[Report] William Shang "Images from the Past: Imagination and Reality seen in Visual Records"

17 June, 2009 TAKADA Yasunari, KANAHARA Noriko, Academic English Seminar

On June 10th, Dr. William Shang (Shinichi Yasuda) from the University of Tokyo gave a talk titled “Images from the Past: Imagination and Reality seen in Visual Records”. The lecture was part of the UTCP Academic English program.

Dr. Shang focused on issues involved in reading images produced by Chinese and Western (American, British, and Italian) artists from the 18th to the 19th century. He addressed the influence of the trade between China and the West on the social, political and cultural aspects of the Chinese and Western societies. According to Dr. Shang, when analyzing an image, it is important to be aware of whether its subject is real or imaginary, and to what extent is it influenced by Western or Chinese artists.

Through the trade between China and America, portraits of George Washington that were copied by Chinese artists circulated widely among American consumers. The Chinese artists copied Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington, and these high quality copies were consumed in mass in the US. In 1802 Stuart brought the case to court, which ruled that portraits of the president were not allowed to be brought into or taken out of the US. Dr. Shang said that just as in one of the paintings of Washington by a Chinese artist where he is painted next to a white horse, other portraits of famous people usually show them with white horses as well. But, he asked, could it be that this is only in his imagination? Was there really a horse next to the president? Could it be possible that the image of the powerful man with a white horse was implemented in his head through the repeated exposure to the image produced by Chinese artists?

The British wanted a painting of Ch'ien-lung, the Great Emperor, to analyze his personality. William Alexander painted the emperor as part of his role as an artist working for the Macartney Embassy to China. According to Alexander’s diary, however, he only caught a glimpse of the emperor. In Alexander’s painting Ch’ien-lung looks sideways and gives the impression that he is hiding something. The emperor also wears a hunting ring which would never appear in a portrait by a Chinese artist. Yet, this inaccurate painting by Alexander contributed to the creation of the image of China in
the West.

Alexander tuned China into a country that could be analyzed scientifically. Before his paintings, missionary artists from the West painted Chinese images that gave a sense that China was a “nice” place, and they did not portray the everyday life of Chinese people. Alexander, on the other hand, painted the daily lives of people on the streets. This was important for Britain, as it was interested in analyzing Chinese society in order to sell the goods produced during the period after the industrial revolution. There was also another type of painting which was intended for commercial purposes. These were unrealistic paintings that were catered towards Western consumers.

Alexander’s works were copied and reused by other Western artists as images of China even up to the 1840s, 50 years after Alexander visited the country. For example, in Thomas Allom’s work of 1842, traces of Alexander’s The Tower of the Thundering Winds, located on the border of Lake Shihou (1795) can be seen. This painting, however, was not an exact sketch of that place, but was rather made up of images from three different places. Like this painting, Alexander’s works were not necessarily faithful sketches of places and people, but they represented China to British people. It is important to note that seeing the same image repeatedly creates in a spectator a sense of a certain worldview.

Many scholars do not acknowledge that Chinese artists influenced Alexander, and yet his paintings are very similar to paintings of everyday life by the Chinese artist Puqua. According to Dr. Shang, it is highly likely that Alexander borrowed images from this Chinese artist. In this as well as other cases it is important to find out to what extent Chinese and Western artists borrowed each other’s images and techniques and how they perceived each other.

At the Q&A session, Dr. Shang added more points that should be taken into consideration when analyzing such images. He addressed the importance of being aware of Alexander’s audience when analyzing his work. Some of his works were made for the East India Company while others were for the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition. In terms of the movement of artwork and artists, it was common for Chinese and Western artists to move around as a result of the trade between China and the West. For instance, some of the Chinese artists had gone to India. It is important to look at the influences that resulted from such travels. The talk ended with the audience and Dr. Shang agreeing that more research needs to be conducted on this artistic exchange.

Reported by: Noriko Kanahara

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