Introducing The Chinese Art Book

Phaidon Senior Editor Diane Fortenberry on a book that will clue you in (and hopefully inspire a lifelong passion)
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The Chinese Art Book
The Chinese Art Book

If you have even just a passing interest in the machinations of the artworld you’re most likely aware that one of the most interesting stories and narratives unfolding right now is happening in China. As Pace Gallery founder and author of our Agnes Martin book Arne Glimcher told phaidon.com last year: “The cultural revolution destroyed the entire history of China for a generation so you’re dealing with the oldest country in the world and the newest - that schism between who they were and who they are is the narrative.”

Obviously Phaidon has been onto this for some time, working on a book that we think illuminates that schism (among other things) by taking an unusual and innovative look at both the history of Chinese Art and its contemporary standing. The Chinese Art Book features 300 artworks including bronzes, ceramics, paintings, photography, sculpture and jades - from the earliest dynasties to the current generation of contemporary artists. These are placed together not chronologically but in innovative pairings to showcase, investigate and explain an incredible cultural story. Here’s Phaidon Senior Editor Diane Fortenberry to introduce the book and reveal a little more about it. 

 

Eating - Liu Xiadong
Eating - Liu Xiadong

The rise of Chinese art has been talked about for some time. How did this book come about?

Well, the original idea was to use the format of The Art Book, adapt it slightly and illustrate 300 artworks – something very straightforward. But in the process of creating the book, it started to become clear that using an alphabetical arrangement like that of The Art Book would mean we’d end up with a lot of very similar things following one-after-another, purely because of the way the names fell. And for someone without any knowledge of Chinese art, one Northern Song painting looks pretty much like another, which seemed to defeat the purpose of introducing these beautiful artworks to people who are unfamiliar with them.

 

Great Criticism Series: Coca-Cola -Wang Guangyi
Great Criticism Series: Coca-Cola -Wang Guangyi

So how did the approach change along the way?

We tried a traditional chronological arrangement, but it still didn’t quite work. Meanwhile, in the process of gathering images for the book, we had noticed some pictures that looked really great placed alongside others. And I thought, why not? Let’s give it a go and actually curate the book this way, let’s present this art in a way that makes people who haven’t seen it before look at it more carefully than a traditional arrangement might. If you have a stream of Ming vases or Yuan paintings or Shang bronzes, you don’t see each one, you see the individual as part of a group. But if you look at a Tang sculpture next to, say, a contemporary photograph that was chosen because there is some other, less obvious, relationship, then not only does each one stand alone, but together they become more than the sum of their parts. And that’s how it happened.

 

Bed (Nature Series No.10) - Liang Shaoji
Bed (Nature Series No.10) - Liang Shaoji

What criteria were used to create the juxtapositions?

It was very much an organic process. The three authors all provided long-lists of works in their area of expertise, and we then worked with them to cut those down to the 300 works to be illustrated, covering contemporary art, painting and calligraphy, and the plastic arts – sculpture and ceramics. Once we knew what was going to be in the book, we printed everything out and spread it all over the floor, and said, what looks good with what? What makes you see something in another work that you wouldn’t have noticed without the juxtaposition? How do things talk to each other? Some of the pairings whisper, and others just shout. We sent those initial couplings to the authors and they, in turn, offered their reactions and ideas – quite often someone would point out some political subtlety or humorous link between things that we were unaware of – and we finally came up with something that everyone thought looked good and did what we wanted: inspire the viewer to see the works in new ways.

