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Chinese art history – connecting past, present, and future

June 16, 2010

What is Chinese art history?

With the earliest jades dating to c. 3000 BCE, Chinese art history amounts to at least five thousand years and counting. Structured more by political chronology than the stylistic eras that partition European art history, Chinese art history flows continuously from the past into the present. As the field increasingly includes contemporary art in its theory and practice, the scope of Chinese art history widens even further to include the future.

With the field expanding daily thanks to fresh scholarship and instantly-available international news, today’s trends lay the foundation for tomorrow’s Chinese art history. What does it mean for the study of bronzes or collecting practice that archaic bronze vessels retain their prestige value for both Chinese and non-Chinese collectors? What does it mean for the history of painting and calligraphy that an 11th-century scroll previously believed to be a forgery recently established a new sale record for Chinese art? These events are already old news, but answering the questions they raise is the future of the field.

This does not mean that I believe art history must yield unconditionally to current events. On the contrary: Chinese art news becomes Chinese art history only when placed in historical context. A special edition Ferrari painted to resemble a classical ceramic glaze pattern adds a new dimension to the elite tradition of collecting and appreciating antique porcelain – a dimension that students might find easier to grasp. A family feud over one man’s estate becomes significant when we consider that paintings from his collection have already entered museums and are known as canonical masterpieces. A historical foundation transforms news and current events into a dynamic scholarly field, endowing works with a depth and longevity that expands the possibilities of Chinese art history as a discipline.

Ernst Gombrich famously compared art history with Caesar’s Gaul, divided in three between “the connoisseurs, the critics, and the art historians.”[1] Presumably he was thinking mostly about Western art history, but Chinese art history is frequently criticized for focusing on connoisseurship, while commentary on contemporary art is still considered more art criticism than art history.

In the case of Chinese art history I interpret Gombrich’s comment to contain a temporal division as well: art historians guard the past, connoisseurs watch over the present, and critics are alert for the future. But the implication in his characterization is that an art history unified among the art historians, connoisseurs and critics – thereby among the past, present, and future – is the most potent practice. This is the approach that supports the perpetually evolving and relentlessly expanding Chinese art history that I find so compelling. This is the Chinese art history that I practice: connecting past, present, and future.

**Next week: a review of Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.


[1] Richard Woodfield, The Essential Gombrich (London: Phaidon, 1996), 7. While on the surface Gombrich may seem unconnected to Chinese art history, James Cahill has described how Gombrich was a friend to the field: Gombrich once “saved the life of China’s best art historian and the leading force for the opening-up of art history in China.”


This article is original work © 2010 Kristina Kleutghen and licensed under Creative Commons. You may copy, distribute, and transmit this article only under the following conditions. Please cite responsibly. Comments are most welcome!
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