- China–Art–Modernity: A Critical Introduction to Chinese Visual Expression from the Beginnings of the Twentieth Century to the Present Day by David Clarke
Readers in search of a well-written, authoritative, and accessible text about modern art from China need look no further than David Clarke's China–Art–Modernity: A Critical Introduction to Chinese Visual Expression from the Beginnings of the Twentieth Century to the Present Day. In this text, Clarke offers a strong and balanced synthesis of art from China responding to the modern condition, beginning in the late nineteenth century of the Four Rens, Wu Changshi, Gao Jianfu, et al., and ending with art dating to 2015. Along the way, he not only explains how reform in Chinese painting was an outgrowth of the need to reform society as a whole (p. 33)—which is helpful yet familiar—but also then includes information that most China art historians are unaware of, as the case of a Chinese–Cuban–African artist active in early twentieth century, Wilfredo Lam (pp. 51–52). Here and elsewhere, Clarke shows himself able and willing to expand beyond China's borders to look at artists in its diaspora, and the challenges to nationalistic narratives. And, he ably makes sense of what heretofore has often seemed incoherent and or just curious, as for example the choice of Indian figures in Xu Beihong's The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain (1940), a traditional Chinese tale. And, instead of tacking diasporic art to the end of the book, Clarke broadens the discussion of "China" to include in different periods throughout. This discussion thus significantly broadens our understanding of what is "Chinese art" and what it can be.
As I read, I found myself noting how smart Clarke's assessments were, how solid his formal analyses, how penetrating his discussion, and how much information he pulls out of the visual—all the while keeping the tone clear, the text accessible, and never getting mired in the complex politics and personalities at work. Though some readers may wish for more political detail, Clarke's even balance permits class instructors to assign additional readings to supplement these important details and background (e.g., p. 72). Similarly, Clarke leaves plenty of room for close analysis and discussion about individual works by instructors in the classroom.
The book is filled with insights. As with Liu Shou-kwan's Zhuangzi (1974, p. 94), Clarke helps us understand that style, materials/medium, gesture, technique, and subject matter are each critical to understanding the arguments of modernism in [End Page 113] each place and time. In summing up the situation for artists on Taiwan and Hong Kong today, he writes, "Earlier Chinese art remains fully available to contemporary artists as a potential resource, but ambitious artists can no longer credibly present their work as an unproblematic continuation of literati practice" (p. 99).
In critically assessing an artist's output, Clarke is willing to negatively—but fairly—judge the work. This helps us, as he articulates knowledgeably what the viewer might only sense, as for his discussion of Chen Yifei's Lingering Melodies from Xinyang River (1991, p. 109), or his assessment of the melting clock in Liu Yan's Altar as "embarrassingly undigested." This is not to say that he dismisses surrealism in its entirely, as he then goes on to demonstrate how in other's hands "imagistic Surrealism . . . could help to pick apart at the seams the falsity of Chinese Socialist Realism" (p. 113). He explains why new forms of art are important, even as they appear retardataire or oversentimentalized, as in He Duoling's Spring Breeze (p. 111).
Penetrating analyses and insights seem to drip off every page. I was repeatedly struck by how deeply David Clarke has looked at and thought about each art work, each artist, and their context. Moreover, he...