Shadow Modernism: Photography, Writing, and Space in Shanghai, 1925-1937

Shadow Modernism: Photography, Writing, and Space in Shanghai, 1925-1937

by William Schaefer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369196
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/08/2017
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

William Schaefer teaches Chinese in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University.

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Just what were images considered to be in Shanghai from the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s? How were the differing qualities and powers of images defined and understood, and what was at stake in such definitions? The definition and nature of images cannot, of course, be taken as self-evident or transcending historical and cultural context — as critics across the political spectrum in Shanghai were abundantly aware. Hence this chapter explores the conceptions of images and their relations to a changing cultural geography out of which Chinese modernism emerged. The nature of images was widely explored in the print media at this time, both in critical and theoretical texts and in vernacular, non-art images that were made, collected, and displayed in order to picture new modes of picturing. As I shall show, images produced and circulated through new photographic and printing technologies at this historical moment were understood to extend the powers of representation through a (presumed) ever-developing transparency, even as images were also understood to be opaque, transforming that which they represent. The new image technologies, in short, pushed to an extreme the ideas both of images as accurate likenesses and of images as fundamentally abstractions.

The discourses of images most prevalent at this time, however, engaged with this changing image culture by seeking to define and even defend the nature of representation and image-making in territorial terms. For instance, key texts by the artist, cartoonist, and essayist Feng Zikai and the aesthetic philosopher Zong Baihua tried to differentiate Chinese from Western modes of picturing on the basis of distinctions between, on the one hand, a photographic transcription of reality and attention to perspectival depth, which they ascribed to the West and deemed static and even lifeless, and, on the other, various modes of abstraction, mutability and deformation, the visualization of the unseen, and attention to pictorial surface they ascribed to Chinese painting and what they saw as its qualities of vitality and life, or enlivenment (shengdong).

These are just two instances of a striking number of texts published during the late 1920s and early 1930s in which differences in modes of picturing were used to mark off perceived differences in the cultural domains of an essentialized "East" and "West." I want to begin my discussion by examining the specific terms of such oppositions. For while the binary oppositions that structure these texts are highly tendentious and simplistic — despite the erudition and complexity of texts such as those by Feng and Zong — the sheer prevalence and even obsessive repetition of such binarisms in these and numerous other texts identify, I believe, what at this historical moment were the key stakes in thinking about images and also demonstrate how such thinking sought to map, clarify, simplify, and structure a bewilderingly complex cultural geography of images. What really seemed to drive the creation of these obsessive binaries was photography, for to numerous writers photography represented everything that marked the boundaries between "Eastern" and "Western" picturing. In actual practice and as presented in the print media, as I shall argue, however, photography did not reaffirm but rather completely undid such binary oppositions of cultural and geographic difference. Indeed, a notion of photographic images as both emerging out of and complicating prevailing conceptions of global cultural geography enabled modernists to engage through visual as well as verbal images questions of place, landscape, race, the past, and cultural identity in their work. My procedure in the following pages, then, is to situate one of the most prevalent critical discourses on pictures at this time within the context of the images actually published in the print media that sought to explore new modes of picturing. My hope is that this conjunction will bring to light some of the assumptions that brought pictures to life in Republican Shanghai.

Abstracting Pictures

Let me turn to the texts I have in mind. In the first, the artist and cartoonist Feng Zikai argues that modern artists' radical break from mimeticism and turn to abstraction actually signify a fundamental rejection of Western aesthetic practices and the "Easternization" of Western art, or what he calls the "triumph" of Chinese painting over modern art. As I have said, in his 1930 text Feng Zikai connects image-making practices and ways of seeing to binaries of civilizational difference. The idea of the formal characteristics of paintings as manifesting culturally specific ways of seeing, and of ways of seeing as standing in for specific cultures, was itself a conception that had circulated and been appropriated in a wide variety of cultural contexts at that time in both China and the West. Feng Zikai and Zong Baihua were writing at the same time as the Viennese art historians Hans Sedlmayr and Otto Pächt, for instance — "radical formalists," as Christopher S. Wood has observed, who "argued that a single work of art, if viewed properly, would reveal the deep structure of the world that produced it," as well as the visual cultures of nations and even "races." All four of these critics knew the work of earlier theorists such as Alois Riegl and Heinrich Wölfflin, the latter of whose most influential work was structured by binary oppositions between formal techniques in painting, drawing, and architecture that, he claims, manifest differing forms of vision but do not map onto national cultures. In another context Feng cites Wölfflin's notion of Sehformen (forms of seeing), according to which histories of vision might be read through a formal analysis of paintings. What is most revealing about Feng's text, however, are not so much his larger claims about such differences but rather the particular qualities of pictures to which he calls attention — in other words, not what the binaries that structure his essay are so much as what they do. For the descriptive differences between Eastern and Western painting that structure Feng's text quickly become prescriptive judgments. Feng both admires and finds excessive in Western realist art what he considers to be the precision and detail of its representations of bodies, objects, and spaces — an excess of physical details that would muddy up the clarity and simplicity of line that he argues is central to what he calls "Eastern" art. Or worse: for what he calls the "coldly objective imitation" of realist pictorial practices is not enlivening but, to the contrary, he remarks, a "deadly work."

