THE ART OF MODERN CHINA. By Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen. Published by University of California Press, Berkeley, 2012. Softcover with color illustrations, 384 pages.

First Among Equals?

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

With China’s economic rise has come a reassessment, both internal and external, of its cultural patrimony. “Modern Chinese Art” as a subject area within art history is finally finding its place in Western institutions, where it has been selectively and prudently introduced since 1987 when Joan Lebold Cohen published her survey The New Chinese Painting: 1949–1986. Yet, in the years since Cohen’s publication, the definition of “modern art” in China has remained unclear, its beginnings falling on a sliding scale that ranges from the mid-19th century right up to the 1950s. In addition, various English-language books have picked up Cohen’s narrative and attempted both to elucidate the nature of “Chinese Contemporary Art” in China in the 20th century, and to characterize the relationship of traditional mediums to art’s contemporary incarnations. To date, none has proved successful.

Mainland scholars have faced their own conundrums, often involving politically influenced cultural histories, sensitivities about what can and cannot be written in the historical record, and anxieties about what can constitute “official” histories. Nonetheless, in 2009, mainland art historian and curator Lü Peng published the monumental A History of Art in 20th-Century China. Translated into English the following year, this steroidal coffee-table book requires some effort just to lift, and similar labor is necessary to comprehend its text in translation. In the meantime, intercultural conversation has stalled over lingering ideological prejudices and linguistic differences. We have all remained without an accurate road map to navigate the political chaos and artistic innovation that defined art-making in China during the 20th century.

The Art of Modern China, however, charts these territories with lucidity and diplomacy. Written by Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, the two scholars who have defined this burgeoning field, the book was almost a decade in the making. It attempts to synthesize a range of disparate scholarship on Chinese art into one narrative that encompasses every major artist from Zhao Zhiqian (1829–84) to Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957). The result is a textbook whose language is appropriate to students but not too pinyin-heavy as to turn away nonspecialists. It is a densely packed chronicle of artistic activity by individuals and artists’ associations, including exhibition histories and formal analyses of selected works. All material is roundly contextualized through ample discussion of political and social events.

The book’s fundamental assumption, shared by most China historians, is that Modernism was the result of Western or other outside stimulation. However, sensitive readers will register the authors’ claims that indigenous modernity was also influencing art production, even if these are not stated explicitly. The appearance of indigenous art markets in late-19th-century Shanghai and epigraphic scholarship’s influence on Wu Changshi (1844–1927) are two such examples.

The book’s chronological structure allows for an easy grasp of the historic bullet points. Content is grouped into three periods of three chapters each: late imperial art through the New Culture Movement (c. 1842–1930s); art under Mao (1937–76); and post-Cultural Revolution art to the present. The swift, densely compacted narrative is more convincing in the earlier sections. The latter chapters reflect a rather conservative, academic and Western-oriented view, thus the thrill of reading about the contemporary moment historicized is tempered with a degree of disappointment. Some of the more exciting trends in Chinese contemporary art have been glossed over, with preference given to artists already acknowledged by the “official” system, or who show clear connections to literati traditions.

To some degree, Andrews and Shen’s book succeeds because it performs as a compilation of scholarly work in translation. The story of Chinese art is no longer written by and for an audience of overseas collectors. Here, the most up-to-date research in both languages is incorporated into a narrative that is virtually the same as that encountered in mainland Chinese-language materials. In 2014, state-approved teaching materials taking the history of art up to 2000 will be published in China—it will be interesting to compare the differences. In addition, the book does acknowledge sensitive issues and events—for example, Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Red Guard violence during the Cultural Revolution—although none of these are given historical emphasis.

In some cases, the authors reserve their criticism, as in their almost apologetic descriptive account of a famous pastoral ink painting of a young Tibetan herdswoman, Two Lambs (1954) by Zhou Changgu (1929–1986). The work’s didactic function is commented on in a diplomatic way that invokes contemporary rhetoric of building a multi-ethnic nationalism in a manner that may well not convince all readers. No matter, a confluence of historical narratives from both the mainland and Western countries (whose scholarship is considered more historically objective) should be seen as a positive development, or as a transcendence of Cold War prejudices. Even if ideological disputes are temporarily postponed, in-depth critical exegesis will surely follow in decades to come.

How the book covers contemporary artists is of particular interest to readers of this magazine. In discussing both the end of “official art” and post-1989 practices, a predictably familiar selection of artwork is invoked, although the authors are to be applauded for not lionizing the now-infamous gunshot incident at the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition in 1989. In the book’s last chapter—“The New Millennium, and the Chinese Century?”—the field of vision includes a selection of academic artists whose practices can be read as extensions of those of the literati painters. Xu Bing (b. 1955) is granted multiple illustrations, while current Central Academy of Fine Arts president Pan Gongkai (b. 1947) makes an unexpected cameo. A literati-esque prejudice against the market feels palpable when the authors demonstrate “mainstream” oil painters with an illustration of Wang Yidong’s (b. 1955) photo-realistic, Orientalized, peasant-maiden erotica.

Similarly, the “Biennial Decade” (2000–10) may be acknowledged as a pan-Asian trend, but there is little attempt to reconcile “official art” with the independent artists who have arisen since the establishment of the art market. It seems a silent criticism when a gongbi-style ink painting depicting pretty ballerinas at rest is used to illustrate “official art.” In addition, there is no mention of the culturally indistinct practices that prevail among China’s younger generations. Perhaps this is due to the lack of indigenous scholarship, or the dubious reputations of the art press and of “art criticism” in general, much of which lacks necessary distance or is funded by artists or galleries themselves. But the book’s most striking absence pertains to the Chinese diaspora. The only non-mainland-China narratives included—those of Taiwan and Hong Kong—are marginalized into one brief chapter. We are given no space to imagine a post-nationalist contemporary art. 

As the book’s title and vermillion openers suggest, this is modern art with “Chinese characteristics.” Perhaps in this respect The Art of Modern Chinashould be counted among the somewhat subdued formula of dialectical historical writing that prevails in sinological scholarship today. Happily, this ensures a volume containing the factual components with which to construct a more dynamic role for Chinese artists in both international Modernism and today’s contemporary movements. So, while we may not have quite yet broken free from a somewhat essentialist view of “Chinese art,” we do finally have a road map with which to chart a course into the future.