Chinese Art

Chinese Art: Painting, Calligraphy, Stone Rubbing, Wood Engraving

by Werner Speiser and Roger Goepper and Jean Fribourg
Universe Books, 362, 174 plates (4 in color) pp., $37.50

This is another of the big, colorful, high-priced volumes that seem to have become the staples of the art book market. The texts of these books are seldom written because anyone really wanted to write them. They are usually commissioned by a publisher to accompany the plates, which are for him (and for most purchasers) the real matter of the book, the reason for its existence. Understanding this, we may read with some sympathy and qualified admiration the essay by Werner Speiser on Chinese painting that forms the major part of the volume. Speiser has covered more or less the same ground several times in his previous books. Here, in a repeat performance that he may well have undertaken somewhat reluctantly, he seems to be straining to avoid repetition. His success in doing so deserves praise, but it was at some cost. The publisher states that most of the illustrations for his essays were taken from previously unpublished pieces. Some of the newcomers are welcome, such as the album leaf by the entertaining late-nineteenth-century figure painter Jen Po-nien, who has been revived in recent years as a “people’s artist” in Communist China, but is scarcely known elsewhere. More often, however, the littleknown paintings are of decidedly less interest than the standard, often-reproduced ones they replace. In the end, Speiser’s search for the unfamiliar seems forced, and, in the case of his text, unfortunate. A book like this one is not so much for specialists as for readers who come to Chinese painting for the first time, and for whom the same old things are not old or same at all. The danger of Speiser’s approach is that those readers will be deprived of observations that are no less valid for having been made before, and of a revelation of the achievements of major artists who are represented here only by minor or doubtful works.

The presence of paintings of questionable authenticity is not in itself unusual; every general work on Chinese painting has had its share of them. But this failing, practically unavoidable so long as the study of Oriental art is still far from the level of Western art history, is compounded by Speiser’s preoccupation, evident from the first page of his account, with the problem of authenticity and with other scholarly issues that are properly peripheral to a popular treatment of it. For instance, the statement that of the hundreds of landscapes ascribed to Tung Ch’i-ch’ang (1555-1636) “only three can really claim to be authentic examples” not only runs counter to most informed views, but loses whatever authority it might have when one of the three, and Speiser’s choice for reproduction, turns out to be a leaf from the album in the Tokyo National Museum, a work which is accepted by few scholars outside Japan and is, moreover, not even in Tung’s style. Similarly, it is all right to reproduce one of the pair of landscapes in the Kotoin in Kyoto ascribed to the early twelfth-century master Li…

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