Author Archives: Zhe Lu

Chinese Contemporary Artists in Global Art Conversation



For a long time in history, Chinese art developed almost independently from the influence of the other countries in the world. After Chinese artists finally get access to western contemporary art in 1980s, they inevitably became parts of the global dialogue of Art. In the trend of art globalization, Chinese artists are heavily affected by western postmodernism, and they also contribute to the conversation. In research in this topic, extraordinary Chinese contemporary artists’ career and work are used as case study resource.



This paper looks into one main question: how do Chinese contemporary artists participate in international art conversation? To find out the answer, careers of renowned Chinese artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Zeng Fanzhi, Xu Bing, Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang were studied. Although their current work varies, they were all pioneers in contemporary Chinese art when it first appears in early 1980s, after the end of Cultural Revolution. After looking into their works, the paper finds out that postmodernism has significant influence on Chinese artists, and museum/gallery plays important role in the early stage of Chinese contemporary art. Through development, some artists start to use Chinese traditional aesthetic elements in their creation. Others identify themselves more as an international artist rather than a Chinese one.



In 1996, Liu Ye, a Chinese contemporary artist, painted Qi Baishi Knows Mondrian to ask a question: what would happen to Qi Baish (a famous Chinese watercolor painter)’s work if he knew his coeval western artist, Mondrian? The topic conveyed by the painting was an unknown regret for generation and generation Chinese artists who worked independently in their unique context without learning from Western cultural heritage. Lack of communication kept Chinese art from international dialogue for a long time. When Western artists started their innovation and exploration to entirely new style in early 20th century, Chinese Art world was still dominated by traditional ink painting. However, nowadays, Art from different culture background has become connected under the path of globalization. Chinese artists know not only Mondrian, but also worldwide Art. And that changed their work significantly in technique, topic, technology and genre. From 1980s to nowadays, Chinese artist’s works serve as a vivid answer to Liu Ye’s question.


Heritage from World Art: The Influence of Western Postmodernism Art on Contemporary Chinese Art

In 1920s, Dada drove attention as a movement which reversed the traditional cognition of Art. Actually, it is always seen as “anti-art”[i] for it challenge the main aesthetic trend by creating a series of impulsive work to shock its audiences visually and spiritually. Benjamin likens it to a “missile”[ii] to illustrate its jolt to audience, and many theorists take it as the beginning of postmodernism. Later, Dada set agenda for contemporary art and became the predecessor of Pop art. Born in 1950s, Pop art shares Dada’s revolt and satire to the authoritative Art world.

In the most representative Chinese contemporary paintings, the heritage of Pop art is obvious. Chinese media and public named Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Wang Guangyi as “Big Four” for the four artists share both great commercial success in the auction market and cynical irony to the serious politics and national character. For a long time, their works represents Contemporary Chinese art in public’s impression.

Zhang Xiaogang, A Big Family, 1995, oil on canvas, 179 x 229 cm. retrieved from

Each of them is famous for an iconic series. Zhang Xiaogang is famous for his Bloodline: Big Family series. Those paintings look like solemn Chinese family portraits from 1960s. In those dull color portraits, characters keep poker faces with large, extraordinarily black eyes. Yet it is hard to find any emotion in those pupils. In Yue Minjun’s oil paintings, he often creates exaggerated self-portrait figures bearing wide smiles with gaping mouths. The same face in candy color reappears so many times that it became his brand. [iii] Similarly, a bald guy with extravagant facial expression was portraited again and again with strong colors in Fang Lijun’s paintings. The distinctive subject is a figure of the artist himself. Wang Guangyi’s most influential work is the Great Criticism series. By combining the propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution (a sociopolitical movement purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society) with popular contemporary Western commercial icons, Great Criticism generated a strong contrast to claim a critical satire.

