[The Double Screen: Medium & Representation in Chinese Painting]

Article excerpt

This is an original book which is skilfully conceived to interweave theoretical exploration with art-historical writing. The book tackles a big question: what is a (traditional Chinese) painting? Wu Hung rejects either an "intrinsic" analysis of style and iconography or an "extrinsic" study of cultural and sociopolitical contexts, which both equate a painting with a pictorial representation. Pursuing an integrative perspective of medium and representation, Wu Hung highlights the missing dimension of painting's physical form by focussing on screen images in Chinese art history. Differing from Western "scientific" visual perception, the screen is one of the pictorial signs or formats to structure space in Chinese painting and is thus found as a popular pictorial motif throughout Chinese art history. This comprehensive analysis around screen thus becomes a writing of art history that delineates a line of Chinese art development from the Han to Qing dynasties, a period of about two thousand years (from a time shortly before the Christian Era to the 1800s).

By focussing on three famous paintings with screen images from the Southern Tang (AD 937-75), a regime during the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Nations, the book examines the screen's diverse forms and roles by tracing backward and forward the historical development of each specific type of pictorial representation, its unique mode of visual perception, and its particular configuration of cultural space in Chinese art history. The author first problematizes the traditional reading of Chinese painting by deconstructing Gu Hongzhong's Night Entertainment of Han Xizai. Wu Hung breaks the myth of "textual enclosures" of both the external (stories and anecdotes) and the internal (colophons) surrounding the famous paintings, which blocks a fresh look at the original work. Instead, he strives to access the "visual narrative" in the original painting by defining the historicity of the various "textual enclosures" and investigating the complex relationships between the painted images and life, and between the images of related paintings. Unlike the screen images in Night Entertainment which help construct a spatial/temporal program and regulate the audience's perception in this long handscroll painting, the screen in Wang Qihan's short handscroll Collating Texts plays a different role, around which the author introduces a history of the landscape screen and raises the issue of masculine self-imaging. …