Late Qing visual culture
Talks / Lecture
Dr Olivier Krischer charts a journey through late-Qing visual culture, exploring developments in painting and printing, but also the introduction of photography, film and modern publishing - visual technologies typically associated with "modern" China, but which all emerged before the end of the Qing dynasty.
In association with the Australian Centre on China in the World.
Dr Krischer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at the Australian National University. Previously, he has been managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine in Hong Kong, and has taught art history and theory at the University of Sydney and the University of Tsukuba, Japan. He is co-editor of Asia Through Art and Anthropology: Cultural Translation Across Borders; manages the CIW gallery; is co-programmer of the ongoing CIW film series 'Asia & the Pacific Screens'; and is a member of the advisory committee for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. His recent work has been concerned with transnational networks of artistic social activism in East Asia, and his current research focus is on art as a facet of Japan-China relations in the 1980s and 1990s.
Transcript of ‘Looking modern: Late Qing visual culture’
Speakers: Nathan Woolley (N), Dr Olivier Krischer (O)
Location: National Library of Australia
N: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Nathan Woolley, as some of you may be aware. I am the curator of the exhibition, Celestial Empire which will be ending in 10 days’ time. Meeting at the National Library, I would of course like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we’re now privileged to call home.
Tonight we are continuing with a series of lectures we are presenting here at the National Library in association with the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University. This is the penultimate lecture in this series. Now of course Celestial Empire, this exhibition, and its associated programs have only been possible because we have received the support of a large number of institutions and sponsors. First and foremost of course I’d like to thank the National Library of China for very generously sharing with us many items from their own collections many of which have been outside China for the first time. Their enthusiasm for sharing Chinese culture with an Australian audience has made this exhibition possible. I’d also like to thank our commercial partners which include Shell in Australia, the Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus Sintel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific and TFE Hotels. Our event partners are of course the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU and Asia Society Australia. Our government partners are the federal government through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australia China Council of DFAT and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra. I’d also like to thank you all for joining us this evening to hear from Dr Olivier Krischer speak on visual culture in the late Qing dynasty.
Olivier is an art historian whose research focuses on east Asia and in particular the role of art in relation ... in the relations between different societies. He gained his undergraduate degree from the University of Technology Sydney and his doctorate in art history from the University of Tsukuba in Japan. He’s also studied in China and France. Olivier has lectured at the University of Tsukuba, the University of Sydney and the University of Technology in Sydney. He has worked extensively in galleries in Australia and Japan and was previously the editor of the Hong Kong-based journal, Art Asia Pacific with which he continues as a contributing editor. In addition to his academic work he has also written extensively for journalists and the media. Now Olivier is in fact currently a colleague of mine at the Australian Centre on China in the World. He’s a postdoctoral fellow there, where his research considers art in relationships between China and Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as networks of art activism across east Asia for the same period.
Olivier, since arriving in Canberra, has been a very busy individual. During his time at the ANU he has curated four exhibitions in the gallery space of the Australian Centre on China in the World including the current exhibition which is ... includes the work of the Singaporean artist Wei Ling Tei, whose exhibition’s called The Other Shore. It will be on show through 15th of July and I’d encourage you to go and have a look at this very interesting exhibition. His previous exhibition at the gallery at the ANU was based on the photos of Stanley O. Gregory, which we actually hold here at the National Library of Australia so we’re also thankful for bringing those ... him for bringing those photos to a larger audience.
Olivier’s also the co-programmer for the ongoing China in the World film series, ‘Asia and Pacific Screens’. We have some pamphlets for this series available at the door when you leave. He’s also one of the programmers for the Canberra International Film Festival. He’s also on the Advisory Committee for the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney, and I’d also like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Olivier for the assistance he gave me in the preparation for the Celestial Empire exhibition. He gave me many very helpful comments during my period of preparation throughout last year, so I’d like to thank him for that. Olivier’s very kindly agreed to answer questions at the end of his talk but please join with me in welcoming him to speak now on visual culture in the late Qing.
O: Thank you. That’s a very generous introduction and thanks, everyone, for coming out on a cold evening. I just have to make sure that I can make these slides move the way that I want them to. Okay. I’m going to get underway so the title of the talk, ‘Late Qing Visual Culture’, could mean I guess a lot of different things and as we go along I think you’ll get a sense of what I’m trying to do. It’s impossible of course to present some sort of grand overview so apologies for lots of things which I think you’ll be familiar with which are probably missing but we’ll see how we go.