Fang Lijun, Series 2-Number 2, 1992, Oil on canvas, 200×200 cm. retrieved from×200-cm-Image-courtesy-of_fig7_326259163

Obviously, their works were heavily influenced by Dada and Pop art. Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism was even seen as the pathfinder of China’s Political Pop Art. In these paintings, we could find similar techniques used by their creators’ western fore-goers. Repetition is a common method in art, especially Pop art. Andy Warhol used repeated images in large scale so much that it became a pattern and brand for him. From celebrities (like Marilyn Monroe) to commodities (like Campbell’s Soup Cans), everything reproduced by Warhol in his paintings became his icon. Similar to Warhol, his contemporaries Wayne Thiebaud created series of paintings filled with repeated food images. They use repetition to express their reaction to mass media and reproduction.

Artwork by Yue Minjun, Pyramid of smile, Made of Print-Multiple, Lithograph in colors

Yue Minjun, Pyramid of smile, Made of Print-Multiple, Lithograph in colors,2001,11×81cm. retrieved from

The repetition could be found in Chinese Contemporary art work as well. Through repetition of same faces, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and their coeval Zeng Fanzhi (who is famous for painting characters in similar masks) all made themselves big names. Different from Warhol and Thiebaud, repetition artworks of Chinese artist have another meaning. Monotonous faces in Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family shows his introspection on extreme collectivism. When the whole society is preached as one big family, each member displays the same face and indifferent emotion instead of self-awareness. The exaggerated facial expression on Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun’s characters is another extreme, yet it shows similar topic as Zhang Xiaogang’s poker-face portraits do. Being described as “a permanent condition of our nation” by its creator[iv], the smirking face offers a rich text for interpretation. It could be seen as a whitewash for the deep pessimism or a blind optimism born by ignorance. Although the figures originated from those artists’ self-portraits, they are hard to be recognized as anybody from real life or any celebrities. Therefore, the repetition of the figure images in Chinese contemporary art seems more like a presentation of collective mentality rather than just a reaction to the mass media or mass reproduction.

Appropriation is another significant manner Chinese contemporary art used which is inspired by postmodernism art. Instead of creating the whole painting on empty canvas, artists develop their works on the base of some existing materials. Marcel Duchamp, the outstanding artist in Dadaism movement, parodied the established order in fine art by adding funny goatee to Mona Lisa’s dignified portrait. Daily life goods also drew his inspiration and became the foundation of his ready-made art. He diverted a men’s urinal into an artwork titled Fountain. By separating the article from normal life context, he endowed it with critical and artistic value. Invented by Dadaism, ready-made is widely accepted by pop art. It enabled Andy Warhol to transform mass-media images into art, and gave him opportunities to inspect consumerism by appropriating its commodities.

Wang Guangyi, The Great Critism-Parker, oil on canvas, 1997, 200×200cm retrieved from

Appropriation influences Chinese contemporary art heavily. The concept of “ready-made” shaped Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism. The artist combined propaganda images during Cultural Revolution with western commercial icons. Righteous workers, peasants and soldiers were clipped from the propaganda posters and collaged together with trademarks, price-tags and barcodes. Parody of classic western paintings also occupied positions in top-tier Chinese contemporary arts. Zeng Fanzhi uses his iconic characters in masks to substitute Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper’s table. Yue Minjun parodied classical paintings including Liberty Leading the People, the Massacre at Chios and the Execution of Emperor Maximilian with his smirking figures.


They appropriate not only the paintings, but also the meaning then contained. Different from Duchamp, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun parody the art classics for more than sneering at the fine art. They mimic it also for the rich meaning represented by those artworks. The viewer doesn’t need education to recognize the incompatibility between the goatee and Mona Lisa. But fully understanding of Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun’s parody works requires knowledge of the original paintings. Parody became a method those artist makes themselves interpretable in the international dialogue. For example, Zeng Fanzhi’s parody the Last Supper alludes to the greed and betrayal showed in the original story.

