For the last 6 weeks, Wu Hung has been delivering a highly engaging and provocative series of lectures on ‘Feminine Space: An Untold Story of Chinese Pictorial Art’ as this year’s Slade Professor of Fine Art.
Each week has seen Wu introduce a broad spectrum of pictorial art, employing his wit and erudition not only to make Chinese art accessible to a non-specialist audience but also presenting known images (at least to those who work on Chinese art) in a completely novel and compelling light.
A brief synopsis of the lectures, written by Wu Hung follows:
‘This Slade Lecture series retells the story of female images in Chinese art from a new approach. Such images appeared in China by at least the fifth century BCE and became a major subject of pictorial representation from the Han to Tang dynasties (206 BCE-907 CE). Centred on cosmic goddesses, alluring nymphs, Confucian paragons, and glamorous court ladies, they expressed contemporary ideas about immortality and the afterlife, gender relations and moral standards, fashion and desire. While this art tradition continued to develop after the Tang, it was demoted in aesthetic status, as landscape painting became the elite form of pictorial art after the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368). At that point, literati critics began to group all sorts of female images under the misleading title “gentry women painting” (shinü hua) or “beautiful woman painting” (meiren hua), reducing a rich, complex art tradition to generic figures and even pin-ups.
An encouraging trend in recent studies of Chinese art has been to bring female images to scholarly attention through rediscovering their historical, social, and artistic significance. Important progress has been made, but most research has focused on later examples. More seriously, the ahistorical identification of various female images as “gentry women painting” or “beautiful woman painting” still persists, blocking conceptual breakthroughs in interpreting these images. Responding to these two problems, this lecture series surveys the full range of female images in Chinese art from the fifth century BCE onward, and makes a greater effort to break away from later (mis)conceptions, returning instead to the images themselves to uncover their historical intention and visual logic. In particular, the analysis will depart from the conventional emphasis on isolated figures, and will approach each work as an integral spatial representation. Many paintings, for example, juxtapose women with men; their subject is the relationship between the two sexes, whether political or romantic. More generally, these and other works construct a feminine space around a female subject to define her character. This space can be the paradisiacal realm of a goddess, the inner chamber of a chaste widow, or the luxurious garden of a palace lady. It is not uncommon for this space to appear as an artificial world comprised of landscape, vegetation, architecture, atmosphere, and artefacts as well as selected human occupants and their activities. An analogy for this spatial entity is a stage with its props, scenery, sound and lighting effects, and actors. Just as the effectiveness of the theatre relies on all of these components, to achieve its full impact a pictorial feminine space often derives its vocabulary from individual painting genres such as portraiture, flower-and-bird painting, still life, landscape painting, and architectural drawing.’
As one of the world’s leading scholars of Chinese art, Wu Hung has written extensively on Chinese art from ancient times to the contemporary art scene, and the expansiveness and reach of his scholarship is truly remarkable. As someone working on contemporary Chinese art, works such as Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space, A Story of Ruins:Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture, Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents (edited with Peggy Wang) and more recently Contemporary Chinese Art: A History are a must read for anyone interested in the visual arts.
On Monday Wu will be discussing his distinguished career as a curator of contemporary Chinese art and I would encourage everyone to attend for what promises to be one of the most informative and exciting events on the Chinese art calendar this year.