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#asianow speaks with craig clunas

craig clunas is professor emeritus of the history of art, university of oxford and author of chinese painting and its audiences, published by princeton university press and winner of the 2019 aas joseph levenson pre-1900 book prize—honorable mention.

to begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

the book is about the ways in which viewers, both inside and outside china, have acted over centuries to create the category now universally known as “chinese painting.” so it’s about what was looked at, who got to do the looking, and how looking was understood as a cultural and social practice. it covers the period from the ming dynasty (1368-1644) to the 1970s, and it proceeds chronologically through a number of ideal “types” of viewer—the gentleman, the emperor, the merchant, the nation, the people. of course in pre-1900 china itself what artists did was not called “chinese painting,” it was just “painting,” so the long span tries to capture something of how and why that change came about.

what inspired you to research this topic?

i was invited to give the a.w. mellon lectures in the fine arts at the national gallery of art (nga), washington d.c. in 2012, only the second time in a longish history that the mellon lectures have been on a chinese topic. i wanted to deal with a big theme, one of interest not only to an academic audience, and certainly not only to an audience already interested in china. i’d been thinking anyway about the viewing of painting in the ming as a “next step” from previous work on that period, so this seemed like a good occasion to move my thoughts on that subject into a wider framework. i was also provoked by some of the scholarship on art history which (in ignorance of any non-european context) sees certain picturing practices as uniquely western and uniquely tied up with “modernity,” so that was if you like a bit of negative inspiration.

what obstacles did you face in this project? what turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

this is an easy one to answer. normally, with a book like this, the pictures are the biggest problem. obtaining permissions, and paying for them, are huge obstacles which museums and other rights holders place in the path of scholarship—this makes work on any visual topic difficult for everyone, but particularly for early career academics, who will usually be expected by publishers to pay out of their own pockets for the illustrations in their work. i was therefore amazingly fortunate, in that the special conditions of the mellon lectures meant there was funding for the pictures, and a brilliant colleague at the nga in the form of ingrid yeung who sourced them all. i want to take this opportunity to thank her again for all she did to help the book look the way it does.

what is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

in the now-abolished missionary museum in helsinki i came across the things collected in late 19th-century hunan by a range of finnish lutheran pastors active there, including examples of low-level and ephemeral images which most grander museums never collected. and in 2010 a beijing auction house sold a painting which has on it what purports to be a boot-print dating from the scroll’s being looted when the yuanmingyuan was burned in 1860. being able (thanks again, ingrid!) to include such little-known images alongside some canonical ones was important to what i was trying to say in the book, as well as keeping me interested in the task of writing it.

what are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

covering a wide span is does, there is no way i could have written this book without drawing on the great range of scholarship now out there in chinese art, and alongside the “classics” i found it inspiring to read some of the work being done very recently in the field—kristina kleutghen on court art of the qing, jennifer purtle on gender and viewing, katharine burnett on ming art theory, kee il choi on the invention of export painting, yu-chih lai on transnational image flows, timon screech on the visual world of edo japan; these are just a couple of names that come immediately to mind, but there are so many. the brilliant (but totally eurocentric) the self-aware image by victor stoichita, and also a range of stuff by w.j.t. mitchell, were important in shaping my thinking. i’d still recommend patricia berger, empire of emptiness and wu hung, the double screen as works every art historian (not just of china) should read.

what are you working on now?

i’m working on an overview of chinese art in a “short twentieth century” from 1911 to 1976, but also on another lecture series (and publication) to be called “three transnational moments in the history of chinese art”; this looks at a number of individuals in the years 1900-1930,  and at the ways conversations across national and cultural boundaries at this key period shaped what we now think of as “tradition” in chinese art.

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