Where to begin? I thought I would start here and this is I promise the only slide I have with this much text. But it’s a diary ... it’s very interesting, it’s an anonymous diary from a painter in Shanghai in 1872. And some of you’ll be familiar, but if you’re not you still get a sense of the sort of atmosphere. And because of the lunar calendar he is referring here to the second month and the 18th day, but just go along with it and he says, ‘Clear day, after eating together with Hai Tuo. I left the Chinese city’—because at this stage Shanghai of course is a treaty port and divided in technical terms—‘and went to visit my painting friend, Ren Bonian, then we met my old friend Sha Zicun, chatted and took our leave. Next I went to visit the scholar, Wu Jutan, who happened to have two Japanese visitors wishing to buy his calligraphy.
Another day a few months later he says, ‘Mid-afternoon there was thunder and a rain shower. We visited Chun Mu for a chat. Together we left the Chinese city again. Chun Mu needed to have his photograph taken so I accompanied him to the Su Sanxing photography studio.’ Another entry notes that he talked with a colleague about painting a round fan with an elegant female subject, which was quite popular and very easy to do at the time and would have been inexpensive, similar to the album leaf that he mentions there in a light outline. And finally he talks about strolling in the city temple garden, and then going to his third younger sister’s place for a chat and other sorts of leisurely events which takes him back to visit to Ren Bonian, his painter friend, who was in the middle of painting but took a short break. And then they go off for a drink.
So the Shanghai of this diary was home obviously to an active community of artists including many from other cities but it also hints at the changing role of this type of artist in Shanghai’s visual culture in the late nineteenth century. The writer mentions commissions for paintings and a range of what would have been at the time quite simple, popular and inexpensive formats, fans and albums. We’re also made aware that by the 1870s photography was not only present but so common that for some artists, not only social elites, they might need to go and have their photo taken. One wonders why.
Shanghai opened as one of the treaty ports, of course, in November 1843, forcibly following British aggression in the First Opium War but was eventually divided into the Chinese city and international settlements, later the French concession as well, and yet the writer clearly moved freely between these so-called divisions. Significantly, by the 1870s the city’s cosmopolitan bustle is clearly home not only to a Chinese and a Euro-American community of merchants, diplomats, soldiers but also other foreign sojourners including here, two Japanese interested in buying the work of contemporary Chinese artists and calligraphers, and certainly there's now recent research that shows in Japanese sources and diaries from time this was not at all uncommon. And it’s quite likely that the pair may well have actually been on a buying trip going to buy Chinese contemporary art essentially to sell back in Japan bearing in mind that the legal, at least, trade and travel between China and Japan was only a few years old at that stage.
Notably, the passage also offers, and most importantly for me, a Chinese experience rather than a foreign image of the late Qing period. My talk will continue in this vein, presenting I hope a less familiar image. Images of late Qing visual culture beyond the more well-rehearsed images that we know made in China by artists for, for example, the Illustrated London News or photographers based in the new treaty ports who were making foreign images for foreign clients. However, we shall also see that these sorts of dichotomies between Chinese and foreign images fall short of describing the dynamic of late Qing visual culture and by late Qing I’m referring really to that period throughout the 1800s until the fall of the dynasty in 1911, 12.
And this of course was a century which saw rebellions, both internal rebellions as well as external military pressures and various other sorts of crises but also while there is no doubt that many Chinese came into contact with myriad new international trends these sometimes led to new interpretations and adaptations of historical practices and this is something which will be a recurring theme in my talk. In many ways the most modern aspect of this period was not necessarily the tools or technologies or even the content of visual culture, I will argue that it was the new conception of an audience reflecting the passing of China’s imperial social order and the emergence of a debate on what the Chinese public or the Chinese nation might look like.
First of all I should say a little bit of a word about why Shanghai—. Most of my talk will focus on Shanghai, and for those who are less familiar with the history, Shanghai and the geography, Shanghai’s situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River, which allowed it access inland and also connected eventually to the Grand Canal northwards. It was also a port that was easily accessible to the historical locus of foreign trade and international trade at Canton further south which is Guangzhou and Hong Kong. While Shanghai in the 1840s counted only a dozen foreign firms and around 100 foreign residents, within a decade or so this had trebled. Significantly, the Taiping rebellion in 1850s also pushed many families towards Shanghai and many of these families came from the more historically cultural towns in the Jiangnan area, such as Suzhou and Hangzhou that had been centres of painting, poetry, printing and so on.
