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Upcoming Symposium: Qing Encounters

September 13, 2012


Peking University, Beijing, China – October 10-13, 2012

My paper:

The Function and Significance of Linear Perspective in Eighteenth-Century China

Although the use of linear perspective in late imperial China is well established, its presence in the eighteenth century has typically been assessed only in terms of “European influence” and exotica. The consequential lack of meaningful art historical discourse on the subject of perspective in Chinese art has meant that two major issues remain: first, the misconception that linear perspective was simply received passively and incorporated into art for novelty value, and second, a general lack of conceptualization surrounding engagement with and reception of the works. In short, for Chinese art produced in response to European contact, the basic art historical question of what linear perspective does and means in this context remains unanswered—an issue that has received significant consideration in scholarship on Western art.

This paper therefore seeks to interrogate both the function of linear perspective as a new visual technology in eighteenth-century Chinese art, and the more profound significance this pictorial method had in terms of creating permeable spaces for its viewers in a variety of media and sizes. Functioning from the premise that Qing artists, patrons, and audiences actively exerted agency and intention in the use and consumption of perspective, this paper examines four specific areas of art: painting, engraving, architecture, and woodblock prints. Ultimately, these works stand to offer insights not only into the function and significance of linear perspective in High Qing China, but also into the different perceptions elite and popular audiences had of this new visuality and pictoriality relative to the works they encountered.


Nian Xiyao and the Manual on Polyhedron Proportions

January 6, 2012

Yesterday was spent at my old Cambridge haunt, the Needham Research Institute, to track down a rare text by Jingdezhen Imperial Kilns Supervisor and Huai’an Customs Commissioner Nian Xiyao 年希堯 (1671-1738). As a high-ranking official during the Yongzheng reign, Nian was particularly interested in European art and science, and is most well known for his synthesis of the two. During his tenure at Jingdezhen (1726-1736), Nian produced two editions of The Study of Vision (Shixue jingyun 視學精蘊, 1729, and Shixue 視學, 1735), an illustrated treatise on linear perspective and projective geometry that I believe conclusively provides the link between quadratura painting in Europe and the practice of monumental illusionistic painting in eighteenth-century China.

Page from The Study of Vision depicting Nian's unique "layer" method explaining how to depict figures receding in size as they recede in space.

Page from The Study of Vision describing how to create the shadows for a circular form

In addition to this text on painting, Nian also wrote on geometry, trigonometry, logarithmic calculus, medicine, and more. I was searching specifically for the Manual on Polyhedron Proportions (Mianti bili bianlan 面體比例便覽), which I suspected might be related to his interest in three-dimensional forms as demonstrated in The Study of Vision. It turns out that the Manual only survived in a handwritten manuscript (current whereabouts unknown) that was published once in 1897 as part of a Chinese compendium of mathematical texts. Of course, the NRI holds a copy. There’s nothing like successfully tracking down a rare text to start the New Year’s research off on the right foot!

Page from the Manual on Polyhedron Proportions

Happy Holidays!

December 21, 2011

Happy Holiday!

Jin Nong Santa (18th-century and 2011)
Image created by Jin Nong and John Finlay

Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology

November 29, 2011

AHPT now has a great new website for all of us tech-loving art historians!

Summer Update

July 10, 2011

Spring 2011 was much busier than anticipated. Teaching at Dartmouth College was a phenomenal experience – the students were invariably bright and inquisitive, and it was an honor to be on the other side of podium. But because a ten-week term demands your full attention to the intense exclusion of all else, there is plenty of news to report.

First, I’m thrilled to be joining Washington University in St. Louis as Assistant Professor of Art History and Archaeology. Two classes will be offered this autumn:

  • L01/3442: Tradition and Innovation: Chinese Painting from the 4th to 20th Centuries
  • L01/444: The Forbidden City

As a result of this new position, I will be stepping back my editorial duties at Modern Art Asia to become Editor-at-Large.

This summer I’ve also been privileged to receive a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend for a project titled “The Study of Vision,” which begins a full translation of the eponymous 1735 Chinese manual Shixue 視學 that illustrates and describes how to paint with European-inspired linear perspective and illusionism.

In publication news, two pieces were published in Orientations this spring: “Shooting from the Hip” (April 2011) and “Contemplating Eternity: An Illusionistic Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor’s Heir” (May 2011). An article titled “One or Two, Repictured” has been accepted for the 2012 issue of Archives of Asian Art.

Full details of all this and more can be found on the updated About and Current Projects pages.

Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?

March 30, 2011

Vodpod videos no longer available.

By independent filmmaker Alison Klayman

Featured on PBS Frontline March 29, 2011

Global Art?: Workshop at University of Warwick

February 25, 2011

Global Art?  China and Europe in Early Modern Material & Visual Culture

IAS Seminar Room, Millburn House
University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7HS
25 February 2011
All welcome (no rsvp required)
Workshop Convenor:  Dr Stephen McDowall

In this half-day workshop, part of the Global History & Culture Centre Workshop Series for 2011, we will hear from scholars who have engaged with the images and objects of Sino-European interaction in fascinating and thought-provoking ways, followed by a more general discussion of methodological issues and their application to global history.

13:15    Dr Stephen McDowall:  Welcome
13:20   Prof. David Porter:  Gendered Utopias in Transcultural Context: Chinese Porcelains and English Women’s Writings, c. 1650-1750 (abstract (PDF Document))
14:00    Prof. Carolyn Steedman responds to David Porter
14:15    Questions & discussion (chair: Dr Rosa Salzberg)
14:35    Break
14:55   Dr Kristina Kleutghen:  Performing a ‘Journey to the West’: The Problem of Theatres and Gardens in Sino-European Exchange (abstract (PDF Document))
15:35    Stephen McDowall responds to Kristina Kleutghen
15:50    Questions & discussion (chair: Prof. Maxine Berg)
16:10    Break
16:30   Dr Daniel Rycroft responds:  Art History as Global History
16:45    General discussion (chair: Dr Anne Gerritsen)
17:30    Drinks
18:15    Close

David Porter is Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.  He is the author of Ideographia: The Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe (2001) and The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England (2010).

Kristina Kleutghen is an independent Chinese art historian specialising in cross-cultural interactions during the Qing dynasty.  She is currently revising a manuscript on monumental illusionistic painting at the eighteenth-century court, and is executive editor of the journal Modern Art Asia.

Daniel Rycroft is Lecturer in the Arts and Cultures of South Asia at the University of East Anglia.  He is the author of Representing Rebellion:  Visual Aspects of Counter-insurgency in Colonial India (2006), co-editor of The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi (2011) and joint editor of the journal World Art.