- Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces by Kristina Kleutghen
For years, the general consensus in Chinese art history was that the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) represented a period of decline and decadence, especially regarding its paintings. The long-held view only shifted in the last few decades, and a highlight of that ongoing trend was marked a few years ago by a survey volume devoted solely to paintings of the last imperial dynasty, the only one of its kind in English.1
In the past two decades, scholars have expanded their area of interest to other visual and material cultures produced during the Qing, including those from the imperial court.2 These works, many fully situated the subjects within a well-developed artistic and economic system that brought together various reaches of the Qing empire and society, were made possible partly by the so-called New Qing historians’ rediscovery of materials from the new reopening of Chinese archives in the 1980s, giving scholars of the Qing a more thorough and comprehensive picture. For example, art historians can now track the day-to-day operations within the individual imperial workshops using the records from the Imperial Household Department. Our discipline of art history has been challenged externally to include a more interdisciplinary approach and to [End Page 168] look at the connections between geographically and culturally distinct parts of the world. This was recently highlighted in Princeton art historian Cheng-hua Wang’s article on that topic, highlighting and welcoming this increased tendency toward globality in Qing art history.3
These are just some of the factors that paved the way for Kristina Kleutghen’s handsomely illustrated book Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, one of several recent additions to a wealth of exciting scholarship on the art of the Qing court. Her main argument is that scenic illusion painting, her translation of the term tongjinghua 通景畫, was laden with semiotic significations that reveal the political, social, personal, and artistic lives of eighteenth-century Qing emperors (mainly Qianlong). In the author’s own words, “scenic illusions may be read as the supreme expression of his [Qianlong’s] personal thoughts and even anxieties over his family line, his lifespan, the stability of his domain, the truth of his being, his ethnicity and culture in the context of a multi-ethnic empire, and his desire as much to retreat from his responsibilities as to embrace them” (pp. 271–272).
Based on her doctoral dissertation at Harvard, the book is divided into six chapters plus an introduction and an epilogue. In chapter 1, Kleutghen outlines the historical tradition of illusory surfaces in China as an essential component in the making of architectural “magical” spaces from Buddhist cave sites at Dunhuang to the interiors medieval Chinese tombs. The use of perspectival paintings in these spaces may have been to ensure their efficaciousness in the afterlife by making them look more faithful to their original referent, as Ladislav Kevsner has pointed out in his study on the terracotta warriors found in the tomb of the First Emperor.4
She then contrasts that to the introduction of European art and science in China by Jesuit missionaries beginning in the sixteenth century and ending in the eighteenth century, the time period of the study. It was during these two hundred years that Western perspective was introduced to both the court and the coastal regions in the Qing such as Jiangnan and Guangzhou. Missing in the chapter is a clear connection between the two sections. How does one reconcile the encounter between these two ways of using a similar visual technology—one intended as a virtual space for the dead or divine and the other for the pleasure of the living?
Kleutghen devotes the second chapter to a case where the techniques of Western perspective became visible for a Chinese audience in The Study of Vision 視學 (1735). Authored by a high-ranking court official Nian Xiyao 年羹堯 (1671–1738), the volume...