Zeng Fanzhi, the Last Supper, 2001, oil on canvas, retrieved from

Dadaism and pop art became widely accepted and developed by Chinese artists for certain reason. Dada as a movement was initiated as a reaction to radical society change, especially the First World War. Dadaism’s participates use this unconventional art as a protest against the “effrontery to the insanities of a world-gone-mad”[v]. Pop art appears in the trend of mass culture, which was the result of increasing commercial prosperity and consumerism. When contemporary artist got decision-making power in their creations, China faces similar social context as West did when Dadaism and pop art appeared. Due to the unique development speed of China, the changing process was compressed into a very short period. People had gone through the end of Cultural Revolution, the enlightenment of Chinese art and the sensational trend of economic-oriented development with in one or two decades. When the artist started their creation in 1980s and 1990s, they had been repressed so long by the immediate past Cultural Revolution. And the ideal artistic Utopia they created was quickly disrupted by the public craze of making money. Postmodernism art is confrontational and uninhibited, which makes it perfect for Chinese contemporary artists under that context.

Obviously inheriting from Dada and pop art, “Big Four” and their companions who have similar style are controversial figures, especially in their homeland. They once faced domestic folk critics while their works were popular in auction market and were appreciated by art professionals. On one side, they are censured for smearing the compatriots and ingratiating themselves with the western ideology. Their character’s unbeautiful visages and the sarcastic irony hiding behind those faces were the arguments for the viewpoint. On the other side, critics think the Big Four’s representative art is influenced so deeply by western artist that it lacks originality. Some even boldly drew direct connection between the artist and their predecessors. Critics believe that Wang Guangyi’s works are inferior imitation of Warhol’s ready-made art, and Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family series reminds them of Rene Magritte and Margaret Keane. The detractors believe the commercial success of Big Four shows an awry shortcut in art industry. By creating artworks inequivalent with their achievement, these contemporary Chinese artists are “dishonoring not only art, but life as well”[vi]. Although the negative comments are harsh, they raise a problem that contemporary Chinese culture has to face.


Museum serves as significant interface in the development of China’s contemporary art

The function of museums is worth noticing in the initial stage of China’s contemporary art. First, for Chinese artists in 1980s, exhibitions were extremely significant as an interface to the international art. At that time, access to the western culture was hard to find. Exhibitions in the museums (along with the publications of those exhibitions) therefore became rich resources and important inspirations. In 1985, an exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg was held in National Art Museum. For the first time, Chinese public got the opportunity to see original works from a contemporary Western artist. The exhibition set a profound influence to Chinese artist in the 1980s art movement. [vii]

Second, exhibitions later became important events to connects nodes in the artist network and promoted the community to the public. By bringing works from various artist together, museums offer a space for them to learn their outstanding peers’ works and to communicate. Thorough the interface, artist inspired mutually and become more conscious of their own creation. After the community was built, museum serves as the public’s access to artists.

During the short history of China contemporary art, key events always happened in museums or galleries. In 1980s, a series of pioneer art exhibitions held in major cities of China made the contemporary art creation a phenomenon. China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989 was the zenith of that trend. Displaying over 180 artists’ 290 artworks, the exhibition held in National Art Museum of China was a milestone of Chinese contemporary art. It drove significant attention of domestic and abroad media as well as public, although most Chinese people couldn’t understand the pioneer spirit of those artists back then.[viii] In 2002, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun started to be familiar with each other after cooperation in the Power of Graphic exhibition in He Xiangning Art Gallery. And this was the beginning of media and public considering them together as the representatives of Chinese contemporary art. [ix]


Innovation: Using Chinese elements to Discuss Global Topics

Along with the worship of western art, we could also see China’s contemporary artists attempting to combine western and eastern artistic traditions they’ve learned. Instead of simply inheriting or “borrowing” the western technique to tell their own stories and to satirize China society, the artists try to explore some common topics the whole world cares with their familiar cultural context.

After 2008,  Yue Minjun devoted a lot of time in the new series: Maze. Traditional Chinese aesthetics distinctly influences this series of works. Although painted with oil on canvas, the black-and-white color and light strokes of those pictures remind people of traditional ink paintings. Frames of the paintings are not rectangles, but multiple. The circle, sector and gourd-shaped frame are the similarity of traditional Chinese fans and ancient gardens windows.