This is one reason there were so many artists in particular in Shanghai during the 1860s and 1870s, and it really gave rise to a swiftly developing market which took on its own dynamic, and therefore attracted more people. So although there’s an argument that some of these people were essentially refugees, there were also a lot of people who went there for new opportunities. Shanghai society was new and relatively cosmopolitan therefore, a combination of internal migrants as well as compradors, bankers and foreigners, some with experience in Canton and Hong Kong, so they were trying to sort of emulate the experience that they’d had further south, and certainly the strength of Cantonese patrons for the art community, which I won’t go into detail here but it was very significant. There were new audiences and new markets, while other cities would also host many new developments and visual culture in China at the time nineteenth century Shanghai was what one historian has called a laboratory for commercial mass culture in China.
The history of Chinese modern art and visual culture is often an account of imported institutions such as art schools and exhibitions, translated texts as well as the returned overseas students and foreign military aggressions or in turn of course the long and significant influence of foreign missionaries particularly with print culture but while such things make up a dramatic part of the story in the early twentieth century this narrative, which essentially is a kind of westernisation as modernisation, overlooks earlier developments which indicate new organisations, new social relations and audiences that emerged from what were more often than not a combination of internal and external factors, both pressures and crises, of course but also commercial opportunities which takes us to the slides so I’m going to talk a little bit less now.
My idea really is to try and introduce visual materials which I guess are less familiar to some and then see how these relate through space and time. You can see here an indication of trade painting so when I talk about commercial opportunities it’s a good place to start. Many of the famous trade painters or famed, rather, trade painters in southern China would not have been considered artists at all in traditional Chinese society but rather artisans, a kind of skilled labourer at worst or perhaps a professional technician at best. While the best known are recognised as individuals and were lauded overseas for their mastery and they certainly had personal skills and they painted their own self-portraits and things like that that took on artistic airs, many studios divided their labour as you can see here in the Illustrated London News of 1859 and they made artworks therefore that were essentially products of collective labour and it’s difficult sometimes to tell. Even when something has the name of a particular person it seems to be also a product of their studio which of course is typical to other places and times as well.
And this is just a detail to show you some of what’s going on. I am going to point out just a couple of things: one, the figure in the middle seems to be copying a portrait, enlarging a portrait from a smaller one, which is quite likely a photograph. The artist or painter to his right is painting a much larger landscape, which again may be from a print, for example from a European print, and then in the background you see foreign visitors, guests, potentially clients, and these umbrellas on the wall, which for some reason this afternoon really caught my eye, and I thought oh you get the sense of this, you know, a sense of waiting rooms and so on which we’ll see more clearly here. This is one of the most famous of the trade painting workshops. The workshops themselves became of course synonymous with China at the time, as we see in the Illustrated London News, particularly southern China, which was the gateway at the time, offering copies of paintings and in time of photographs as well.
You see here a studio by the name of Ting Tua or Ting Qua with an English sign but we also find another example from a slightly later period with the same sign in Chinse which suggests perhaps that what are typically seen as workshops aimed for a foreign audience may have also tried to appeal to a local audience particularly because if you look carefully at both images you’ll see that on the walls predominantly it’s portraiture. Most of the images which are hanging in the background if you can see any clearer than I can from here are actually people’s portraits and that’s something which suggests that certainly they weren’t just making images for foreigners.
Clearly from these types of studio images you can see that they were well-established fenchers [? 18:05] which is portrait painters in addition to producing trade paintings suggests as I said that they may have had local and foreign markets and is also the type of business that we see reappear with photographic studios in a slightly later period. But it would also be wrong to assume that the lofty world of elite scholar painting was not also receptive to similar visual stimuli and shifting market opportunities particularly for Cantonese ink painters in the south closest to the centres of trade painting. These paintings, that is trade paintings, could provide a new stimulus for existing genres and this is another example of trade painting study of insects. And so what we have here is a folio leaf from southern China most probably and then a similar time we have this image from a French collection.
