Yi GuJun 10, 2022
Chinese Ways of Seeing and Open-Air Painting
Harvard University Press 2021
Yi Gu's Chinese Ways of Seeing and Open-Air Painting (Harvard UP, 2020) examines the rise of open-air painting in 20th-century China, showing how this emphatically new form of landscape painting precipitated and participated in an ocular turn. In its urgent embrace of Cartesian optics and its interrelationship with new technologies like photography, open-air painting taught Chinese artists (and citizens) new, modern "ways of seeing." Gu traces the birth of the form in the early 20th century, showing readers the rise of this new perceptual mode not only through close analysis of painting, but also through her rich archive of sources like textbooks and art treatises that demonstrate the urgency and importance of the open-air movement to Chinese modernity. Indeed, as Gu shows in her third chapter, this modern way of painting and seeing significantly impacted how "traditional" Chinese landscape painting was (and continues to be) understood. Gu demonstrates that this "tradition" was invented precisely in relation to the new optics of open-air painting. The book also analyzes the role of open-air landscape painting in China's wartime struggle and in the new socialist state, both moments in which artists were compelled (by patriotism and then, the state) to represent the nation in politically appropriate ways. In Gu's narrative, open-air landscape thus emerges as a crucial political form. Her compelling theoretical argument is enriched not only with nuanced visual analysis and careful archival work, but also beautiful images that fill her book. As you will hear in our short aside about archives and sources, obtaining such visual materials for the book was no easy task! I look forward to teaching my students new ways of seeing Chinese media history by assigning this book in future classes.
Julia Keblinska is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Center for Historical Research at the Ohio State University specializing in Chinese media history and comparative socialisms.