Yue Minjun, Dragon in the Maze series, oil in canvas, 2009. retrieved from

But the Maze is far more than Chinese traditional aesthetics revival. Elements and characters in classic Chinese ink paintings were appropriated and arranged in scatter inside the mazes. The mess and disordered accumulation of those elements shows not beauty, but rather the self-examination of tradition. The series was interpreted widely as an introspection of Yue Minjun’s earlier parody to the classic oil paintings. After the intimate relationship with western art, the artist seems to started considering what is the role of Chinese traditional art in the international art dialogue. The artist himself takes Maze series as an explanation of his exaggerated-laughing figures. He believed that the traditional culture heritage is an important reason for the formation of nation character. [x]

After holding western postmodernism art in high esteem, contemporary Chinses artists realized that traditional Chinse culture offers rich inspirations. The most influential artwork inspired by Chinese culture is Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky. The large installation work contains hand-printed books on the floor as well as scrolls printed from wood letterpress type covering ceiling and walls. The content on the papers seems like Chinese, but if the audience try to read it, they will find out the Book from the Sky is not written in Chinese. Actually, it is not written in any known language. Xu Bing fabricated over 4000 characters with word-making theoretical principle in the written Chinese language.[xi] Since Chinese characters originally based on pictograms, Xu Bing’s invented characters are equally structural and beautiful. But Book from the Sky offers brand new perspective to semiology and linguistic. In the age of globalization and information explosion, it urges people to introspect the role of language in meaning-making.


Being an artist rather than a Chinese artist

After Book from the Sky, Xu Bing created Book from the Ground. In Chinese, Book from the Sky is a phrase meaning that no one can understand this book. On contrary to Book from the Sky, Book from the Ground is a book “any reader, regardless of cultural background or level of education” can read. [xii] There is also another contrast between the two works. In Chinese, “sky” often implies rootless, while the “ground” suggests solid and surefooted. According with their titles, characters in Book from the Sky are created by Xu Bing, while the one in Book from the Ground are combined by existing universal elements. The only prerequisite for understanding the book is living in contemporary society.

In the Book from the Ground, Xu Bing observed and extracted signs from public space worldwide. Based on the fundamental elements, he created more icons to generate meaning. His studio even created a translating system between the icons and Chinese/English. Language is always seen as the carrier of a nation’s culture and collective memory. By creating the Book from the Ground, Xu Bing expresses his ideal in universal language and weakens the spiritual boundary among different nations. Comparing to his earlier work Book from the Sky, his standpoint changed from rooting in Chinese culture background to a broader international view.

Xu Bing, Book from the Ground Software, retrieved from

Similar to Book from the Ground, from many Chinese contemporary artists’ work, we could see their creators self-identifying as world citizen rather than Chinese artist. They are not fond of attaching their art with traditional Chinese culture. And their motivations are far beyond introspecting homeland’s society and politics. Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang are representatives of those artists. They left China in their prime of lives. In their early careers, hints of their Chinese background could be found. As for now, they become more interested in exploring the limitation of art and probing global-concerned topics just as artists from any countries.

Huang Yongping is famous for installation art. His influential work Theater of the World happens in a cage, in which insects, serpents and lizards fight with each other to the death. [xiii]Inspired by Foucault’s imaginary panopticon model, Huang Yongping uses animals in the arena as metaphor to the public’s common destiny in contemporary society. Cai Guoqing’s reputation comes from his use of gunpowder. With living experience in both Japan and US, Cai Guoqiang used gunpowder to imitate a mini explosion in 1996 in Nevada in order to remind people the cruelty of weapon and war. The Century with Mushroom Clouds was Cai Guoqiang’s first artwork with gunpowder after he came to US, indicating the transfer of his attention to terrestrial concerns. [xiv]

Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang’s success vividly shows how is the art community transcending nations. Cai Guoqiang first came to US through the P.S.1 international Studio Program sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council. In the correspondence with media, Cai Guoqiang’s studio wrote that “mainstream art circles in the U.S. have given Cai the attention and support that have at times exceeded that for local artists”[xv]. Huang Yongping’s statement perfectly explain his self-recognition:“I think the duty of the artist is to deconstruct the concept of nationality. There is going to be a day when there is no concept of nationality.”[xvi]