What I’d like to point out is you see a shift in the depiction of these insects. Note how these are depicted in the French example, no longer in motion but as though pinned to the page which reflected the European scientific fashion which changed around 1800 or so and specimens became more scientific in relation to their distance from natural settings and this is something which previously this type of flower and bird painting or insect painting from a Chinese tradition had actually been quite close to the depictions of entomologists ... would-be entomologists in Europe and yet this changed over time.
Similarly we can see in these flower and bird paintings how the trade painting on the left could relate to a more traditional version of an earlier period from flower and bird paintings in a Chinese fashion. Some painters in the south recognised the new-found detail in quasi entomological or botanical studies for the European market as ways to augment the existing flower and bird and insect painting genres particularly popular in the south. So here is an example of somebody, quite an influential painter because of the lineage that sort of stems from him in particular and from his brother, Ju Lian. So a southern Chinese painter painting here in 1873, he was particularly renowned for painting from nature, that was the phrase. His brother on the other hand was better known for more gestural strokes, and here you see an image that’s essentially a study of or a copy of this earlier one by Gao Jianfu who was a younger generation. So Gao Jianfu was actually the student of this painter, Julien, and talked a lot about the influence of Ju Lian’s work for him. And Gao Jianfu would go on to paint well into the ‘30s, 1940s and so on and try to create a syncretic style, because he later went to study in Japan. And so in Japan he also found a more detailed attention to line and colour that he had appreciated in his teacher’s in this type of work. And so I’m trying to suggest that there are these sorts of internal and external ... there’s this traffic of ideas and influences and that it’s difficult to draw a line between this sort of trade and tradition at times. In fact Gao Jianfu also at one stage dappled in ... dabbled, rather, in this type of ceramic design work early in the twentieth century, but sort of put that aside and decided to focus on painting and shortly afterwards went to study in Japan.
Another theme in export painting that seems to potentially derive, or at least be inspired by, centuries old pictorial tradition were Pictures of Tilling and Weaving, or Gengzhi tu. Depictions of technology have a much longer history in China however this formed as a kind of ... or coalesced as a genre particularly in the late Sun dynasty, the late thirteenth century or so, and was reproduced throughout the Qing dynasty also in prints and painted editions. And there’s a particularly famous edition that was produced for the Qin Shi emperor. And this is based on one of those editions so this is a nineteenth century version of that which was produced in the late 1600s for the Qin Shi emperor. Such images tended to be almost diagrammatically detailed renderings of the technologies involved and how they were used as you can see here with silk production. In a further twist some of these images actually show elements of linear perspective from Jesuit influence at Qin Shi's court. And so you have a kind of cyclical relationship in terms of, you know, if you want to get into a discussion about influences. And you can see that here particularly with the architecture and the way that there’s this not quite perspective but it’s drawing the ... almost axonometric type of perspective, drawing the eye out. And yet we find that in trade painting as well some of these themes and even in particular compositions were taken quite directly from what would be considered a traditional genre of Gengzhi tu into what would be considered a genre for foreign consumption, the trade painting.
While my discussion thus far has talked about Shanghai and the southern Chinese areas around Guangzhou, I’d also like to point out that there is a tradition of similar sorts of depiction in Beijing. While less well documented artists or artisans in Beijing also produced these types of trade style paintings of typical street characters. And this is an example of one here of somebody fashioning ... an artisan fashioning a Buddhist image ... Buddhist sculpture, that is. This is so much the case that when this artist ... and you can see by the date that it’s just after the fall or the end of the Qing dynasty but Chen Shizheng as he is known was certainly active in the decade before in Beijing. When he painted a pioneering series of Beijing customs and street life documenting social changes at the time he was able to draw both on depictions of traditional types including these sorts of types of a prisoner and a traditional form of punishment.
So he draws on this type of trade painting but he also pointed to an earlier tradition of these sorts of observational depictions of street life, in this case of beggars and street entertainers. And here is an image by Huang Shen from a century earlier so ... almost two centuries earlier actually from the early eighteenth century. And here is one of the other leaves in the series that I mentioned by Chen Shizheng, ‘Beijing Social Life and Customs’, where he depicts a beggar. And what’s particular about his work is that unlike the earlier observational sort of depictions here, which are rather noncommittal, he was quite specific about this sort of social agenda and his observations on changing society in China and where are we going and this type of thing. Chen’s was clearly infused I think with social commentary but also a latent sense of national purpose. There starts to be questions about what’s happening to the Chinese nation, what does this mean? He purposefully sought a critical tradition in the earlier artist, Huang Shen, but also drew on contemporary sources.
