Friday, November 02, 2012

Autumn colours on the Qiao and Hua mountains

Last year I wrote about one of James Elkins' Art Seminar Series, Landscape Theory, and I'm turning now to one of his other recent books, Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History (2010)I say recent, but the first version of the book was actually completed twenty years ago and he has had a great deal of trouble getting this controversial text accepted for publication.  Hong Kong University Press have issued it with a foreword by Jennifer Purtle which partially deals with the potential objections of skeptical readers affronted at the idea of a non-Chinese reading art theorist asserting that the history of Chinese landscape painting can only be written about in ways that have been developed by Western art historians.  She says Elkins' book is 'brilliant, except for the places where it is dead wrong' (regrettably she leaves the reader none the wiser as to what these places are).  It would be fascinating to read an in depth Art Seminar-style dialogue based on this book (although there is already one called  Is Art History Global?).  I'm not going to address his argument about the inherently Western form of art history here, but will focus instead on the book's other main theme: cross-cultural comparisons.

Elkins' book begins by problematizing the way early writers on Chinese landscape painting in the West drew comparisons, e.g. between Friedrich's Two Men in Contemplation of the Moon (upside down in the book cover above) and Ma Yuan's Sage Contemplating the Moon.  Jennifer Purtle emphasises these difficulties with reference to contemporary artist Zhang Hongtu's Shan Sui series, where Chinese landscapes are re-painted in the style of Western artists.  If you look at Shitao-Van Gogh (1998) without familiarity with the Shitao composition you will only see a kind of Van Gogh painting. (Incidentally, Zhang Hongtu has more recently been re-painting Chinese landscapes as damaged environments in his pollution series. "Where those masters saw raging waters, I see dry riverbeds. Where they painted clean water, now I am painting the polluted water".)  Elkins is less interested in specific comparisons than in tracing the 'development' of  Chinese landscape painting and mapping it onto Western periods, in part to reveal hidden assumptions in the way art history is constructed.  I've summarised this briefly below because I think it's interesting, but should emphasise that Elkins is aware of how open to criticism this is: 'at one moment it looks as if Chinese art after a certain point is definitely like modernism; and at the next moment it is transparently obvious that such a judgement is projection of Western understanding.'

Zhao Mengfu, Autumn colours on the Qiao and Hua mountains, 1295

The Renaissance: Elkins compares the new art historical consciousness of Italian Renaissance artists with that of early Yuan Dynasty landscape painters, both of whom were working with only limited direct knowledge of their famous classical predecessors. Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) crystallised past styles in an analogous way to Alberti, Brunelleschi and Masaccio.  As I explained in an earlier post, Zhao's scroll, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu, was based on a much earlier painting, a historical gesture equivalent to the revival of Roman architecture.

Mannerism: Moving forward to the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, Elkins identifies elements of what 'the twentieth century recognised as mannerism, meaning, in this context, a historical moment that has become conscious and disdainful of recent perfection.'  I have previously contrasted here the 'bland' landscapes of Ni Zan (1301-74), with the 'saturated' spaces of Wang Meng (1308-85).  Ni Zan's 'concept of monotonous restatement' might be seen as a form of mannerism and Wang's 'crowding of tumultuous forms is another mannerist trait.'

Classicism: By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Chinese landscape painters like Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) were working at a distance from both the motif itself and antique models of landscape painting, a kind of 'engaged detachment' that Elkins identifies with Poussin.  But as time went on there were more and more schools of art and historical styles, prompting 'a moment of extreme radicalism and unexpectedly strong judgement...'

Modernism: The landscapes of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) employ distortions and abstractions that might be compared to Cubism.  In his early work Picasso worked through a huge range styles before focusing on Cézanne and Rousseau, and Dong similarly left behind the influence of earlier artists like Ni Zan and Wang Meng before fixing on two: Wang Wei (the great Tang dynasty artist-poet) and Huang Gongwang (oldest of the Four Great Masters, whose role Elkins likens to Cézanne).   

Dong Qichang, Wanluan Thatched Hall, 1597

Postmodernism: Many Western historians of Chinese art have treated the landscape painters of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in a more cursory way than their predecessors.  Schools of art became increasingly short lived and individualists and 'eccentrics' proliferate - artists like Gao Qipei (1660-1734) who painted with his fingernails.  Elkins likens their extreme and narrow strategies to those of Western postmodern artists - Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Wolfgang Laib.  To the extent that Chinese landscape painting ceased to develop radically after the seventeenth century, it may be seen as a precursor of what postmodernism will become, a period 'that arrives when the sequence of historical periods has played itself out.' 

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