OBSERVATIONS ON THE FORMATION OF THE CANON OF CHINESE ART
The Chinese themselves have a long history of writing art history and theoretical texts: the earliest surviving art history is Zhang Yanyuan’s “Record of Famous Painters of All
Dynasties” (Lidai minghua ji) from 847. This text establishes the canon of Chinese painting up to that time. This list was updated over the succeeding centuries and dynasties
by various writers. From the present day point of view, the most pivotal figure in the formation of the Chinese canon is Dong Qichang (1555-1636). His theory of the Southern and Northern schools of Chinese painting has defined Chinese painting history in China for the past 400 years. It became influential abroad (in Western scholarly context) in late
1950s early 1960s.
Briefly stated, Dong Qichang’s theory divides the whole history of Chinese painting into
two lineages: the Southern and the Northern. The Southern lineage corresponds roughly
with those painters who are considered amateurs, the so-called scholar-officials or the
literati, who paint in order to express themselves, their innermost feelings. The Northern lineage covers court artists and other professional painters for whom painting is a craft,
a means to livelihood. Stylistically this meant that the painters of the Southern school
painted in a free, spontaneous, unrestrained manner, usually on paper and using only
black ink or light, barely discernible touches of colour. The style of the painters of the Northern school was meticulous, painstakingly slow in execution and colourful
(pleasing to the eye, therefore vulgar).
The history of Western writings on Chinese art history is fairly young, roughly one
hundred years. One of the pivotal figures among Western scholars and collectors when
it come to defining the canon of Chinese art is Finnish-Swedish art historian Osvald
Sirén (1879-1966). During the 1930s Sirén concentrated on researching and writing
the basic histories of Chinese painting: A History of Early Chinese Painting (1933), The Chinese on the Art of Painting (an anthology of translation from Chinese sources; 1936) and A History of Later Chinese Painting (1938).
In these he laid out his views of the canon of painting and the last one, A History of Later Chinese Painting, included lists of Chinese paintings arranged by painters in dynastic order, paintings known to him either in original or through publications. This pioneering work was enlarged and complemented after the Second World War and the results were published in his 7-volume Chinese Painting: Leading Masters
and Principles (1956-1958), which remains to this day one of the basic reference
works in the field of Chinese painting studies.
It is noteworthy, however, that in Sirén’s work as in the majority of early Western
scholarship on Chinese art, the history of Chinese art ends approximately at the end
of the Qianlong period (1796). Another characteristic feature is the almost exclusive concentration on painting. The canon of painting was the canon of art. But so it had
been also for the Chinese critics over the preceding dynasties, though they did include discussion of calligraphy into the canon.
In Sirén’s time the so-called wenrenhua or literati painting (that is, the Southern
school) was not yet admired as much as it has come to be. Ludwig Bachhofer, for
example, in his review of Sirén’s A History of Later Chinese Painting (1938) stated bluntly that the Chinese paintings of the later dynasties are bad: “these poor and
anemic paintings were obviously regarded as marvelous achievements.” Sirén is aware
of them and tries to explain the phenomenon. Yet he does not see them as if they were
“all cast in the same mould.” The painters Sirén presented in his works of the 1930s and 1950s were chosen on the basis of the Chinese art historical texts, so he did follow the Chinese canon in principle, though not always in his views of their importance.
During the 1950s when Sirén was getting his magnum opus published the views on
literati painting began to emphasize the purity of these painters. James Cahill’s doctoral dissertation on Wu Zhen and articles by Wen C. Fong were among those studies which established a new appreciative attitude towards literati painting: they were hailed as the
real artists, who painted to express their innermost feelings (art for art’s sake) and with disinterest. Just along those lines as Dong Qichang has wished everyone to think.
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