I’ve been suggesting that new technologies and new and hitherto foreign forms of visual culture lived with existing practices and modes of representation in painting but what about photography? In a similar way today I am in this talk less interested in the relatively well documented of those pioneering foreign photographers such as Felice Beato, John Thompson, Thomas Child, for example, or in Shanghai in particular, William Saunders and Ella Fizzler. I'm not so interested in their work although it may still be possible to read their images in a new way and so we see here for example a less well known image I think by John Thompson of a sort of ... another visual technology on the streets of Beijing. Or this image which I’ll talk a little bit more about by William Saunders in Shanghai. It may be possible to read some of these and to consider how they worked within a market of visual expectations that was not simply theirs to dictate, it wasn’t simply the foreign photographers dictating what this visual culture would be, it was also them trying to work within an existing market and existing expectations.
I’m more interested in exploring the ways that photography was understood and used by Chinese commercially and personally, as well as the influence that existing visual culture had on this even though stereotypical studio types produced by foreigners for a foreign clientele. And I’ll just skip to here for example and so here you can kind of see again this echo of the Pictures of Tilling and Weaving’ that I was just talking about in terms of trade paintings that also draw on a centuries old tradition of ... depicting technology so you kind of wonder whether the photographer is aware of this and how much it’s ... he is perhaps responding to some of those existing expectations of what could be depicted as a Chinese type. And so although there’s a lot of writing about these types of studio portraits as being even sort of racially stereotyping Chinese and so on, sometimes you find these sorts of echoes of a Chinese tradition which really do question that.
Seen as a business, and this is talking about photography studios, seen as a business rather than a sort of foreign technology such a setup of ... for Chinese photographers, parallels the earlier and ongoing trade painting market. Indeed it seems likely that a number of the earliest Chinese photographers had initially been commercial portrait and trade painters who simply, as you see here with this carte de visite, they simply incorporated the new technology into the developing practices or one might say simply incorporated photography into their existing business. Some studios continued to offer both as you see here on the bottom right, this advertisement on the back of the carte de visite of ‘Ye Chung, Photographer, Portrait Painter’ and this is from 1868, but I’ll talk a little bit more about Ye Chung now. Ye Chung was, as an example, one of a number of Cantonese photographers who had branched out to Chinese cities between the 1850s and 1870s, in his case in the 1870s, recognising lucrative business opportunities in the rapidly growing port city of Shanghai and possibly due also to increased competition in Hong Kong and Canton. So interestingly although they were drawn to Shanghai you also had the opposite effect of the popularity of photography in Hong Kong itself because it had star ... you know started to develop there more quickly, pushing some of the more established operators into other cities in China.
Perhaps it’s not surprising ... sorry, so we see this kind of lucrative business opportunities in Shanghai and indeed this Cantonese connection as it were again points to the relevance of the earlier Canton trade paintings to Chinese photographic practice and to the idea of this intersection of visual culture with the develop ... with commercial developments in China at the time. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Chinese photographers appear to have readily catered to the market for even stereotypical images of Chinese types, even as the local demand for images, particularly portraits grew. It’s also likely that the quasi botanical images of the Canton trade could suggest new developments for an existing genre of painting, for example, with the work of Ju Lian and Gao Jianfu. These Chinese types were also seen by some artists in relation to earlier depictions of social types and everyday life which would have become platforms for progressive introspection on the state of the nation which is something which I was suggesting with the work of Cheng Shuzun as we saw earlier. And Chen Shizheng, that particular album, talking about this work, this particular album and his what essentially became cartoons, were later reprinted in the decade following his untimely death in the 1920s, they were reprinted in newspapers and then they were cited by people in the ‘20s and ‘30s as being an influence on the development of newspaper-based cartoons. So you can see this kind of progression.
