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James Cahill, Sarah Handler, and Julia M. White Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting Exh. cat. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2013. 126 pp.; 67 color ills. Cloth $49.50 (9780971939714)

Exhibition schedule: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, September 25–December 22, 2013

Michael Knight

CrossRef DOI: 10.3202/caa.reviews.2014.82

Large

Domestic Scenes in an Opulent Household (China, late eighteenth century). Album of twelve leaves, ink, color, and gold on silk. 15 3/4 x 14 1/2 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Beauty Revealed is the first exhibition dedicated to Chinese paintings of meiren (beautiful women), a subject that is as complex and fraught as the English translation. Consisting of twenty-eight paintings drawn from eleven private and institutional collections in the United States, Canada, and Europe, it explores a genre of painting that appeared during the late Ming and continued in the Qing dynasty (seventeenth-to-late eighteenth century). Organized by Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White, in collaboration with University of California, Berkeley, Professor Emeritus James Cahill, the exhibition occupies the larger galleries in the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive building and is separated onto two floors. Many of the paintings are wonderfully detailed, well executed, and provide a wealth of information. This is easy to miss in the two large galleries where they are exhibited. By necessity, the works are presented under Plexiglas and at low light levels. The exposed concrete walls and floors of the galleries and the lack of flexibility of the lighting system detract from the presentation.

The works are divided into sections in order to fit into the galleries’ layout. While the sections are not introduced by didactic panels, they are clearly thematic, not art historical, and follow along the same lines as the themes explored in the exhibition catalogue. They include: women waiting, women reading, women in a garden setting, and intimate scenes. Although it is not expressly indicated, there is also a section of works in which women in a brothel is a main subject. A thematic approach is both appropriate and necessary; many of the works are not signed, and when they are, very little is known about the artist. Dating, other than the broad range of seventeenth-to-late eighteenth century, remains a challenge, and issues of stylistic development and biographical information on the artists cannot be presented in any depth.

Information on the nature of the works’ patrons is equally scarce. As Cahill points out in his catalogue essay, these paintings

were not in themselves the kinds of things that dealers could sell and collectors wanted to own, [they] have survived only through being furnished with fake signatures or attributions and wrong identification of subject, aimed at turning them from undesirable merchandise into desirable, and these misleading accretions need to be stripped away before the paintings can be considered for what they are. Proper Chinese literature on painting is virtually devoid of information about them. One must search in Chinese fiction for descriptions of them hanging on walls, including the walls of women’s rooms. (16)

This exhibition is innovative in discussing these paintings at all. Discourses on Chinese painting and calligraphy have traditionally focused on the arts created by and for the scholarly elite. This is valid but leaves out many forms of pictorial arts, including the paintings of beautiful women featured in this exhibition.

The artists supplied their patrons with surprisingly detailed representations of women in interior or garden settings, often accompanied by symbols of sexual accessibility. The introductory wall text for the exhibition states: “By decoding the visual cues in the paintings, we have discovered that the subjects are courtesans, rather than high-status women as has previously been asserted.” Many of these paintings were clearly intended for the male gaze. Yet the question remains, which ones were, and which were intended for a female clientele? Is it possible to determine the difference? And are they mutually exclusive? The majority of these paintings do not have titles written on them and do not present recognizable images from literature. With the context now largely lost, the intent of the artist must be interpreted by the viewer. The titles in the catalogue and on the labels are in fact designations provided either by tradition or by Cahill. The intent of the artist and the original function of the painting must be deduced from visual clues presented in the work. For some examples, the reading of these clues is quite convincing, while others seem more tenuous. In general, both the designations given and the accompanying explanations indicate these works were meant for a male clientele.

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