This is not to say, however, that Feng believes Western pictures are naively mimetic. Yet Feng is suspicious of Western pictures for at least attempting to copy the world, for their "desire to 'pass themselves off as real things.'" Here Feng makes a crucial distinction. For, he argues, "the pictures Chinese people make are not transcriptions made in light of reality, but rather are made according to [a process of] deeply observing nature, stripping it of all unnecessary waste and grasping its most necessary essence." This is a canny move on Feng's part, for he manages both to suggest by implication that the transcription of the real in Western pictures is excessive in its attention to detail, or, in his words, "unnecessary waste," and that its very nonselective copying of the real is the result of its scientism, its methodological attention to the material qualities of the real. And yet he also detaches the very capacity one would assume underlies such methodical attention — "observation," or guancha, at least with its modern connotations of an investigatory objective, analytical, scientific mode of vision — and defines observation as fundamental to Chinese art, for all of its putative qualities of illusion and unreality. For Feng understands such observation to be part of an ongoing and subjectively mediated process of "accumulating experiences of observation and thought," which he attributes to Chinese artists, in contrast to the "direct" and virtually immediate transcript of reality he attributes to Western painting. Indeed, for Feng, "observation" is not so much a careful examination of the material surfaces of the world as it is a form of vision that penetrates surfaces. Or more: it is both a rhetoric and a vision credited with tactile, even violent powers. For what such vision "strips away" are precisely the external and contingent details and surfaces — the "unnecessary" waste, as Feng's text calls them — that conceal, so the argument goes, the "necessary essence" of things. In short, Feng's conception of observation here is one of a process of abstracting.

Abstracting observation, then, as opposed to transcription of the real in all its material, arbitrary, and contingent detail. And while the aesthetic philosopher Zong Baihua, in contrast to Feng, does consider science and art both to be modes of investigation (even if different in their expressive purposes), for Zong such investigation is manifest in the practice of art as a process of abstracting forms. "Form in art," Zong argues in a 1934 text rich in the terminology of modernist aesthetics, is a "structure interwoven out of abstract points, lines, planes, and volumes." Formal analysis of the real, according to Zong, involves both an analytical separation of an image from the real through framing, and then an active weaving together of abstract elements into a composition. Only the "most enlivened [shengdong] artistic forms" — which for Zong include the abstract forms of calligraphy and the shapes and patterns on Chinese bronze vessels — "can express that which cannot be put into words or given appearance." But how this general process is actually practiced differs, for Zong, according to cultural context, and here Zong also resorts to a series of sharp binary oppositions to define what he calls the "sources and foundations" of Chinese and Western modes of picturing. The drawing techniques of Chinese pictures, as Zong defines them, are dynamic with an emphasis on line, rather than static with an emphasis on likeness. As a result, he writes, Western pictures traditionally are concerned with delineating separate three-dimensional forms within an imagined space that renders the surface of the picture transparent — like the window in Leon Battista Alberti's seminal formulation in his fifteenth-century treatise Della pittura (On painting). A Chinese painting, by contrast, "is like a dance. ... Its spirit and emphasis lie in the rhythmic life of its entire surface and are not mired in the delineation of separate likenesses [xingxiang]. The saturation and thinness [nongdan] of the artist's brush and ink, the interweaving of points and lines, the mirroring of light and shade and fullness and emptiness, the openness and closedness of form and manner, all are composed into musical and dancelike designs [tu'an]." Even the "likenesses" of animals and humans in the earliest Chinese pictures are "completely dissolved into the dynamic lines [xianwen] and patterns of a design [tu'an] across the entire surface." Despite the initial similarity in formal analysis that Zong finds in both Chinese and Western pictures, then, in the end Zong sees in Western pictures a three-dimensional rendering of spaces and volumes through light and shadow, while again Chinese painting does the work of abstraction not through observation, as in Feng, but through the dissolving and interweaving of forms into a design constituting the surface of the picture. In short, "Images dissolve into pattern," Zong writes. "Each [image] is enlivened, and each one is abstracted." The work of abstraction, that is, brings Chinese pictures to life.