More famously of course in terms of people who were ... sorry, in terms of people who were prompted by visual images, more famously there’s the case of Lu Xun, the modern writer extraordinaire whose ... who famously wrote that he was prompted to become a writer by seeing a lantern slide of a beheading while a student in Japan. It’s also possible to see ways in which established foreign photographers such as Saunders may also have responded to existing pictorial genres such as tilling and weaving, but for the moment I’d like to return to the painter’s quote from the 1870s. So taking us back to 1870s he mentioned Su Sanxing, a photography studio in Shanghai. This was one of among the two most prominent studios in Shanghai at the time, the other being the Gong Tai Photo Studios. By 1884 a guidebook to Shanghai suggests that there are literally dozens of photo companies operating in Shanghai and certainly by the 1870s textual references ... because we don’t have as much visual material but textual references suggest that Chinese photo studios by far outnumbered foreign ones in all major ports and this is just as an example of an advertisement here for again a Chinese photo studio which again is offering photography and portraiture ... painted portraiture but in this case in Fuzhou in Fujian province.
Coincidentally the discussion now, still at 1872, takes us to the emergence of modern Chinese illustrated newspapers and photographers were among the first to advertise in this new medium. So what we see here is an advertisement for the Shanghai branch of a Hong Kong photography studio of See Tay, or Liang Shitai, in Shenbao in 1876. So Shenbao was ... it became the go-to sort of source of Chinese news after 1872 and I’ll talk a little bit more about that. Interestingly Shenbao, the newspaper, was founded by Englishman, Ernest Major, in 1872, the same year that this anonymous diary entry was written. And it was one of the first Chinese language modern newspapers which quickly became the main Shanghai news source in Chinese throughout the republican period, until it was shut down only in May 1949 by the CCP forces. By the 1870s textual references suggest that Chinese photographers as I said had begun to certainly outnumber their foreign counterparts.
An interesting example: though we have so few images to sort of back this up so to speak, it’s known that this sort of pioneering pictorial, The Far East, which used actual photographs, so before the development or really the spread of mechanical photo lithography, they would tip in photo prints into the magazine which obviously was quite costly but The Far East was well known for using both foreign and Chinese photographers and often the Chinese photographers were not credited so many of the images ... we only know that because of other references saying oh, a Chinese photographer was sent to such and such a place to take these photos but we don’t know who it was. And in this case for example this image of—uncredited—that appears in 1877, which is just one example of others may be a Chinese photographer working on assignment for this new journal.
The journal is interesting because it also indicates the sort of international relationships that Shanghai was now a part of by the 1870s. It initially started as a fortnightly journal mainly about events in Japan and was published in Yokohama by its founder, John Black, between 1870 and ‘74. It was illustrated at the time with actual photographs, as I mentioned, and this continued to be the practice even after it relaunched in Shanghai because Black decided to move there. The second series in this which did have a limited run but still it had sort of international ambitions ... the second series was published in Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong. And The Far East also featured advertisements for foreign photographers’ studios.
Getting back to what might be a Chinese experience of photography studio, we have this illustration by Wu Youru from the early 1890s which actually is a copy of earlier works depicting what a sitting might be like in a Chinese photo studio. But what I’d like to point to is the actual artist himself and how this type of depiction started to speak to what I will argue is a kind of popular culture in the printed media. Wu Youru allows us to talk about the development of print culture and the new role for artists, is indicative of another significant case of local adaptation and development in new conditions. Recent research suggests an urban tradition of nianhua or new year pictures may have ... that were traditional centred in Suzhou found a new life in Shanghai following the Taiping Rebellion in 1850s. And so you had this existing tradition of new year pictures, some of which I’m sure are in the exhibition, which moved from its centre in Suzhou and took on a new life in Shanghai depicting new content and themes.
This was also encouraged by the arrival of new printing technologies which could photo-mechanically reproduce more detailed work rather than the wood block prints. New markets for images of the city but also for images of recent wars and conflicts, overseas events, overseas international exhibitions, these sorts of sensational news items started to find their way into this type of depiction. In this way what would ... could be seen as nianhua or new year pictures came to take on a sort of journalistic function featuring an increasingly featured ... themes or current affairs of national rather than regional importance and this is something which I have only in the sort of follow-up to this talk, I’ve really been working with this idea of these sorts of image depictions, starting to think about a national space rather that typically it would have been a more regional or local sort of city-based theme. So in this case this is a very ... this is likely a reprint of one of Wu Youru's early works from the 1880s which actually depicts a sort of acrobatic display in the Yu Garden and the Yu Garden, for those who’ve been to Shanghai recently, is very much still there and is still the centre of kind of tra ... well you could call traditional culture but it was certainly at the time.
