- Chinese Painting and Its Audiences by Craig Clunas
What is Chinese painting? Is there any definition sufficiently capacious and coherent that can apply to the sparsely brushed ink landscapes, ancestor portraits colored with bright mineral pigments, and, from more recent times, meticulously fashioned oil paintings produced in China? In Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, Craig Clunas argues that the term "Chinese painting" does not designate a corpus of artifacts made in China or elsewhere, by artists of Chinese or foreign birth; nor does the term connote choice of medium, pictorial style, or range of subject matter. According to Clunas, the concept of Chinese painting has been and continues to be produced not by artists or by works of art but by audiences and by what they think and say about the paintings they view. Chinese painting is, in short, a historically determined epistemological notion, not an art-historical or curatorial category.
Based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures from 2012, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences brims with arresting arguments and flashes of insight familiar to readers of Clunas's earlier publications. For over a quarter of a century, beginning with his Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Clunas has produced a stream of books and articles that have done as much as the work of any scholar to reshape the field of Chinese art studies.1 So rich is the Clunian canon, if I may so term it, that a graduate seminar might profitably be devoted to it. That parts of this canon, including this most recent addition, spark argument and thoughtful challenges is precisely why Clunas's work is so rewarding.
Painting, defined simply as making pictures with a brush, was practiced in China as early as the Neolithic period (roughly 8,000–2,000 bce). Over the centuries, paintings accumulated in staggering numbers and were viewed by a great variety of audiences in China. As he explains in the introductory first chapter, Clunas chooses to begin his account of Chinese painting and its audiences in the Ming dynasty [End Page 298] (1368–1644). The first works he cites—paired images of two grooms and a large white horse, likely painted in the fifteenth century—were identified as "Chinese painting" by Dust Muhammad (ca. 1510–1564), an artist at the Safavid court, who included them in an album of paintings he assembled, now in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. In a note in Persian, Dust Muhammad comments that "these paintings are from the collection of good works by the Chinese masters" (p. 11). This observation, according to Clunas, marks the first time that paintings were specifically labeled "Chinese." Although collectors in Korea and Japan had long been familiar with paintings from China and had terms for these objects, such as Kara-e 唐絵, or "Tang painting," used in Japan, Clunas argues that for these East Asian countries, paintings from neighboring China were products of "a common high culture that might have specific local and continental inflections, but was at root a shared one" (p. 18). In China, of course, painted images were simply called hua 畫 or tu 圖—paintings or pictures—without need of a national or geographic modifier. Clunas justifies his mid-sixteenth-century starting point also by noting that, at this time in China itself, images intended for foreign viewers were being made in large numbers for export, while the rapid multiplication of printed images expanded the number and types of pictures people saw. For the first time, woodblock-printed histories of Chinese painting, most notably Master Gu's Painting Album (Gushi huapu 顧氏畫譜) of 1603, illustrate the history of painting in China. This album is, Clunas notes, the world's first pictorial history of painting (p. 29). Though not designated "Album of Chinese Painting"—such terminology would not come until much later—Mr. Gu's publication aims to provide an encyclopedic anthology of masters ancient and modern linked in an unbroken tradition.
The chapters that follow are organized in chronological order, from the Ming period through the...