Professor Craig Clunas: Looking at Looking at Chinese Painting

Professor Craig Clunas: Looking at Looking at Chinese Painting

16 May 2018

Gabriella Samuels

When looking at a painting, what do audiences want? And what, for that matter, do paintings want from the audience?

These were questions explored by Professor Craig Clunas, a notable historian of art history and Chinese culture based at the University of Oxford, during a lecture at Asia House.

The answers were to be found in the intriguing world of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Professor Clunas began with the introduction of four hanging scrolls – ‘The Eighteen Scholars.’ Each scroll depicts the expected activities of gentlemen during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644); playing the zither, playing go (similar to chess), calligraphy, and viewing paintings. Professor Clunas explained that each gentleman depicted in the scrolls was performing.

While the first three scrolls showed gentlemen in very active activities, the last scroll showed a typical image of gentlemen of the Ming Dynasty in a passive activity, such as the viewing of a painting. The theme of these Ming Dynasty paintings is the viewing of a painting within a painting. Such an artistic theory encompasses the realm of ‘meta-painting’, or the idea that a painting is about a painting.

These men are considered examples of the ideal learned man and their viewing of paintings is a ‘natural and social activity.’ Those images of gentlemen viewing a painting not only show off their gentlemanly-ness – with the political harmony or calm setting reflecting how men had time to partake in leisure activities – but also highlight the painter’s brush stroke talent of the embedded image.

Returning our attention to ‘The Eighteen Scholars’, Professor Clunas explained how the paints within the images of the scroll have muted colours, in contrast with the vibrant colours of the scroll to emphasize the painting within the painting. During the Ming Dynasty, the embedded painting was used to emphasise the work of a master-painter and their scholar appreciating such work. Meanwhile, western art that used embedded images often represented the idea of another world within the image. The images themselves had their own self.

However, by the time that the popularity of embedded images rose in the West, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the technique was no longer popular in China.

In the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties, “the activities (of gentlemen) became extensively commercialized” and as a result, it “became easier to buy culture,” Professor Clunas explained. Viewing of images was no longer the exclusive domain of the elite.

In the 17th century, embedded images were no longer used to show the work of masters but were used mockingly, often portraying an audience of commoners viewing a painting, or leaving the embedded image blank for the viewer of the whole image to imagine the work or emphasise, as Professor Clunas stated, that “the picture is all that it is.”

Professor Clunas made it clear that the ideal viewers of an image and how viewing occurred represented a gendered, elite activity. Women could view paintings, but only in the company of other women, while the activity was still seen as a gentlemanly activity. Women shown to be viewing an image were portrayed in a provocative or negative way.

However, Professor Clunas noted that in later Chinese works, women were portrayed as the creators of paintings, and not as the viewers, although the focus of such works remained on aristocratic women.

Later Chinese works from the Qing Dynasty to the Chinese Cultural Revolution show varying types of the embedded images, and a viewing audience within the paintings, Professor Clunas demonstrated through images depicting a range of themes, from commerce to Mao.

The theme of an image within an image within Ming Dynasty paintings, the relationship between the work and the audience, and how Ming Dynasty images were shaped by this relationship, were revealed through this engaging Asia House lecture.

I’ll never look at looking at Chinese painting in quite the same way again.


Professor Clunas is the author of Chinese Painting and Its Audience (2017).

Images: Left: Cover of Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, Right: Chen Shizeng, Viewing Picture (1917).