When Chinese contemporary artists started their careers, they faced great impact from the society. On one hand, the Cultural Revolution left indelible marks on their spirits. On the other hand, the rapid advent of consumerism shook their ideals. The context led their worship to Western postmodernism art. Later, some artists find out the heritage of Chinese art can serve as great inspiration. Instead of revival the traditional aesthetics, they use it as a unique way to contribute in the global art conversation. Some artists choose not to attach their topic or technique with China. They identify themselves as citizen of the globe and use art to probe world-wide common issues. From their exploration, they test the boundary of art. Their career shows that art could be a universal communication transcending language and nationality.



[i] Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A very short introduction. Vol. 105. Oxford University Press, 2004, Introduction

[ii] W. Benjamin, H. Eiland, and M.W Jennings, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility”, 267.

[iii] “Yue Minjun – 85 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy”, Artsy, accessed May 3 2019,

[iv] “Yue Minjun: smirking face is a permanent condition of our nation,”, Sohu News, accessed May 3 2019,

[v] Ibid 1.

[vi] Jed Perl, “Mao Crazy,” The New Republic, July 9, 2008.

[vii] Gao, Minglu. Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.

[viii] Ibid 7

[ix] Yan Hong. Fang Lijun:100 interviews about Fang Lijun’s art history. China Youth Press. 2017.

[x] “Yue Minjun: Ten Years of Confusion of a Rational Artist”, iFeng, accessed May 3, 2019,

[xi] Tsao, Hsingyuan., and Ames, Roger T. Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art : Cultural and Philosophical Reflections . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

[xii] “Xu Bing – Artwork – Book From the Ground,” Xu Bing studio official website. accessed May 4, 2019,

[xiii] “The Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe on Why ‘The Theater of the World’ Was Intended to Be Brutal,” Alexandra Munroe (blog), September 26, 2017,   (Alexandra Munroe is a curator and scholar at Guggenheim Museum)

[xiv] Zhang, Zhaohui. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Xu Bing & Cai Guo-Qiang . Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2005,21.

[xv] “A Correspondence with Cai Studio,” LEAP, accessed May 5, 2019,

[xvi] “Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreamers at the Guggenheim – The New York Times,” accessed May 2, 2019,



  1. Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A very short introduction. Vol. 105. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  2. Shanes, Eric. Pop Art . New York, NY: Parkstone, 2009.
  3. Benjamin, H. Eiland, and M.W Jennings, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility”.
  4. “Yue Minjun – 85 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy”, Artsy, accessed May 3 2019,
  5. ““Yue Minjun: smirking face is a permanent condition of our nation,”, Sohu News, accessed May 3 2019,
  6. Perl, Jed. “Mao Crazy.” The New Republic, July 9, 2008.
  7. Gao, Minglu. Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.
  8. Yan Hong. Fang Lijun:100 interviews about Fang Lijun’s art history. China Youth Press. 2017.
  9. “Yue Minjun: Ten Years of Confusion of a Rational Artist”, iFeng, accessed May 3, 2019,
  10. Tsao, Hsingyuan., and Ames, Roger T. Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art : Cultural and Philosophical Reflections . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.
  11. “Xu Bing – Artwork – Book From the Ground,”Xu Bing studio official website. accessed May 4, 2019,
  12. “The Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe on Why ‘The Theater of the World’ Was Intended to Be Brutal” Alexandra Munroe (blog), September 26, 2017,    (Alexandra Munroe is a curator and scholar at Guggenheim Museum)
  13. Zhang, Zhaohui. Where Heaven and Earth Meet : Xu Bing & Cai Guo-Qiang . Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2005,21.
  14. “A Correspondence with Cai Studio,” LEAP, accessed May 5, 2019,
  15. “Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreamers at the Guggenheim – The New York Times,” accessed May 2, 2019,
  16. Huang, Zhuan.Politics and Theology in Chinese Contemporary Art : Reflections on the Work of Wang Guangyi . First edition. Milano, Italy: Skira, 2014.

