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Abstract for CAA 2011: ‘Staging Europe’

July 6, 2010

The following is the abstract for a paper that will be presented at the “Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art and Architecture (HECAA) New Scholars Panel,” February 9-12, 2011, at the College Art Association (CAA) 2011 Annual Conference. This project is an outgrowth of my PhD dissertation, a topic that repeatedly appeared both historically in the imperial archives and conceptually in the relationship between viewer, painting, and space.

Staging Europe: Theatricality and Painting at the Chinese Imperial Court

At the court of China’s Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795), European and Chinese artists collaborated under imperial patronage to produce life-size illusionistic paintings called tongjing hua (“paintings that connect scenes” or “scenic illusions”). Derived from European trompe l’oeil and quadratura, these massive works formed the backdrops for Qianlong’s daily life and duties as emperor. While murals and large-format screen paintings had long framed imperial activity and identity in Chinese culture, tongjing hua seamlessly integrated the imperial presence into the pictured world – including a vision of a European village.

The paintings of the European village were installed on the shore of a rectangular lake in the imperial gardens, creating the illusion that Europe lay just beyond the seas. The emperor would sail his barge towards “Europe,” but the landscape architecture forced him to disembark to one side where the illusion was unmasked. However, the repeated discovery that “Europe” was painted did not diminish its power: Qianlong so enjoyed the revelation of his deception so that he ordered the site be pictured in an engraving captioned “perspectival pictures east of the lake.”

The idea of the European village paintings was inspired by European theater scenery as diagrammed in Andrea Pozzo’s Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum. Eighteenth-century Europe’s use of illusionistic paintings as stage sets is well known as a device that enhanced the theatergoer’s experience, but this paper seeks to examine the use of such works in eighteenth-century China through a case study of Qianlong’s “Europe.” How did these paintings transition from European stage to Chinese court and garden? What did it mean for the conquest emperor who unprecedentedly expanded the Chinese empire to perpetually sail toward Europe but never arrive? What role(s) did he play in front of these paintings? And most importantly, why was he content to repeatedly rediscover that this Europe was painted rather than real?

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