I’m thrilled to announce that my second book is now under advance contract with University of Washington Press!
Lens onto the World:
Optical Devices, Art, Science, and Society in China
When the first Chinese treatise on optics appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, it was both inspired by and illustrated with a wide range of optical devices that had circulated in China for nearly four hundred years. Although originally imported from abroad, devices such as spectacles, telescopes, camera obscuras, peepboxes, and more were domesticated almost immediately, and considered part of art and visual culture more than of science and technology. This resulted in little scientific literature, but a wide range of images depicting the devices alone and in use, prints and paintings meant to be used with the devices, works resulting from the devices themselves, and illustrations appearing in technical and commercial treatises. These varied works consistently reveal that the effects of optical devices on vision and visuality arose from local culture and social class rather than from foreign ideas. Focusing on the forgotten relationship between optical devices and art in China from the fifteenth through early-twentieth centuries, Lens onto the World blends the histories of art and science to rediscover the objects and artworks that led to both the independent development of optics within Chinese science and encouraged new image technologies such as photography and cinema. With Chinese optical devices little studied in any field, rediscovering them and their sociocultural effects through the numerous related works of art reveals the intertwined histories of art, science, and society in the development of modern China.
“Peepboxes, Society, and Visuality in Early Modern China,” the first article related to my second book project on Chinese art and optical devices, is now published in the September issue of Art History! This special issue, “Objects in Motion in the Early Modern World,” is edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Meredith Martin.
Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces is now available from University of Washington Press! Accompanying the book is a website from the Mellon Art History Publication Initiative (AHPI) that includes a great media gallery including images of some of the works featured in the book, video tours of some sites where the paintings were installed, and content excerpts for free download.
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Exciting news! My book is forthcoming with University of Washington Press:
Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in Eighteenth-Century China
From the Introduction:
Scenic illusion paintings (tongjinghua) are massive wall- and ceiling-mounted paintings in full color on silk that were produced collaboratively by Chinese and Western painters in the emperor’s employ. These artists blended their respective styles and techniques to create monumental illusionistic paintings that at first seemed to be real, permeable spaces visually contiguous with the viewer’s own space and occupied by real figures and objects.
The Yongzheng emperor commissioned the first scenic illusions in the late 1720s, but the Qianlong emperor commissioned all known surviving examples: the first in 1736, his first official year on the throne, and the last in 1798, a year before his death. The palace workshop archives demonstrate that originally, dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of these paintings could be found inside imperial spaces in and around eighteenth-century Beijing. Today, only a handful remain to testify to the phenomenon of scenic illusion painting at the Qing court. Five single paintings and one complete interior program remain in situ; four single paintings are known to survive outside their original architectural contexts; and there are three pieces of visual evidence for works that have not survived. More may prove to exist, but the unwieldiness and fragility of these massive works severely complicates their handling, photography, and display.
Now held almost exclusively inside restricted areas of the Palace Museum, three of the extant scenic illusions were briefly displayed internationally, but upon their return to Beijing became just as inaccessible to the millions of annual visitors to the Forbidden City as they were before—and even more inaccessible than they were during Qianlong’s time. In spite of their current rarity as well as their historical, historiographical, and institutional invisibility, however, scenic illusion paintings not only offer new insights into late imperial China’s most influential emperor, but also provide essential evidence for the evolving nature of Chinese art in response to an influx of imported pictorial ideas, styles, and techniques.
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be on leave 2013-2014 as a Getty Research Institute-National Endowment for the Humanities (GRI-NEH) Postdoctoral Fellow as part of the theme Connecting Seas: Artistic and Cultural Exchange for the project “Visions of the West: Rediscovering Eighteenth-Century Chinese Perspective Prints and Viewing Devices.” The list of scholars is phenomenal, and I’m honored to be among them.
“Visions of the West” moves away from the Qing court and Beijing to look at popular prints and imported glass-lensed viewing devices such as the optique/zograscope and peepbox particularly in southern China. It marks the beginning of a new project on eighteenth-century China’s general fascination with European visual and material culture, particularly occidentalizing works produced in China. This “occidenterie,” the Chinese equivalent to European chinoiserie, went far beyond the court, and had as much (it not more) to do with trade in the south than Jesuit presence in the north. Yet this fascination and its broad social and geographic spread have been all but forgotten except at the court.
Scholars have demonstrated that in eighteenth-century Japan, vues d’optique, veduta, perspective prints, optiques, and peepboxes arrived via both the Dutch East India Company and Chinese traders. The earliest extant Japanese viewing device images (known as karakuri-e and megane-e) included Chinese scenes from both the vertical and horizontal Suzhou perspective prints that were later replaced by Japanese scenes, strongly suggesting that the Chinese transformation of European viewing prints also inspired Japanese artists. Yet the Chinese link in the chain between Europe and Japan remains unexplored despite the thriving print market centered in Suzhou, the popularity of lenses and viewing devices there, and the eighteenth-century Chinese fascination with “occidenterie.”
Timon Screech has argued that Japanese perspective prints viewed with a peepbox constituted a public, popular viewing form mediated by the lens that became a metaphor for a distorted view of life and social status.* Did the Chinese feel the same way? How did the European viewing device prints arrive, circulate, and come to be adapted? Did lensed viewing constitute not only a foreign intervention in Chinese visuality and visual culture, but also in society? How did the foreign connotations of lenses and perspective affect the way that such occidentalizing objects were understood, and by extension, how the West itself was understood or misunderstood? How did these objects affect the development of the vertical perspective print, which not only incorporated more attention to engraving-type details, but also was treated more as a painting—a higher class of object? These are some of the questions I hope to explore using the Getty’s collection of both prints and viewing devices.
*Screech, Timon. “The Meaning of Western Perspective in Edo Popular Culture.” Archives of Asian Art 47 (1994): 58–69.