Different interpretive interfaces in art

The Museum is the first interface we got in touch with in this semester. By visiting it, we viewed lots of artworks through wandering on our feet, in the space where artworks exhibited. The interpretive function of museum ties deeply with our personal experience. Interpreting becoming a progress of discovering, under the hint of curator’s hints. A special factor of the imply is space: how the works are arranged indicated their relationship with each other.

In most time, the works showed in same small room share similar period or genre. When we were in national gallery, we can see how the style of paintings developed alongside the path. Another commonly seen pattern is how the contradiction between artworks (either style or the context it represented) could be shown in the museum. Last weekend, I went to the exhibition Empresses of China’s Forbidden City. In one room of that exhibition, portraits of two different empresses are hanged on two opposite walls. One painting shows an empress famous for being a virtuous and beloved emperor’s wife, and another portrays an empress dowager famous for her wisdom and political influence. By presenting the two artworks in this position, the curator is indicating the contradiction between love and power in the empress’s life. This setting also reminds me of the trip at Philips Collection. When we see the Mondrian’s works in different period was presented in oppression, we can clearly feel the strong change in his style.

However, in other kinds of interpretive interfaces of artworks, the possibilities of discovery and multiple interprets passed. Book, also serves as an interface, couldn’t presents artworks in the three-dimensional space. What we got here is illustration presented in one and only one sequence, for one and only purpose. While the visitors enjoy a time-passing conversation with curator, readers are no longer in a dialogue with the writers, but only accept what he gets and listen to the book’s teaching.

The online interfaces claim promising a simulation museum experience, yet it is not the same. On one hand, through several movement on keyboard or mouse, online interface gives us ability to zooming and browsing artworks as   will. The nonlinear experience beyond space provides us an illusion of freedom. We can even easily build our own structure if we like. But what we got is only the “didactic objects”, showing what the artworks looks like, and that is all. We are interacting with the appearance of an artwork and the information carries by it, but never the real one.

Embrace the mediation

The relationship between photography and Arts has always been multiple, even though we ignore the fact that some photographs are actually belong to Art. Starting as a technology which can record the visual world realistic and objective (Bohrer, 247), photography comes into artists’ world both as an assistant in real-world reference and a competitor which threaten their position. The portrait, the scene, which could had been only recorded by painting, could be recorded more vividly by photo. However, when the object of photography started to turn into the artworks themselves, photography became an interface. For the insider of the Art world, photography serves as strong power helping constructing a system, or an index. It enables the term “musée imaginaire”, since the collections and the site transcends the limitation of space.

As in the topic of interaction between art and public, the role of photography come into controversy. The limitation of photography is clearly showed during our several field trips. Even we have already previewed the work online, we still were impressed by the size, the brushstroke and the light setting of the artwork, which is hard to be conveyed by the photo. As for Benjamin, the absent of such experience was expressed as the decay of “aura”. The famous term indicates the precious experience existing in a unique relationship between the subject and the object. It lies in the space and time. The moment a person approaching to the original object and the changing distance between the subject and object are where “aura” generated from. Another shift emerged subsequently: with the developing techniques of reproduction of the art works, the exhibition value was magnified while the cult value withered.

However, we should recognize the fact that photography has never been the only way of “reproduction”. And all the methods aimed at shorten the distance between public and fine art. In the meta painting, paintings reappear in the form of tokens through artists’ work. When Morse created the meta painting of collections in Louvre, he was trying to introduced the treasure of human civilization and educated his citizens. Also, thanks to techniques like smelting and lithography, the reproduction of art works has always been possible in history. The emergence of photography was an epochal advancement just because of the abundant and prompt distribution. Like the “disenchantment” of religion, photography is the disenchantment of fine art. The essence of photography as an interface is the extension of museum’s spirit: revolutionaries opened Louvre and turned it into museum, set the artwork free to the citizens; photography breaks the limitation of space, give audience a chance to see the painting. From museum to traditional photography, to snap shot and VR, the new interface between audience and Art all carry the same functions. Inevitably, with the boundary was smashed again, the audience was burred with the consumer, and the artworks is not sacred as it is. But the mass reproduction give a chance, enlarging the influence of artworks unprecedentedly, through making it into a symbolic which can be turn into commodity in this fetish society. The mass reproduction, on one side, coordinated with public’s willing of occupy and shorten the distance. On the other side, it is the reason for the influence of Art nowadays. If public’s interaction with fine art through photography, and other new media nowadays is only a qualified experience rather than extraordinary one, then without them, the experience may even not exist.


