One or Two, Repictured
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One or Two, Repictured

Informal Chinese imperial portraits, namely, those other than formal court or ritual ancestor portraits, offer a unique glimpse of the depicted ruler in addition to physical appearance. Unburdened by the abiding conventions of official portraiture, informal portraits often provide rare psychological insights into an imperial subject. The greatest number of such portraits may well have been produced during the Qing-dynasty (1644–1911) reign of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795), who frequently commissioned psychologically complex and highly realistic portraits of himself from his court painters in the characteristic Qing imperial style of commingled Chinese and European pictorial techniques. As both viewer and subject, oscillating between real and pictured presences, Qianlong delighted in repeatedly challenging the boundary between illusion and reality: a boundary alternately made porous by the portraiture skills of imperial academy artists such as Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688–1766) and then made patent by the emperor’s own inscription on the paintings’ surfaces.

Perhaps the most compelling expression of these challenges is One or Two (Shi yi shi er tu 是一是二圖, Figs. 13, 12), four versions of an informal but elaborate portrait each inscribed with the same perplexing imperial poem. Executed with monochrome ink or ink and light colors on paper measuring approximately 75 centimeters high and 150 centimeters wide, each iteration of One or Two was formatted as a tieluo 貼落 (affixed hanging) mounted directly onto a flat standing screen, thereby becoming both an art object to be viewed independently and a painted backdrop for the real emperor himself. All versions present the same composition and the same sixteen-character poem that begins with the question “Is it one or two?,” which provides the title by which each eponymous painting is known. Yet each work also has specific features that distinguish it from the others–particularly Qianlong’s imperial signature appended to each work after the poem. No other Qianlong court composition is known to exist in so many manifestations, which attests to its personal meaning for the emperor while immediately inviting questions about that meaning and about the emperor’s motivations for repeat commissions.1

Although the various iterations of the composition have all been repeatedly exhibited during the past thirty years,2One or Two has received remarkably little dedicated art history. In a multidisciplinary study Angela Zito briefly employed the “silk and skin” bodies of Qianlong present in One or Two to illustrate the multi-faceted role of the imperial body in the annual Grand Sacrifice state rituals.3 In direct response Charles Lachman reexamined One or Two from a specifically art-historical perspective as a corrective to Zito’s connoisseurship and methodology.4 Published amidst this textual confrontation was Wu Hung’s characterization of the composition as examples of metarepresentation in “double screen” paintings and High Qing “costume portraiture.”5 Only several years later did Patricia Berger reanalyze the inscriptions and compositions in light of Qianlong’s Mādhyamika “Middle Way” Tibetan Buddhist practice, reading a “single message of non-duality” in the shifting juxtapositions of image and text, object and representation.6

All subsequent study of One or Two necessarily builds on this distinguished historiographical foundation. But never before has the composition been granted dedicated stand-alone scholarship; nor has the cluster of textual references in the poem been fully clarified. Furthermore, the four known extant versions have never been considered as a group: the fourth, previously un-studied version of the painting (Fig. 12) includes several revelatory revisions to the composition. These changes reposition previous assessments of the imperial text-image and viewer-subject relationships in the composition, thereby offering new insights into both the message they articulate and the overall significance of this group of works.

Although the specter of inauthenticity might have formerly accompanied multiple versions of the same composition, the material plurality of One or Two not only amplifies its message, but also provides a useful methodology for approaching both the portraits and their imperial subject. Beginning with a discussion of [End Page 25] the composition and its significant elements, this essay will then reconsider the inscription as well as its implications for each of the established versions. A discussion of...