The familiar hidden in the exotic

Chinese picture used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram, mid eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Chinese picture used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram, mid eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I have been reading the late James Cahill’s book Pictures for Use and Pleasure (on the recommendation of Christer von der Burg), which deals with the so-called professional painting tradition in eighteenth-century China. Traditionally the almost monochrome, semi-abstract paintings produced by scholar amateurs have ranked most highly in the canon of Chinese art. But Cahill makes the case that the colourful, realistic and detailed pictures produced by professional painters are also worthy of note.

Chinese picture showing an aspect of silk production, mounted on the wall in the Chinese Room at Erddig in the 1770s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Chinese picture showing an aspect of silk production, mounted on the wall in the Chinese Room at Erddig in the 1770s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

These professional or ‘academic’ paintings were intended for specific occasions or seasons, or to decorate specific rooms. As such they are among the ancestors of the Chinese wallpaper with colourful and detailed decoration produced specifically for export to the west (and it was because Christer knows of my interest in Chinese wallpapers that he kindly alerted me to this book).

Chinese coloured print showing a female figure in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bushted crop

Chinese coloured print showing a female figure in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bushted crop

Cahill makes the point that many Chinese professional paintings employ techniques and devices originally derived from western painting. During the late Ming and early Qing periods (roughly equivalent to the seventeenth century) some western illusionistic techniques like linear perspective, chiaroscuro and the depiction of interconnected spaces were introduced to China by Jesuit painters working at the imperial court and through the circulation of western prints.

Chinese painting on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion, probably mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Chinese painting on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion, probably mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

These techniques also appear, by now completely internalised, in Chinese wallpaper or pictures used as wallpaper, especially in the depiction of volumetric shading in costumes and perspective and spatial recession in architecture. Taking that one step further, I wonder if this might have been one of the factors that made Chinese pictures and wallpaper so attractive to Europeans: it was excitingly exotic, and yet it included elements that would, on an unconscious level, have been comfortingly familiar to the western eye.

 

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