Nihonga meets Gu Kaizhi: a Japanese copy of a Chinese painting in the British Museum.

Author:McCausland, Shane
Position:Art history research - Critical Essay

Recently, a new attitude of pluralism in the West and elsewhere toward the diverse cultures of the globe has spurred the wider use of a notion of "world art" or "world cultures." There are now museum collections and university departments of world art. Some of the world's largest and oldest museums have redefined themselves as "the universal museums." (1) Among them, the British Museum, keeper of many artifacts long removed from their cultures of origin for ethnographic study, now sets out, by conserving, publishing, and exhibiting its collections, to "illuminate world cultures." (2) Designed to enrich the understanding of cultures across the globe, this notion of "world art" would seem to mark a historical break with the imperialist attitude of the modern great powers toward other cultures.

Indeed, in globalization has come a change etched, by way of example, in the study over the last two decades of one of the world's great works of art, Diego Velazquez's 1656 painting Las meninas. In August 1985, the Illustrated London News published the results of a survey to identify the world's greatest painting; by a clear majority, the panel of experts (of Western art) selected Las meninas. (3) In 2003, a new examination of this painting from a leading university press appeared in a series with the qualified title Masterpieces of Western Painting. (4) Any sense that the greatest achievements in the history of art "necessarily" happened in Europe, or in Europe first, seems to have given ground to a recognition that great artworks appear from different cultures, and that these examples of world art may be studied comparatively.

The study of Chinese art, to take one of the world's great art traditions, may be considered fundamentally historical, or one may prefer social or poststructural models. In all cases, though, it involves the investigation of the art of that culture and region. (5) In a sense, then, the study of world art amounts to the investigation of masterworks and artifacts of discrete national or regional cultures; it puts into wider play the distinct cultural paradigms of a given tradition, such as the calligraphically informed outline mode in East Asian painting. But what if a significant work of art has fallen between these national or regional histories, in that it may not easily be identified as belonging to any one culture? The making of the painting to be investigated here is such a one, being a powerful example both of the modern cross-fertilization of and comparison of cultures. It broadens and colors the concept of "world art" by bringing specific regional paradigms, such as the ink outline, before a world audience. At the same time, it exposes a network of historical roots behind the present transformation of world arts and cultures into "world art."

The object in question is a painting transcription of the Admonitions of the Court Instructress picture scroll (Chinese: Nushi zhen tujuan, Fig. 1), one of the treasures in the British Museum. It was collaboratively made at the British Museum in 1923 by Kobayashi Kokei (1883-1957) and Maeda Seison (1885-1977), two masters of Japanese neotraditional painting, Nihonga. Since 1924, this Copy of the Admonitions of the Court Instructress (Japanese: Joshi shin zukan no mosha; Figs. 2-8, 14, 19) has been in the collection of Tohoku University Library in Sendai in northeastern Japan.

When they made the copy--on their joint tour to Europe in 1922-23, a turning point in their careers--both these painters, aged forty and thirty-eight respectively, were up-and-coming second-generation artists of the Nihonga school in Japan. The established history of Japanese art shows that the two painters returned to Japan in 1923 not only embracing Western classicism (yoga, or "foreign painting" techniques) but also, through their work on the Admonitions, having rediscovered some of the basics of East Asian painting: modulation of line, harmony of color wash, and concern with presenting the immanence of a subject. (6) Both men went on to receive the highest national honors for their artistic achievements, but the question of why they devoted enormous effort to copying a classical Chinese painting in London at this historical moment has never been truthfully investigated. It seems as if scholars have been happy to allow this vexing transcription to "fall between the stools" of national art histories and remain in obscurity.