Bohrer, Frederick. “Photographic Perspectives: Photography and the Institutional Formation of Art History.” In Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, edited by Elizabeth Mansfield. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939).

Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Photography: Recording or Creating?

I choose three interesting photos from different historical phases for comparison.

  1. Photography vs Painting

Girl with Portrait of George Washington, by Southworth and Hawes Studio in 1850

This photo was taken in 1850 by Southworth and Hawes studio, through the medium of Daguerreotype. As for now, the topic and exact meaning of this enigmatic image is still a mystery for people. But for me, the photo is interesting for presenting a contrast. Southworth and Hawes produced the finest portrait for American bigwigs at that time. In the portrait of a young girl, she is gazing another painted portrait of George Washington.

Distinct versus vague, relatively light versus relatively dark, the contrast between photo and painting is clear and meaningful. Photography is clearly a better way to record what was happening, in the field of portrait, it presents the figure’s look directly. Besides, the research shows that this photo is actually a copy from another daguerreotype. Photograph provides a chance of reproduction, making the image accessible by public. Comparing to the creating a painting, taking a photo seems requiring less initiative for it is closer to the reality.

  1. The Power of Recording

Photographing Nelson Mandela, by Peter Turnley in 1990.

This picture was taken by Peter Turnley in 1990, recording Nelson Mandela in his backyard in Soweto after he was released from prison. By shooting Mandela’s back, the photographer recorded the moment of how his colleagues are working from his angle. The photo plays important role in journalism after the technology was popular, for the picture itself can provide immersive impression. Lens became the new eyes of audience. Through lens, the truth was conveyed. From the Napalm Girl to The vulture and the little girlwe are all familiar with the power of present the reality.

However, the mature of technology also give photographer chance to “creating”, to “tamper” the truth. In 2015, Bronx Documentary Center held an exhibition called Altered images: 150 years of posed and manipulated documentary photography. From changing the scene artificially to editing the picture intentionally, photography became more than just recording since long ago.


  1. When Editing a Photo Is Easy

Karina Irby’s snapshot

Karina Irby, a bikini designer and model, post a snap on Instagram and showing how easy it is to edit pictures and portray an unrealistic version of yourself online. By posting the contrast of the two photos, she revealed she had smoothed her skin to remove dimples, redesigned her jaw line, thinned her waist, volumized her hair, thinned her thighs and applied a filter to make the photo seems glamorous.

The charm of photography is making people assume what it shows is real. That is why photography is more striking than painting. But now, editing a photo is so easy, the line between creating and recording is blur. The ubiquitous photos is creating a new fantasy for us, by pretending themselves as true.


When photography first emerged, it once was seen as the threaten for paintings, for it could record a scene more accurately and vividly. An artist pessimistically said:” From today, painting is dead”. Eighteen decades after the invention of Daguerreotype, we could announce confidently that statement was totally wrong. When photography took the place of “recording”, the painting turned to “creating”. And how is the role of photography itself changed? With the development of technology, everybody could take a snapshot and beautify it easily. First stand out for its reproduction to reality, the requirement of photography developed to aesthetic demand as well.



Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image

The space in flatness

One of the most significant traits of modernism paintings is the use of flatness. Based on a flat surface, the painting is an art played in two-dimension, which is the only condition painting shared with no other art. Therefore, modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else (Frascina,6). Illustrating the three-dimension world on the flat canvas was once the painting tried to do. Before modernism art appears, the space was shown under the principle of perspective.

