the qing dynasty's use of art -- 8/24/18

Today's selection -- from Chinese Painting and its Audiences by Craig Clunas. China's Qing Dynasty ended with its overthrow in 1911, bringing to a close 2,000 years of rule by a series of imperial dynasties in China. It had suffered a series of humiliating defeats throughout the 1800s that increasingly exposed its weaknesses, and in 1885 lost the part of its kingdom that came to be known as Indochina to the French in the Sino-French War. It used art to try to disguise that failure:

"In June 1885, the Qing empire signed a peace treaty with France, bringing to an end the humiliating Sino-French War of 1883-1885 that had so disturbed the patriot painter Ren Bonian, whose self-portrait of the previous year shows little of the patriotic anger he is known to have felt at this lat­est proof of dynastic failure. In November of the same year, the imperial Grand Council was ordered by the ruling Empress Dowager to select subjects for a massive series of battle paintings that would present the triumphs in arms of the dynasty over its internal enemies. It is almost impossible not to see these two events as closely connected, an attempt to present visually, if only to itself, the image of a martial prowess that in reality was slipping away under the twin assaults of domestic rebellion and foreign imperialism. Scattered across the Beijing palace archives and a number of collections outside China today, there remain full-size cartoons for what was, in all, an impressively large com­mission of sixty-seven paintings, huge works on a scale that matched those of the eighteenth-century high Qing, with each painting well over a meter high and three meters across.

"Twenty of these battle pictures commemorate victories over the messianic pseudo-Christian rebellion of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, complete by 1864, while almost as many deal with the contemporaneous so-called Nian Rebellion in north China. Smaller numbers commemorate tri­umph over the Muslim rebels of the southwest and northwest of the empire. The impresario of the project was a court painter by the name of Qingkuan (1848-1927), a bannerman (or hereditary soldier) of the Plain Yellow Chinese Banner, and a man who from the 1880s played a key role in all the artistic projects of the dynasty. This one was complete by 1890, and the sequence of paintings was hung in the Purple Effulgence Pavilion (Zi guang ge), where Qianlong's earlier victories had also been shown; indeed the eighteenth-century battle paintings, together with the images of the loyal Qing generals who had fought in them (which had been executed between 1755 and the early 1760s), were removed in order to display these, only for them to be dispersed some ten years later when foreign forces occupied the Forbidden City during the Boxer Rebellion.

Imperial Taiping Rebellion painting, from the set of 20 paintings of the campaign of the victories over the Taiping.

"Imperial victories, commemorated by imperial painters in imperial work­shops, producing works viewed in imperial palaces only by the members of imperial courts -- this is a pattern that is very familiar from the height of Qing power in the previous two centuries. But it has to be remembered that the restricted audience of court viewing of painting had always existed in a state of interaction with the world of the commercial artist, as when Xu Yang moved from his native Suzhou to pictorialize the Southern Tours of the Qianlong emperor. So in the nineteenth century, the images viewed at court and the images viewed by a wider public, who obtained access to them through a market in pictures, were not as separate as the symbolics of high red imperial palace walls might lead us at first to believe. Although the exact nature of the connection is murky, it is clear that there is a relationship between the imperial set of victory paintings and prints of these same victories, produced through the new technique of photolithography by the Shanghai-based and foreign-owned Dianshizhai Printing Company.

"The artist of these images was one of the stars of the commercial Shanghai art world, Wu Youru (c. 1840-1893), who was known to have been commissioned by Zeng Guoquan (1824 -1890 ), one of the victorious commanders of the Taiping wars.' In the late nineteenth century, therefore, we can see that, as contexts for the viewing of painting, the world of the imperial court (with its growing hardening of ethnic boundaries between Manchu and Han Chinese) and the cosmopolitan world of the treaty ports such as Shanghai (where boundaries were excitingly and disturbingly fluid) were not separated by some absolute boundary, but rather were linked together in certain ways in a single field of painting. The kinds of viewing to which that painting could be subject were, however, increasingly unstable and contested, and positioned within the traumas that brought the ethnic and dynastic Qing imperial hegemony to an end and the new nation-state of the Chinese Republic into being."



Craig Clunas


Chinese Painting and Its Audiences


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2017 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington


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