Both artists recognized that they had been given the opportunity to copy one of the most celebrated Chinese paintings in Europe, which was also one of the oldest Chinese paintings extant and a long-revered masterpiece attributed to Gu Kaizhi (ca. 344-ca. 406), the founding father of Chinese figure painting. Gu Kaizhi was said in his own time to have painted things "like no one has ever seen before" and was critically renowned for his ability to "describe the spirit through the form" (Chinese: yi xing xie shen) of his subjects, using a gossamerlike ink-outline technique. The extant Admonitions of the Court Instructress, a set of didactic narrative-style pictures about virtue and ethics for court ladies, contains nine of the original twelve scenes illustrating passages of a memorial (a memorandum to the throne) composed in 292 by the statesman Zhang Hua (232-300) in an attempt, through remonstration, to moderate the behavior of the notorious Empress Jia (d. 300) of the Western Jin dynasty (265-317). Once a hidden treasure of the Manchu imperial collection in Qing dynasty (1644-1911) China, which it entered in about 1746, the scroll attracted worldwide attention in the decades since it entered the British Museum as the result of a chance purchase in 1903 from an Indian Army cavalry officer involved in the so-called Relief of Pekin operation at the end of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900). (7) One of the most famous and best-studied scroll paintings in East Asian art, the Admonitions scroll is itself an artwork that has for a century appeared at the head of well-nigh every survey of Chinese painting and even surfaced as one of the few non-Western artworks in E. H. Gombrich's Europe-centered Story of Art (1950).


As to its historical position, we may say that the date and authorship of the illustrations and the calligraphic inscriptions accompanying them have been a topic of scholarly argument since at least the early twelfth century, when they were first attributed in writing to Gu Kaizhi. (8) The topic of a recent conference at the British Museum, the Admonitions scroll, with its accretions of collectors' and connoisseurs' colophons and seals, continues to be a touchstone, providing insights into the shifting of paradigms and values throughout Chinese and, latterly, global history. Today, archaeological evidence and art historical study show the calligraphy of the Admonitions inscriptions and their accompanying painted illustrations to be coeval and of the later Six Dynasties (fifth-sixth century) in date. The painting is rendered somewhat archaistically in the Gu Kaizhi tradition, but with more modern shading effects in the figures, while the calligraphy is executed in contemporary southern Chinese court style. (9) If some of the compositions betray clear debts to a preexisting iconographic tradition, the extraordinary human insight of the painter, as reflected throughout, especially in the subtle body language and eye contact of the outline figures and the lyrical quality of the outline, reveals an artist with experience of both the developing tradition of painting and of the vicissitudes of court life.

The undoubted importance of this "original" Admonitions picture scroll to the evolution of East Asian art history should not, however, displace our interest in the 1923 copy, or the circumstances of its making. It is vital to understand the seriousness of the undertaking, not just for the institutions involved but also for these two Nihonga masters. That it was a formative experience can be reckoned from Meada Seison's 1954 essay about his London experience, entitled "Joshi shin zukan no mosha" (The copy of the Admonitions of the Court Instructress picture scroll), (10) which appeared after both men chose to include the Sendai scroll (having spent several decades, little remarked on, in Tohoku University Library) in their retrospective exhibitions in the 1950s. They evidently wished to have it stand alongside their other works, to have it seen as part of their respective artistic developments as they reached the pinnacle of their careers. Seison's essay suggests he himself wished to reassess the visual impact of this exercise in self-education on his oeuvre, particularly in respect to figure painting.

The making of the copy also carried significance for the interested institutions of art in Japan and Britain, namely, the British Museum, which held the Admonitions, and the Japan Art Institute, which sponsored Seison and Kokei's trip. At the British Museum, Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the head of Prints and Drawings and a specialist in Asian painting, supported the undertaking because he felt that having it in Japan would allay the inconvenience to scholars and students of the original being in Britain, and because a country such as Japan should not be without a version of it. (11) In various ways, the making of the 1923 copy acted to sustain the strategic alliance between these two leading cultural institutions and, on a national level, the alliance between Britain and Japan prior to hostilities of the 1930s and 1940s.

One can see how, when research in the mid-twentieth century was so powerfully shaped by nationalistic agendas, such a transnational work of art could become a casualty. To begin with, it gave form to the idea of cultural convergence entertained by scholars and artists, east and west, in the earlier part of the century, which seemed to pose a threat to the integrity of any individual nation's history of art...

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