Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

China: The Empire of Things

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

China: The Empire of Things

Article excerpt

China: the empire of things Review of: Jason Stauber and Nick Pearce, Original Intentions: Essays on the Production, Reproduction, and Interpretation in the Arts of China, Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press 2012, 302 pages, £48.95, ISBN: 9780813039725

There is always something disquieting about an isolated work of art.1

Original Intentions: Essays on Production, Reproduction, and Interpretation in the Arts of China inaugurates the David A. Cofrin Asian Art Manuscript Series, a new collaborative project between the Samuel P. Harn Museum and the University of Florida Press.2 The volume includes nine essays on topics as diverse as printed books, murals, ceramics, bronze ritual vessels, and performance art, from the Bronze Age to the contemporary. As set out in the introduction, the volume seeks to offer a new look at how objects were produced and circulated, making defined meaning, consumption shaped consumers' identities, and the ways historians had, and most frequently not, engaged with objects' material properties. The volume thus joins other studies that over the last ten years have explored aspects of making, skilling, and materiality from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. This 'anthropological turn', with the different characterizations we may want to give to it, is a paradigmatic shift in the relatively young discipline of Chinese art history that will have a lasting effect on its future development. As it is often the case with edited volumes, the breadth of the material covered and the variety of the approaches surpass a coherent unity of goals. Broadly speaking, the essays are examples of technical art history, the history of collecting and reception, and the socioeconomics of the arts. The task of positioning each contribution vis-à-vis the growing recent scholarship on material culture in Chinese and western art history is left to individual authors. Such loose organization, where multiple and at times contrasting voices are maintained and objects move freely from essay to essay, rhymes well with Maurice Ravel's cabinet of curiosity invoked in the introduction: an environment saturated with sensory suggestions, a composite space where individual objects gain in meaning as an ensemble, away from the isolation of the museum cabinet. The impression of stepping into afin-de-siècle interior is enhanced by the volume's elegant layout and superb illustrations of well-known but poorly published works or overlooked ones, presented for the first time to the reader in high-quality colour reproductions.

Framed by two essays on bronze ritual vessels, all contributions reconstruct patterns of production, replication, and circulation of three-dimensional objects, leaving aside the more common focus on painting. Those essays that do take painting as their case study approach it exclusively from a technical point of view (Lu Ling-en) or from a functionalist perspective that equates painting to architecture and to objects, as in Jason Stauber's synthetic overview of the circulation of multiples at the eighteenth-century imperial court. This is a welcome shift not only because it restarts a conversation about three-dimensional objects that the increased focus on painting had brought to a halt, but also because it problematizes narratives of medium specificity upon which the field of Chinese art history in the United States has relied as one of its many modernist foundations.3 By bringing so many methodological approaches together, the volume tackles a number of issues about the practice of art history at large, and the ways historians have over time sought to overcome the 'disquieting' isolation of the individual artwork by making comparisons, creating narratives, embedding individual objects in textual imbrications.

Few shared themes can be highlighted in this volume's content. Nick Pearce reconstructs the case of odium sinologicum that fractured the small community of British and French sinologists around 1910, when the Victoria and Albert Museum published a large, bronze vessel with rounded handles in the Handbook of Chinese Art, one of the first illustrated monographs on Chinese art published by a Western institution. …

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