Now it is noteworthy the degree to which both Feng and Zong use a modernist rhetoric of abstraction to describe Chinese painting, from Zong's ac count of a mode of picturing concerned entirely with point, line, plane, and surface, to Feng's insistence on purity, line, and the stripping of contingent external details. Feng, however, might well have replied that this is not because Chinese painting is modernist but rather because modernist abstraction was enabled by and is equivalent to the quality of Chinese painting fundamental to Feng and Zong's texts: enlivenment. As Feng remarks, "It is astonishing how extraordinarily close Kandinsky's discourse on painting is to early Chinese theories of spirit resonance and enlivenment [qiyun shengdong]." In classical Chinese aesthetic discourse, the term shengdong, or the "enlivenment" of images, is usually (but not always) paired with the concept of qiyun, or "spirit-resonance," an elusive concept that privileges the idea of paintings as manifestations on pictorial surfaces of the interior workings of the spirit rather than as representations of the surface details and material qualities — the externalities — of things. As Feng observes, this break from formal likeness occurred in early Chinese aesthetic history. This moment was articulated in a passage Feng cites by the ninth-century critic Zhang Yanyuan, who wrote, "The paintings of the past ... based the pursuit of pictures upon the externality of formal likeness. ... If the pictures of the present were to be satisfied with such formal likeness, their spirit resonance would not be enlivened [shengdong]. But by pursuing pictures based upon spirit resonance, formal likeness will reside within them." The thrust of Feng's argument in his essay is that this break in the ninth-century Chinese past with formal likeness in favor of a spirit resonance prefigures — and, indeed, determines — the break with mimeticism and realism in Western art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in favor of abstraction.

The modernism Feng has in mind is that of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and especially Wassily Kandinsky. Feng's specific claim that spirit resonance and enlivenment led to modernist abstraction hinges upon Kandinsky's statement in his seminal text on abstraction, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), that "form is the outward expression of ... inner meaning." Or, as Kandinsky put it elsewhere, "The most important thing in the question of form is whether or not the form has grown out of inner necessity," a claim that — while it is inspired in important ways by theosophy, which drew upon South Asian Hinduism and Buddhism — Feng reads as evidence in Kandinsky's work of the Chinese aesthetic criterion of qiyun. In Feng's summary of Kandinsky's argument, "the forms of objects are the expressions of their content," which Feng introduces by claiming, "'Spirit resonance and enlivenment' are set into motion according to inner necessity." For both Kandinsky and Feng, the markings on the surface of a picture are both abstractions of forms and the traces of the inner life of the spirit made external, manifest, and visible; indeed, both understand marks on a pictorial surface as mediating internal and external worlds. The treatment of form and line in modernist and Chinese painting as described in their texts makes the surface of an abstract painting something of a psychic seismograph. Thus for Kandinsky, "form-harmony must rest only on a corresponding vibration of the human soul," while for Feng, "line is not a technique for depicting the images of things [wuxiang] ... it is a record of the fluctuations of the painter's feelings." And yet, Feng insists upon a clear division between the materiality of formal likeness and the spirit resonance of abstraction that Kandinsky seems not to have recognized. For Feng, "spirit resonance does not come of being seized from externalities," and indeed "it is not troubled with formal likeness, but rather governs formal likeness." For Kandinsky, on the other hand, abstraction does not entirely discard external forms; "the choice of material forms [in the composition of a picture] is an important one," for "however diminished in importance the organic form may be, its inner note will always be heard." For Kandinskian abstraction, both in theory and in the practice of painting, did not emerge out of an absolute rejection of the material world in favor of the spiritual. Rather, as Thomas Harrison has observed, for Kandinsky abstraction is a process of the "derealization of the physical world as an impetus for new and alternative constructions," a process that begins in dissolving the forms of the material world (whether human-made forms such as architecture, musical notation, and dance movements, or natural forms such as mountains and plants) into abstract patterns. Kandinsky's artworks develop out of a tension (not division) between likeness and spiritualism — a tension in which both the external and the interior, the material and the spiritual, are essential to the enlivenment of pictures, an invisible spirit made material as the visible surface of a painting. Indeed, as a practice of picture-making, Kandinsky's processes of abstraction resonate less with Feng's text than with Zong's account of Chinese images as a dissolution of likenesses into designs whose dance brings a pictorial surface to rhythmic life.


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Table of Contents

1. Picturing Photography, Abstracting Pictures,
2. False Portals,
3. Projected Pasts,
4. Montage Landscapes,
5. Shanghai Savage,

What People are Saying About This

Martin J. Powers

“In this extraordinary book, William Schaefer shows how major thinkers in China, England, France, Germany, and Japan all grappled with similar problems while borrowing from, or competing with, one another. What emerges is a more dynamic and a more realistic sense of a modern cultural discourse coproduced by photographers, artists, writers, and intellectuals operating within a competitive global environment yet intent on solving many of the same, shared, human problems.”

Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture - Andrew F. Jones

"In his rigorous, close, and imaginative attention to the materiality of these photographic and literary texts, William Schaefer allows us to see a Shanghai we've never seen before. In other words, Shadow Modernism is charged with the shock of the new. Fiercely smart, uncompromising, and methodologically fresh, it will make a lasting impact on our understanding of modernist visual and literary culture in Shanghai."

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