Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Chinese Ruins

From the Princeton University Press description of Wu Hung's new book, A Story of Ruins 

This richly illustrated book examines the changing significance of ruins as vehicles for cultural memory in Chinese art and visual culture from ancient times to the present. Leading scholar of Chinese art Wu Hung shows how the story of ruins in China is different from but connected to "ruin culture" in the West. He investigates indigenous Chinese concepts of ruins and their visual manifestations, as well as the complex historical interactions between China and the West since the eighteenth century.

The eloquent jacket-design above is by Jason Alejandro, using an 1857 photograph by Robert G. Sillar. These days, university press books with such numerous and lovingly printed illustrations seem almost always to be underwritten by grants. This fairly small-scale book is still (given the pricing that prevails among university presses in general) a bargain at $60. It would either have had fewer and poorer illustrations or would have cost considerably more if not for the support of the Getty Foundation.  

Most fascinating to me were the splendid reproductions of 19th-century photographs taken in China by Westerners. The four examples above, from top to bottom 

1. John Thomson, Precious Cloud Pavilion in Beijing's Summer Palace, Beijing, c. 1868
2. John Thomson, Pagoda Island near Foochow, 1868
3. Felice Beato, Nine-Storeyed Pagoda and Tartar Street, Canton, 1860
4. Felice Beato, Prince Gong, 1860

I had never before seen (or at least had not taken any notice of) the work of John Thomson (1837-1921). The Getty itself did some years ago issue a catalog of photographs by Felice Beato (1832-1909). But none of the images I remembered from that catalog seemed so moving as these. Poor Prince Gong. If ever a face expressed aristocratic weariness after a lifetime of empty pomp, this is that face.