By Professor Craig Clunas
The first time I went to the conference of the Association of Art Historians was in 1986; the Association had been formed only twelve years earlier in 1974, and was very much associated then, at least in my mind, with what was called without any scare quotes the New Art History. The conference was held in Brighton, and my most vivid memories of it include hearing Norman Bryson (one of the NAH’s doughtiest warriors) lecture in a room above a pub, and being in the audience at a keynote lecture by Edward Said, of Orientalism fame. He spoke on Verdi’s Aida in the Brighton Dome, and I can clearly recall him conducting vigorously while the Grand March from that opera thundered out of speakers; but my recollection of the whole Association humming along to his beat may be false memory syndrome. It all seemed very glamorous to me then, still a Victoria and Albert Museum Far Eastern Department Assistant Keeper, with no specific ambitions to work outside the museum context. My paper was entitled ‘Images of Industry in Chinese Export Painting’. I had in 1984 published my very first book on the Chinese Export Watercolours in the V&A collection. This had required the transportation of the paintings I wanted to write about, and which had never had any detailed attention before, from their Solander boxes in storage down to the Photo Studio, set behind its imposing double metal doors, openable by the master key we all carried, called an AG (an acronym whose meaning was lost in the mists of time). There Ian Thomas, the departmental photographer, produced with great skill the large colour transparencies (always called CTs) which would be used in publication. I also asked him to make 35mm slides of everything, to be kept in the departmental slide collection both as a reference and for use in lectures to the public. Ian would also make slides from books for this purpose, though this was a terrible waste of his considerable professional skills as a brilliant photographer of the three-dimensional object.
Fast forward twenty-nine years, and it’s me giving the keynote address at this year’s AAH Conference, in the Georgian elegance of the Norwich Assembly Rooms, under the title of ‘All the Art in China? Art History in an Expanded Field’.
Coming off the back of five year’s work on a major project dealing with Ming China in the early fifteenth century, I had wanted to spend some time thinking about my other major area of interest, the early twentieth century (I have taught a modern Chinese art course for the last twenty years, although I haven’t published much on the topic). It took some adjustment, moving from an area of study where evidence is sparse, and every material and textual bit of it correspondingly precious, to one where there is just a superabundance of stuff. That stuff is made available to us through tools which simply did not exist when the New Art History was actually new, and which I think we are still grappling to understand now that it is decidedly no longer so. What does it mean to discover, as I did in the course of working on my lecture, that the wonderful ‘Your Paintings’ website reveals ‘we’ may own 39 works by Paul Cézanne, but we also own 43 paintings by Delmar Harmood Banner, who is a good bit less famous? What does it mean to be able to search the digital edition of Shanghai’s main Chinese-language newspaper of the 1920s, to get day-by-day coverage of that great cosmopolitan city’s art world, of exhibitions, of comings and goings, of by-the-foot pricelists posted in their hundreds? What does it mean to able to peer into the parallel but separate world of Shanghai’s foreign community, recorded in the digitized North China Herald, and to learn about;
‘Mr A. Kets, the well-known Flemish artist [who] has returned to Shanghai after a prolonged tour of Europe, during which he made copies of the masterpieces of Rembrandt, the portrait of King Charles II [sic.] by Van Dyck, landscapes after Hobbema, still-life drawings after the great Flemish masters, Snyder en Fyt etc. Mr Kets has done some wonderful work and it would be difficult to find any discrepancies between his works and the originals’.
I’ve become mildly obsessed with the ‘well-known’ but otherwise utterly invisible A. Kets, and if anyone can turn up one of his works I’d be delighted. I’ve become even more obsessed with the lost work of Teng Hiok Chiu (1903-1972 Zhou Tingxu), who in 1926 won the Royal Academy Schools’ Creswick Prize in London for his painting of ‘Flatford Lock’, published in the Illustrated London News on January 1 1927.
The vast body of auction results data, Chinese and non-Chinese which now exists at the click of your mouse (and which let me warn you can bring some nasty malware your way) will deluge you even further in images of work by artists almost as obscure, but who still have value in the world of art-as-commodity.
So the point I wanted to make in my lecture was more about the challenge which our own particular kind of Big Data brings to us as art historians. We might not want to work on Delmar Harmood Banner rather than Cézanne (or Teng Hiok Chiu rather than the canonical Lin Fengmian), and I am no way suggesting that we have to, but it is a lot harder than it used to be to pretend that they don’t exist, or were not once thought of highly in their time and in their particular sphere. I wanted to carry on the work of dissolving the barriers we have erected between art that is ‘here’ and art that is ‘there’, ‘Western’ and ‘Chinese’, A. Kets painting in Shanghai and Teng Hiok Chiu painting in London, barriers which the digitized world casts into some doubt, to say the least. The fact that I could even show the work of a Banner or a Chiu (if not a Kets) depends crucially on technologies none of us really envisaged in 1986, but which are changing art history as surely as photography itself did. My proudest moment at the AAH conference was to see one of our students, Dina Akhmadeeva, accept the prize for the best taught postgraduate dissertation of the year (that’s the fourth Association prize at UG or PG level to go to an Oxford student in the last five years).
It’s wonderful to see the quality and sophistication of work that students like Dina are capable of. I am excited too to find out what the generation of scholars like her, who have grown up with these new tools, will in the end be able to do with them, to see what they will be able to show.