by Jane Zheng. Leuven University Press, July 2017. 416 p. ill. ISBN 9789462700567 (h/c), $75.00.
Reviewed September 2017
In The Modernization of Chinese Art: The Shanghai Art College 1913-1937, Jane Zheng chronicles the development of the Shanghai Art College during its first twenty-five years to make broader arguments about the relationship of art education in Shanghai to China’s engagement with Westernization and modernization.
Given the book’s title, a reader might expect to proceed chronologically through the history of the College, learning about its major figures and styles of art, and discussing events and ideas in context along the way. Instead, after some initial exposition, Zheng spends more time on characteristics and tendencies within the evolution of the school, intentionally (as she says in the introduction) avoiding discussion of the relationship between artists and their work, or analysis of individual artworks as manifestations of social change. As a result, the book is primarily a sociological study of how education reflects and creates social change, and how market forces drove the development of private art schools in Shanghai.
Modernization and Westernization were not equivalent for Chinese art education in this period. Students trained by copying traditional Chinese literati painting developed a modernized version called guohua. They learned Western techniques to enter the lucrative market for calendar and advertising art while rejecting Western modes of art education, such as drawing nude models.
The book is based on the author’s master’s thesis research (University of Hong Kong, 2005). Zheng, an assistant professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), has a background in fine arts, urban studies, and business management. The sometimes theory-laden tone of this book shows its origins as an academic thesis, and its density prevents the narrative from flowing smoothly. Despite a few grammatical problems here and there, it is the writing style that makes the book less accessible, not language errors. A version of the book translated into Chinese is forthcoming from Shanghai Bookstore Press.
The extensive bibliography shows Zheng’s research in the school’s archives and interviews with former students or their descendants. Illustrations are plentiful, mostly historical photographs of the Shanghai Art College, its students and faculty, and their artworks, but readers may wish that they were larger and higher-resolution.
As one of the only publications on this subject in English, this thoroughly-researched account of a turbulent period in modern Chinese history will be of interest to research libraries with a focus on twentieth-century Asian art and culture.