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The Double Screen: Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Wu Hung

This book contemplates a large problem: what is a traditional Chinese painting? Wu Hung answers this question through a comprehensive analysis of the screen, a major format and a popular pictorial motif in traditional China.

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri, Art, Art Books, Art History, Chinese Art
Author: Wu Hung
Genre: Art
Publisher: Univ of Chicago Pr
Date Published: February 15, 1997
1 review about The Double Screen: Medium and Representation...

A Lovely Introduction to Chinese Art

  • Jan 2, 2001
Pros: Reads easily, very informative

Cons: None that I can think of

I really enjoyed this book. Not having a lot of experience looking at Chinese art, I found the text by Wu Hung to be fascinating. I must say that I am inclined to want to know more.

Wu Hung is able to give copious visual examples of the art he discusses, although he seems to have issues to deal with in his source material. Wu Hung is concerned about the veracity of the historical sources and how they color our interpretation of a piece. The Tang dynasty records were destroyed so our sources are based on hearsay. “The founder of the Song had to order Xu Xuan and Tang Yue, two high court officials who had served in the southern Tang court, to ‘recall and write down what they had heard about the perished dynasty”.

The author is dealing with an aesthetic that cannot be valued by Western criteria. Based on a European classification system, the art in this text is not “fine art.” I think it can easily be argued that Chinese artworks can be called art rather than crafts, but this is at odds with a Western definition that requires “a work must be accessible through disinterested contemplation, divorced from any contextual function or utility”(Irene Winter).

I find the greatest value in The Double Screen is that Wu Hung writes about Chinese art in the more familiar Western language of composition and space. What is so different is that Western art does not generally utilize the format of separating sections of an artwork temporally. The hand scrolls discussed provide this opportunity. If one views the scroll as intended by the artist, the viewer is limited to just a small section at a time. One is led to see the action and anticipate what comes after. The viewer is an active participant in the experience by unrolling to the end and then experiences “flashbacks” as the scroll is re-rolled.

The analysis of the screen as a pictorial motif gives one a look at an object designed both as a division of space and a shield for privacy. This object also gives the viewer a voyeuristic glance into the lives and meaning of China’s royal and elite. I appreciate the argument that the screen can be looked at in two different ways—the metonymic—a discussion of what the piece does vs. the metaphoric—what it means “based on principles of similarity and substitution”. “Its visual trick is designed for the sake of creating an illusory space and a visual metaphor”. These visual tricks, according to Wu, establish the hierarchy of the host’s two worlds, one public and male, one private and female. The landscape images which appeared later symbolize a third arena—the inner spiritual world of a refined gentleman. “The screen not only helps contrast a man’s ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ social spaces as discussed earlier, but it can also provide an effective means to juxtapose a man’s ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. His ‘inner world’ is projected on a screen as a landscape which transcends the mortal world”.

This “taste” of Chinese art presented by Wu Hung has served to whet my appetite for more. I am fascinated by the iconography and the social statements presented in The Double Screen and should I find myself with available spare time, I plan to learn more.


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