 

Western Jin and Chen Danqing spread
Western Jin and Chen Danqing spread
 

OK, let’s pick one particular pairing: the Western Jin third-century Buddha and Chen Danqing’s painting, Tears Flooding the Autumn Fields (1976)

Well, there are several subtle links between these two works. There are the colours. Even if you’re not aware of it at first, you pick up on the greens and golds that are in both images and seem to make them sit comfortably with one another. Then there’s the geometrical triangularity of the sculpture, which is echoed in the receding perspective of the painting. The figures in the foreground frame the wheat fields that recede into the distance, with the red combine harvester acting as the vanishing point, the apex of the triangle as it were. Your eye is drawn towards that red object in the distance. But at the same time as the eye is registering the similarities, there are these profound ideological differences between the two works, which are explained in the texts. The Buddha is very much a religious figure, something that suggests an independent striving towards enlightenment, whereas the Chen Danqing painting is Communist propaganda. The painter created a scene that focused on the shocked peasants listening to the announcement of Chairman Mao’s death, and that combine harvester in the distance reinforces the message, which is all about Mao and communalism, and very anti-religion. So the coupling of these two makes you look at each work separately but also together, and each says something about the other. 

 

Dream - Liu Jianhua
Dream - Liu Jianhua

How important (and tricky) was it to ensure the book has something for those with little or no knowledge but also those with a good grounding in Chinese art?

That’s interesting, because when we decided we were going to present the works this way, one of the authors in particular was very much against it. He thought it was going to be just a random throwing of things together, with no real point to the pairings. But he was eventually talked round to it, and now he loves it. And for those readers who want a bit more traditional structure, there’s a brilliantly succinct introduction – everything you need to know about Chinese cultural and political history in eight pages – and at the back there are lists of artists, a glossary of terms, and a fantastic timeline that serves as a sort of visual index – a snapshot of the development of Chinese art alongside both Chinese and world events. When we sent the glossary to the authors for a final check, one of them emailed back that it was so useful he’d like to use it in his university classes even before the book comes out. 

 

Emperor Xuanzong's Flight To Shu - Li Zhaodao
Emperor Xuanzong's Flight To Shu - Li Zhaodao

What did you learn from making the book?

Having edited The Art Museum and 30,000 Years of Art for Phaidon, and the Chinese section of the Grove Dictionary of Art back in the 1990s, I thought I already knew a bit about the subject. But during the making of The Chinese Art Book there were a number of exhibitions in London and Cambridge on Chinese art, so naturally I went. And I was seeing things I’d never seen before – some of which went into the book, of course. At a show of contemporary ink painting at the British Museum, there were works that you’d think couldn’t possibly be anything but eleventh or twelfth century, but then you look more closely and realize that that what looks like delicate lines of ink are actually cigarette burns, deliberately made to resemble a Song painting. It was just amazing. And as an archaeologist, the exhibition of Han tomb finds at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge was particularly close to my heart. I was astonished by the sophistication of the sculptures and bronzes from graves far, far away from the cultural capitals of the time – like the small terracotta figures of musicians and dancers that we included in the book. 

 

Zhao Bandi And The Panda: Would You Mind Me Smoking? - Zhao Bandi
Zhao Bandi And The Panda: Would You Mind Me Smoking? - Zhao Bandi

What will the reader be surprised by in the book?

I think that what will surprise people, and what I found really fascinating, is this tension between what’s going on today with contemporary artists and the long, long traditions of Chinese art. A lot of young Chinese artists are determined to reject their traditional art. They refuse to accept any link with the past. The break between dynastic China and the 20th-century country only really happened in the 1950s, with Maoist communism, but it was profound – some would say impossible to bridge. But on the other hand, just as many contemporary artists quite deliberately point to the age-old traditions of Chinese art in their work – it’s something inescapable. 

 

Xi Shi,Three Realms (Heaven, Earth, Hell)-Four Beauties - Liu Zheng
Xi Shi,Three Realms (Heaven, Earth, Hell)-Four Beauties - Liu Zheng

Any recurring themes you came across in the contemporary works?

I think what I found most interesting was the tendency for contemporary artists to look in a mirror, as it were. Maybe if you were to ask the artists themselves they would say something else, but it seemed to me that the younger ones are intent on examining themselves, their place in Chinese society and Chinese society in the world. This is in contrast to many of the older living artists, particularly those who left China and became active in the West – artists like Cai Guo-Qiang, for example. Many of the younger artists seem to be taking the time to come to terms with themselves and their own country, both its past and its future. 

