Monday, March 20, 2017

Craig Clunas's "Chinese Painting and Its Audiences"

Craig Clunas is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford. His books include Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, and Art in China.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, and reported the following:
There are no words on page 99 of Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, and not even a page number. Given that this is a book about pictures, and about looking at pictures, this seems broadly appropriate, and so the test works in this instance. What the reader will see on page 99 is a reproduction of a huge wall painting in the Palace Museum Beijing (it’s over three metres high and five metres wide) which shows the Qianlong emperor, who ruled China from 1736 to 1795, viewing a couple of peacocks displaying their magnificent tails in his palace gardens. There is also a detail of the picture, which focuses more closely on the figure of the emperor, and on the eunuch attendants who stand around his armchair.

The book is about a range of audiences for Chinese painting over the last five centuries or so; the plural in the title is important. Page 99 falls in Chapter 3, ‘The Emperor’, which is preceded by ‘The Gentleman’, and followed by ‘The Merchant’, ‘The Nation’, and ‘The People’. These are not necessarily specific individuals (although the Qianlong emperor certainly is one), they are more in the way of idealized types of spectator, and the types of viewing Chinese painting which have gone with them. So the book aims to act as a history both of what kinds of painting were produced in China since about 1500, and also of the ways that painting has been conditioned by the sorts of people who looked at it and the sorts of contexts in which they did so. A central theme of the ‘Emperor’ chapter has to do with solitary viewing, as opposed to the collective viewing by a group of friends which is the subject of the preceding chapter. It strikes me that the act of reading an art history book, and looking at its illustrations, reproduces for each of us this powerful individual vision and sense of control.
Learn more about Chinese Painting and Its Audiences at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue