Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China

By Clunas, Craig | The Art Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China


Clunas, Craig, The Art Bulletin


JONATHAN HAY Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 412 pp.; 22 color ills., 220 b/w. $95.00

An intriguing phenomenon of the field of art history in recent years is the intellectual reinvigoration of the monograph, a form of writing that at one point seemed to have fallen irredeemably from the position of dominance it once enjoyed. Alternative modes of writing, ones not bounded by the arbitrary enthronement of the single artist, appeared likely to attract the best minds in the field. However, texts such as those of Stephen Bann on Paul Delaroche, Richard Spear on Guido Reni, or Griselda Pollock on Mary Cassatt (and extending to work like that of Thomas Crow on David and his associates) have surely demonstrated untapped reserves of vitality in the form. What these otherwise disparate texts share-and the intellectual development that has infused the monograph with new life-is arguably an address to the question of the subject, or more broadly, of subjectivity. Many in the humanities, art historians included, have seen the task of historicizing subjectivity, which often owes an explicit or implicit impetus to the work of Michel Foucault, as compelling and engaging. This outlook forms part of the central spine of intellectual rigor at the core of Jonathan Hay's big, long, difficult, and important book on Shitao (16421707), published in Cambridge University Press's series Res Monographs on Anthropology and Aesthetics. However, right at the beginning he is scrupulous in distinguishing the two terms:

My interest here, however, is not in painting's relationship to a history of the subject-in this case the literati subject, itself an artefact of positivist psychology and philosophy in interaction with Chinese literati theory-but in painting's relationship to a history of subjectivity, understood as a reflexive relation to self. (p. 24)

For Hay, subjectivity is "a negotiation between two forces or processes: on the one hand, the interaction at the level of the individual human site of different patterns of social consciousness, and on the other, the individual impulse to seek a unity and coherence of self' (p. 23). His investigation of the issue, on a scale and over a compass that is rarely granted to a single Chinese artist, has produced a major book, which should be read not only by all scholars of Chinese art but also by any art historian concerned with the twinned issues of subjectivity and modernity.

A book with a complex structure, it makes few concessions in the way of "new readers start here." Inevitably, problems arise in constructing a revisionist account when you cannot assume that everyone is aware that the story is being so thoroughly and effectively revised. This book will be hard work for those coming to Shitao for the first time, but there is perhaps an important point to be made here about the changing politics of the art history profession and about the declining validity of certain assumptions about what "we" all know about already. If books about Reni or Cassatt can be "hard," then books about Shitao must be allowed to claim that right, too, and not forever be pressed into service as introductory or accessible texts. It is in something of this spirit that this book rather assumes at least an awareness, on the part of the reading subject it constructs, of a certain received view of Shitao that is prominent in the literature of the 1950s through the 1980s, variously described by the author as "modernist" or "positivist." Neither of these terms is here understood in a wholly positive sense. In this body of scholarship, Shitao has been written of not only as the quintessential "individualist" of Chinese painting, but also occasionally as a sort of modern artist avant la lettre. A unilinear view of modernity, with Shitao's gestural brushwork as a sort of unconscious precursor to Abstract Expressionism, is here surely laid to rest forever. …

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