Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History

Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History

James Elkins
With a Foreword by Jennifer Purtle
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History
    Book Description:

    This is a provocative essay of reflections on traditional mainstream scholarship on Chinese art as done by towering figures in the field such as James Cahill and Wen Fong. James Elkins offers an engaging and accessible survey of his personal journey encountering and interpreting Chinese art through Western scholars' writings. He argues that the search for optimal comparisons is itself a modern, Western interest, and that art history as a discipline is inherently Western in several identifiable senses. Although he concentrates on art history in this book, and on Chinese painting in particular, these issues bear implications for Sinology in general, and for wider questions about humanistic inquiry and historical writing. Jennifer Purtle's Foreword provides a useful counterpoint from the perspective of a Chinese art specialist, anticipating and responding to other specialists’ likely reactions to Elkins's hypotheses.

    eISBN: 978-988-220-573-4
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Plates
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Foreword: “Whose Hobbyhorse?”
    (pp. ix-xx)
    Jennifer Purtle

    I read the manuscript for this book expecting to hate it. Rumors about the manuscript bemoaned a non-specialist author who presumed to tell specialists in the field of Chinese painting history working to recover traditional Chinese ideas about painting that and how they practiced Western art history. Moreover, the author allegedly did so in terms not interesting to many specialists in the field of Chinese painting history, nor fully intelligible to some. To propose the Westernness of the practice of art history in the field of Chinese painting history—which has, since the middle of the twentieth century, sought means...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  7. Iterated Introductions
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book has an unusually complicated and lengthy pre-publication history, and that history is tied in complicated and lengthy ways to the argument of the book. That is my excuse for writing such a disproportionate introduction to such a brief book.

    I also have an excellent model for this oversize introduction: Hans Belting’s The Germans and Their Art, whose introduction is nearly the size of the text it introduces. His problem, too, was to find a way to initiate a discussion about national differences in art historical writing. It is a subject that needs to be framed and reframed; the...

  8. I A Brace of Comparisons
    (pp. 13-48)

    There may be no more difficult problem visible to art history than the representation of other cultures. It is at once diffuse and unhelpfully explicit, over- and under-theorized, conventionally elided and narrowly contended. Even getting near it poses severe conceptual problems.¹

    To begin (if this is a beginning point), no one seems entirely sure what the problem might be. Some practices are manifestly pernicious—for instance, the orientalizing representations made famous by Edward Said; and others seem harmless and routine—for instance, writing in English about Chinese art.² It appears to be wrong, or at least inaccurate, to characterize a...

  9. II Tying Some Laces
    (pp. 49-66)

    At this point I could begin my argument about the “comparison of historical perspectives” and the reasons it is both optimal and suspect. But it is a messy argument, so I want to start by naming several obstacles and pitfalls. First, to dispose briefly of an objection that will seem irrelevant to scholars of Chinese art: that the Chinese tradition is apt to be understood in Western terms because it is simpler or narrower than our own. Western art, in this view, has a richness of historiographic and critical literature, and a diversity of media, schools, and styles, that is...

  10. III The Argument
    (pp. 67-98)

    A comparison of historical perspectives must begin not where Chinese landscape painting begins, in the dim Jin, Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties, but where earlier paintings effectively became available as an articulated tradition for later painters: that is, in the Northern Song.¹ The earlier dynasties are populated by legends more than by surviving paintings, and even in the Song few Tang paintings survived.² The legends of pre-Song painters have some parallels in Western art, though that parallelism is less important than the inaccessibility of the paintings themselves. China and the West share formative legends of mimetic excellence, and contests such...

  11. IV The Endgame, and the Qing Eclipse
    (pp. 99-132)

    There are histories with gaps, when centuries pass with no evidence of human activity. The European “dark ages” is the exemplary case, though its darkness is now widely contested and redistributed among a number of different cultures. The mid-third millennium BC in the Middle East, the founding centuries of Rome, and “Dynasty 0” in Egypt are also examples of periods whose sequences may always be inadequately known. Elsewhere and further back in history the gaps grow wider, and the known objects fewer and farther between. In Paleolithic Europe there are so few artifacts dispersed through so many years that it...

  12. V Postscripts
    (pp. 133-146)

    Something about Chinese landscape painting stirs my interest in questions of art and art history, rather than the other way around. What is said about the paintings raises questions, and those questions return to the paintings as if for nourishment. Because of the nature of this inquiry I have not had the opportunity to say much about what attracts me to individual paintings—their visual force, their geographic contexts, their consumers, their painters’ lives—and it may often have seemed that I would rather talk about what art history is, rather than what the paintings suggest it should be. I...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 147-174)
  14. Index
    (pp. 175-182)