 

Dialogue With Water - He Yunchang
Dialogue With Water - He Yunchang

I’m also struck by the passion of a number of contemporary Chinese artists – there’s nothing lukewarm about them. I’m thinking of He Yunchang, for example. He’s a performance artist who had himself hung upside-down from a crane over a river, having had both arms slit so that his blood dripped into the water. As he was dangling over the river he himself ‘cut’ into the water with the knife that had cut him. And then there’s Sheng Qi, whose self-portrait consists of a photograph of his left hand, minus his little finger – he cut it off. If you can force yourself to look at the image, it’s very complex, very nuanced. 

 

Warring States Period - Marquis Yi's Bell Set, 433BC and Chu Kingdom Dancing Figure and Musician, 2nd Century BC spread
Warring States Period - Marquis Yi's Bell Set, 433BC and Chu Kingdom Dancing Figure and Musician, 2nd Century BC spread

Everyone at Phaidon has a favourite spread in this book, what's yours?

Hmmm, that’s not easy. There are some wonderful juxtapositions of ancient and modern works, but I guess as an archaeologist I have to admit that I appreciate the old things most. I love the second spread in the book – a set of bronze bells from the fifth century BC next to some terracotta sculptures of a dancer and a musician from the second century BC. You can almost hear the music when you look at these pages. You can almost see the ceremonies and the colours. 

 

Qing Dynasty Champleve Container
Qing Dynasty Champleve Container

Even by Phaidon's high standards, the book feels very authoritative. Who were the main contributors?

Tom Melick (he’s a practicing artist who participated in a group exhibition at the Shanghai Biennale last year) and I worked on the book in-house, along with Laurence Poos, who did the production work, and Hans Stofregen who designed it. Then there are the four authors. Keith Pratt is a specialist in Korean and Chinese painting at Durham. He selected the pre-1950 painting and calligraphy in the book and wrote those texts. He phoned me last week when he got his copy of the book – he was all but bouncing up and down. Keith was the one who was most skeptical about the unconventional arrangement of the works, but he absolutely loves the book now. And then there’s Jeff Moser, a specialist in ceramics, among other things. He’s at McGill University in Montreal and did the ceramics and sculpture entries. Jeff worked for several years at the National Museum in Taipei, and taught art history at Zhejiang University in China. Because he’s so familiar with collections in China and Taiwan he was able to suggest things to be included in the book that don’t come up in the normal way.

 

Old Persons Home - Sun Yuang and Peng Yu
Old Persons Home - Sun Yuang and Peng Yu

Meanwhile, Katie Hill is an expert on contemporary Chinese art and runs the Office for Contemporary Chinese Art in this country. We found her by chance but she’s been absolutely brilliant, and she knows everybody on the contemporary art scene in China. And finally, Colin Mackenzie, who is Senior Curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City wrote the introduction. Colin was a colleague of Keith’s at Durham before moving to the States. They’d lost touch, but Keith spotted an announcement in the Asian Art News about a big exhibition of paintings from Western collections in Shanghai, for which Colin was one of the curators. He suggested that Colin would be the perfect person to write the introduction, and luckily Colin agreed. 

 

To Add One Metre To An Anonymous Mountain - Zhang Huan
To Add One Metre To An Anonymous Mountain - Zhang Huan
 

And finally, tell us the thinking behind the cover

That was the most straightforward bit of the whole project! Julia Hasting, Phaidon’s Design Director, thought that it would be interesting to have a calligraphic cover, and she found Mike Mei, a Chinese master calligrapher now based in Massachusetts who has exhibited in both China and the US. The calligraphy reads from right to left, top to bottom: Chi – nese Art Book. And that’s Mike’s seal on the artwork.

 

 Early Spring - Guo Xi
Early Spring - Guo Xi


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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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