Wu Youru was an artist who was from a not particularly elite background, he had tried to make it as a painter but had been employed to illustrate for an earlier illustrated newspaper similarly owned and established by Ernest Major who had set up the Shenbao. But eventually he was taken on board as the artist to illustrate news for this newspaper here, the Dianshizhai huabao in the 1880s and this is an example of a spread from the first volume where you can see on the right these sorts of images which are now photo-mechanically reproduced actually from Harper’s Weekly of a Thai elephant alongside one of Wu Youru’s depictions of ... what do you call it? An official ceremony.
Dianshizhai huabao is here represented ... this is the print shop where you can see some of the machinery and so on and it became incredibly popular. Following this new fame you could say, from around 1884 some local guidebooks started to count Wu Youru among its lists of master painters or huashi despite his artisanal background and so he had between 1883 and ‘84 because of the popularity of his depictions in the illustrated news, he had started to be considered a serious artist by some of the guidebooks who would ... typically these guidebooks would point you in the direction of the really good artists to go and buy work from. In 1886 his renown was further augmented when presumably on the strength and popularity of his news illustrations he was recruited by the Qing court to depict imperial victories over the Taiping rebels and so he had become sort of so well known for these sorts of news depictions that it ... eventually the Qing court itself decided that they needed a Wu version, a Wu Youru version of their victories over the Taiping rebels down south.
By the early 1890s much in the tradition as we’ve seen of the Canton trade paintings as well as some of the painting and photography studio entrepreneurs, Wu Youru had obviously established a name and eminence for himself and by this period in the 1890s he launched his own illustrated newspaper, the Feiyingge huabao. His detailed style typical of a new trend depicting current affairs became a fashion. In fact his success can be measured today by how rapidly some of his work was copied and pirated and reprinted elsewhere.
Wu had originally practised different styles of ink painting supplying nianhua workshops. He came from a humble professional background without a kind of prodigist skill of an artist like Ren Bonian who was mentioned in ... by our anonymous painter in the 1870s diary that we started with. And I’ll talk a little bit more about Ren Bonian in just a moment. However the new urban culture and interest in public affairs in Shanghai provided a new opportunity for skills that Wu had and which he and indeed numerous other painters could capitalise quite literally. These are examples of some of his illustrations actually for a project of One Hundred Beauties in Shanghai, which show this kind of combination of late ... what you could call late Qing traditional life alongside modern developments such as this distinguishing local flavours with a table setting that’s distinctly western, knives and forks and so on and so forth with people who don’t seem to quite fit the picture.
I mentioned Ren Bonian and that allows us to talk a little bit about fan shops and how some elite painters also had a new role for themselves in a city such as Shanghai. The anonymous reference to Ren Bonian was not an accident. Ren was one of the stars of the new Shanghai arts scene. He was not from a prominent family similar to Wu Youru except he had possessed from a very young age prodigious skills. In fact while he’s talked up in some biographical texts about him by friends others who worked with him also would talk less positively about his arrogance and general sort of ... what he thought about himself but he certainly seems to have carried it off.
Ren as we can see here was really a master of showmanship, he would sort of dash off paintings in a way which became again quite popular in the early twentieth century, to have these elegant gatherings and produce paintings in a short space of time. The painting on the right is one of those and there’s a text that exists describing how quickly he painted this scene of cats but you also see in his work this sense of the exotic, the new brush work as well as the exotic subject of the cockatoo. There’s a sense of creating a new audience and a sort of vibrancy in his work but even earlier he actually came from a family of four brothers, quite famous, and his ... I’m going to talk a little bit more about his older brother who’s similar to ... unfortunately he had a very short career and life but similar to Ren Bonian was a kind of prodigy who suggested the sort of experimental direction that elite painting could go in. And also I’d like to emphasise would show the way that some of these elite ink practices were also influenced by new prints and new technologies.
