scholar paintings", the works that went "beyond representation", and paintings which scholar painters denigrated - in fact hardly bothered to comment on - as crude descents into too obvious degrees of storytelling. A rare survival, the 16th-century workshop painting of the fabled triumph of the Song statesman Su Shi's (1037-1101) return to political power is exactly this sort of painting, so problematic to late Ming theorists.

Pictures and Visuality therefore opens up a world of pictures that was by late Ming times enormously rich not just in terms of the condensed wealth of things in people's houses, but also in the social interactions that went on in looking at these things.

Not only does Clunas consider Ming theories of looking, and some of its scientific interpretations, he also adds extremely rewarding social insights from close readings of some of the great Ming novels.

Clunas's modest apology for Pictures and Visuality is that it is a series of linked essays rather than a single thesis. To some extent each chapter can be read as a unique discussion, but the author's views and his multivalent approach to a judicious selection of material evidence permeate all the chapters and create a wholeness far more integrated than he claims. Above all, he argues his interpretations of Chinese art with a great sense of adventure, and it reads tremendously well.

Clunas is a master of argument. He presents his texts around carefully considered selections of material culture, which are not simply mustered to illustrate one art-historical point after another, but skilfully used for their value in making several claims throughout a larger discourse. Art in China - and probably elsewhere too - is a collective of products set among a range of social, political, religious and cognitive contexts. These two books set and interpret these contexts with a particular fluency.

Oliver Moore is lecturer in Chinese history of art, University of Leiden.

Art in China

Author - Craig Clunas
ISBN - 0 19 28407 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £8.99
Pages - 255

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