The Reception of Western Art History in Republican China

Feng, Huanian 馮華年
Supervisor: Prof. David Clarke and Prof. Q.L. Wan

This thesis attempts to explore the impact of Western art on modern Chinese art by studying the introduction and reception of Western art history in Republican China. As a part of Western culture history, the history of Western art attracted a broad interest among Chinese intellectuals as well as among the artists. Therefore, not only artists but also other intellectuals, including writers, editors and translators, took part in introducing Western art history. Artists who had studied abroad, especially in France and Japan, played an important role to disseminate knowledge of Western art and its history. Feng Zikai, Liu Haisu and Ni Yide were the most productive authors of Western art history. Modem Western art movements, especially Post-Impressionism and the later art movements were the most frequently discussed topics in Chinese writings. Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were popular to Chinese readers.

In the process of Western art history being introduced into China, to some extent, this foreign culture did not influence China directly. A third culture, Japan, which inherited the old Chinese culture and learnt from the West prior to China, acted as a bridge between China and the West. In this early stage of studying from the West, for various reasons, Chinese study of Western art history relied much on Japan: from the preference of Post-Impressionism and later art movements, to the interpretation of them and the input of artistic terms.

The Chinese reception of Western art history relied much on written texts. Some characteristics of the written texts might have influenced the understanding of Western art history. Due to the rapid reform of Chinese in vocabulary and grammar at the time, some texts were quite difficult to understand. Depiction of certain characteristics of Western art did not form a definite and correct knowledge of it but provide with the latitude of imaging and associating. The comprehension of Western art history was also associated with the comparison with traditional Chinese art. The similarities of the theories of modern Western art and those of literati painting, for example, Shitao’s art theory, were pointed out in some Chinese writings about Western art history. It should be noted that the vocabulary of interpreting traditional Chinese art was mixed with foreign one, which resulted from the study of Western art history and also reflects the influence of Western art in China.