This album leaf is by Ren Xiong, one of the older brothers of Ren Bonian who live a short but quite productive sort of professional decade and this album is certainly his most famous work. It’s an album of 120 leaves which is by far the largest single painted album that is known to exist and it seems to have been a collaborative project between his patron, Yao Xie who was a sort of publisher and a would-be poet. He stayed in a traditional style, he stayed at Yao Xie’s home and worked with him with Yao Xie providing poetry and he would illustrate the poems. Yao Xie was known to have a renowned library which included foreign prints as well as including books from Japan and overseas and it’s quite likely recent research on the album leaves is finding more and more sort of correspondence to some of these external sources.
This for example is to some people’s mind the first depiction in this style of a rainbow in Chinese ink painting with this strange ... it’s difficult to see here but this strange picture of a woman riding the rainbow and the sort of gestural strokes and the sense of depth in the landscape and the clouds suggesting very much that he had access to European prints. But elsewhere we see these sorts of depictions of celestial bodies and then totally different sort of work here. And this is just a selection of the ... as I said the 120 or so leaves.
Elsewhere in this album there were also subtle and sometimes more overt commentary on contemporary politics and current affairs and this included some leaves which directly pointed to the Taiping rebellion, the fallout from the first opium war and the sense of dismay at Qing military weakness as well as some suggestion in other album leaves on the restricted position of women in Chinese society. This is obviously unprecedented and certainly wasn’t necessarily followed up by his other contemporaries. Many of the themes seemed to come from Yao Xie, the patron and it seems to have been a kind of one-off project.
This also indicates the relationship that printed books such as The Dream of the Red Chamber which I think you’ll hear more about next week, the relationship that such printed books had to the new work that painters were becoming involved with. All of these sorts of developments foreshadow a kind of popular visual discourse that would be illustrated by painters in the pages of newspapers from the 1870s and ‘80s onwards with the aid of photo lithography. Some research has suggested that this kind of album, eclectic as it was, may have served to not only promote Ren Xiong’s art and the poetry of Yao Xie but also acted as a kind of vehicle for discussion among cultured elites and wealthy merchants in Yao’s circle and that is a kind of vehicle to discuss cotemporary politics and the state of things. I can’t say the state of the nation but certainly this sense of where are we going? What’s going to happen?
In the 1870s critics writing in the Shenbao newspaper scoffed at the uninformed nouveau riche art buyers in Shanghai. But what such criticism unintentionally reveals is actually a nascent fundamental shift in the social order. The audience for art in a city such as Shanghai at the time was obviously changing. Art was no longer the exclusive domain of connoisseur cultural elites. These new audiences were buyers pure and simple, they wanted to acquire art. Artists organised to best service this new eager market in turn leaving aside some though not all of the traditional reluctance to appear too commercial or professional. Some such as Wu Youru found a new niche. They sort of cast aside the traditional trappings of scholarly ink painting.
Of course it’s not only this enriched network of agents and buyers that we are looking at. It’s also the new means of advertising, of communicating and the sort of public or popular space this helped to create. Some, as you can see here, turned to traditional and antiquarianism just as archaeology and other such scientific developments seemed to be validating the strength of Chinese history and here you can see two sort trends. One is the rubbings of traditional Chinese bronzes which you see on the left which are incorporated into painting and that’s quite distinct of that late nineteenth, early twentieth century period ironically, so you’re looking at something which is saying I’m very old but actually it’s a very new idea. And in quite the same way, you have a painting by ... calligraphy rather by Luo Zhenyu which for those of you who are familiar ... not familiar rather, was one of the people who really pioneered research on oracle bone script so on the oldest forms of Chinese writing which used to be these oracles carved into bones. And Luo Zhenyu actually was one of others who pioneered research on the one hand but then would bring this into his calligraphy and so what you’re looking at again is something which is sort of the oldest Chinese characters and yet was quite a modern sort of interest.
So some would look at this tradition. On the other hand you also have this type of use of modern technologies and so here depicted in the early twentieth century is the Emperor’s dowager, Cixi, who chose to employ a court photographer and to depict herself as Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and there are other such depictions where she would try to pose as the benevolent leader.
What we come to realise I guess is that the modern aspect of late Qing visual culture is not simply in the material technologies we recognise as modern in our time such as photography but also in the new development and development of existing technologies or practices artists were employed to create images that were mass reproduced across different media and circulated widely and certainly even the Qing court as you see here understood that and understood its new power and tried to adopt it. Often what was new and surprisingly modern though were the commercial relationships, the new modes of production, the function of images in the anticipation or even I would say their creation of a new audience. Thank you.
End of recording