The University of Chicago Magazine

April 1997


Medium and the Message

Exploring Chinese painting in a rich context, art historian Wu Hung reaches toward a Western audience.

Shedding light: Asian art, says Wu Hung, is not the mystery it's been made out to be.

Though his subjects lived about 1,000 years ago, art historian Wu Hung's latest book was born in part from an unusual personal experience. From 1973 to 1980 he was a curator at Beijing's Palace Museum, known also as the Forbidden City--the monumental city-within-a-city where China's emperors lived from the 1400s until 1924. Visitors now roam freely through some of its hundreds of buildings and the museum collections housed within. Because of Beijing's chronic housing shortage, for Wu Hung, the Forbidden City was also his home.

Living with a few other museum staff in quarters originally built for the imperial drama troops, Wu, a native of Sichuan province, was immersed in the world of traditional China. It was a rare privilege at the time, with the country still recovering from Mao's Cultural Revolution-years when his undergraduate school, Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, had ceased admitting students in art history. Wu, however, was able to continue studies at the Palace Museum in apprentice fashion. At 9 o'clock each evening, the Forbidden City locked its heavy doors; inside, the meager insulation from paper-screen windows offered a chillingly authentic Ming-dynasty atmosphere. But it was his daily physical contact with artworks many centuries old--first paintings and calligraphy, then bronze and stone carvings, both probably the world's largest such collections--that provided the germ for The Double Screen: Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting, published in February by the U of C Press and Reaktion Books.

Wu begins the book with a question, "What is a (traditional Chinese) painting?," and a belief that many scholars of Chinese art have given only partial answers, confining their analyses to a painting's image or pictorial representation. "What's missing," says Wu, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen S.V.D. distinguished service professor of Chinese art history, "is part of my experience in China: a painting's form, actual viewing, and actual handling."

That conviction deepened when he left for graduate studies at Harvard, where he earned a joint Ph.D. in art history and anthropology and served on Harvard's faculty until coming to Chicago in 1994. While at Harvard, he won the Association for Asian Studies' 1990 prize for the best book in Chinese studies with The Wu Liang Shrine: The Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art. And he began thinking about how behavior and culture might define a painting's material form, focusing first on a handscroll he had studied in Beijing, titled Night Entertainment of Han Xizai (see image below). The Palace Museum's painting--which Wu believes is a 12th-century copy of Gu Hongzhong's vanished 10th-century masterpiece--depicts a high official's notorious drinking parties. According to one story, the Southern Tang emperor Li Yu instructed the court artist Gu to paint one such soiree to satisfy his curiosity about his minister's indulgence.

Night Entertainment is the first of three works by Southern Tang dynasty (937-975) court painters that are Wu's central examples in The Double Screen. Common to all three are pictorial representations of a screen, which the Chinese have used for more than 2,000 years as furniture, painting medium, and visual motif. Wu chooses the screen for the way these uses overlap in reality and art: "While shielding what lies behind it," he writes, "a screen also deceives the eye by offering a pictorial illusion."

Wu weaves these artworks into a story, liberally illustrated, that stretches forward and back hundreds of years. A principal goal, he says, is "to make Chinese paintings understandable." Too often his students are "totally scared of Asian art," baffled by what seems "just a few trees or a few blobs of ink." He blames a tendency among scholars East and West to "mystify" Asian art. "The assumption is that [Westerners] cannot understand it," he says. "I feel that is absurd."

Even among Asian art scholars, no one today wishing to study Night Entertainment can enjoy Emperor Li Yu's exclusive vantage point, save for the Palace Museum curators. Visitors crowd around the painting's glass case, where it lies fully extended, roughly a foot wide and 11 feet long. Yet such handscrolls, says Wu, were "extreme-ly private--created for one viewer." The format, he argues, is intrinsic to both the voyeuristic tone and visual narrative of Night Entertainment. Viewed as intended, only a small section is exposed at a time, and "this physical handling coincides with the sense of a real journey"--from a detailed, formal party to an ambiguous, intimate scene. Three images of screens punctuate the painting's story, explains Wu, "regulating" the viewer's gaze by functioning much like actual screens: They define a space--a section of the narrative--while obscuring what lies beyond.

Another aspect of screens--illusionism--is foremost in the book's title work. Zhou Wenju's The Double Screen (which also exists only in later copies) depicts a gentleman and his male guests playing a Chinese form of chess while seated before a large, freestanding screen. The screen bears a domestic scene of similar geometry: A man, perhaps the same host, lies on a couch while several women attend to him and prepare his bed. A second screen portraying a landscape stands behind this interior group, cleverly positioned and scaled, Wu notes, to appear both as "real" people located in an inner room of the same house as the chess players and as painted figures that flank the men. Historical commentaries note that the original of

The Double Screen (painted on silk) was mounted on a freestanding screen, no doubt belonging to a man like the host depicted.

Such visual tricks, writes Wu, establish the hierarchy of the host's two worlds, one public and male, one private and female. The images of nature in the landscape scene, a hallmark of the "literati" culture of scholar-officials, symbolize a third realm-"the inner spiritual world of a refined gentleman." Over the next 400 years, the literati's huge influence transformed this hierarchy, as the notion of an intellectual communing with nature went, he says, from alternative culture to "high fashion, influencing everything-art, dress, and self-image." Thus a Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) work by Liu Guandao, Whiling away the Summer, reverses The Double Screen's composition, placing in the foreground a man relaxing in his garden--a must-have architectural element in the aristocratic home of that era--and relegating to the middle screen a scene in which servants prepare the man's ink and paper for the day's business.

Wu's book is dense with such connections: between painted images and their architectural settings; between material culture and art history; and among landscapes, still-lifes, and portraiture. The attempt to "break the boundaries" in scholarship reflects his diverse interests--he's completing a book on Beijing's transformation under communism, "from ancient city to socialist symbol." By using the screen to "cut the history from a different angle," his approach also departs from that of colleagues in Beijing, he says, where scholars typically write on one artist or one painting within rigid historical categories, such as landscape artists or literati painters. Nor does Wu emphasize brushwork. Although it is a foundation of Chinese art, he says, it's at best an abstraction to readers unschooled in calligraphy. Instead, he writes about Chinese art in the more familiar Western language of composition, space, and media.

"I'm trying to add a new way of talking about Chinese painting," says Wu Hung. At least for him, he adds, "it just seems richer." And better able, he hopes, to explain the visual logic of a 10th-century Chinese artist to a modern Western reader who needn't be scared after all.--Written by Andrew Campbell

A little night music: In the opening section of Night Entertainment of Han Xizai, the host--with a beard and tall hat--sits on a dias as he and his guests listen to a girl playing a pipa-guitar. The screen behind her separates this section from the second. (Palace Musuem, courtesy of Wu Hung.)

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