When modernism artist freed themselves from strictly record the realistic world, the principle was abandoned gradually, give way to the innovation of expressing the sense of space in the paintings. When we looked at Cézanne’ s painting during last week’s trip, the way he arranged the space in the painting impressed me. In the work At the Water’s Edge, we could see how he used color field without lines to illustrate the view. By emphasizing the grades of green color in the foreground and weaken the river, representing it only with a field of simple white, Cézanne reduced the comparison of the depth, and flattened the pictorial space. In another work, Banks of the Seine at Médan, we could also see how Cézanne used different shades of color to shape the sense of space. Cézanne refused to copied the perspective relationship in the realistic, and choose the harmony in the painting instead.

Later, the similar technique could also be found in the Cubism. Artist like Picasso and Braque was inspired by Cézanne, give up the three-dimensional perspective in the painting. Instead, they use two dimensional from many perspectives to show the integrity of a painting. They use geometric shapes to represent the objects in an abstract way. Not all the paintings use color to build the sense of depth and perspective. Some of Cubism work just indulge tridimensional view flow into a flat, compressed surface. However, some Cubism paintings, we could see how the shades of color field is used to shape the sense of three-dimensional.

In Picasso’s Figure dans un Fauteuil, the use of different shade of greys combines multiple small facets of the objects, and thus endows it with the sense of perspective. The slight shades of colors are not the actual appearance of the objects the painting represent, but the extraction of the shade and light in different perspectives. Inspired by the post-impressionism, the painters developed the technique about showing spaces in flatness through all those years.


Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, eds. Modern Art and Modernism. London; Cambridge; Milton Keynes: Harpercollins, 1983

Cubism: Overview” (Phil Hansen, art teacher)

Questions to answer when pursuing the meaning of a visual Artwork.

When we analyzing a visual Artwork, we are trying to understand to meaning of it, instead of just looking at an image, sculpture or installation. Parts in it and the Artwork as a whole, always represent something other than itself. And that is where Semiotic could help. Here are some questions I would like to figure out, in order to better understanding better understanding an Artwork practically.

  1. What do we expect from a “genre code”?

From my perspective, the genre code is some features share by all the works under a certain category. It is the common interpretant we could apply when analyzing works in this genre. It can help the audience to ignore the common default setting of a work, and make us to focus on the trait of itself. The genre code provides a context, not social one of the creation background or the artists’ lives, but the professional one which need to be understood first if you want to get the meaning of the painting. For example, if you want to comprehending an impressionism work, the prerequisite is that knowing the vague dots are painted intentional to represent the change of lights and color.

The reading this week talked about how individual works or a single representative artist may become a cluster of concepts. When we mentioned them, their name represents not only themselves, but also a style, a period, or a category. Are they exemplary parts of a genre, or are they become something parallel to the genre, and contains even richer representamen? What are their roles in the semiotic system of Artworks?

2. What is the “word” and “syntax” for a visual art?

Comparing to language or sound works, visual art doesn’t have certain time consequence. It generated difficulty when the audience is decoding the code. Lacking requirement of being lineal, visual artwork always make sense without a specific structure. As for artists, it means more liberty and space in working, the audience can’t understand the work by the aid of “syntax”. What is the “word” of visual art is also a significant question to answer. What is the minimal meaningful component? What is the boundary of our thought, in case that we over-interpreted an Artwork, and mistake a casual detail as a intentional one?

  1. To what extend is a token makes meanings different form the original work?

Of course, we feel different when we see work in person from watching it online. Our field has proved that. But we need to clarify two things: Frist, where are the differences come from? Is it generated from the delicate texture of brush tool, the size of the painting, “aura” of our distance to it? On the otherwise, could it come from the environment which is not part of the work itself? (For instance, the lightening and wall of the museum, the position a work is put, or the dialogue between a painting and other works nearby.) Second, does the gaps influent the meaning generated or not? This is related to the last question. When viewing an original work rather than a token, we could notice many details. However, are those details all generate meaning?

  1. Will the meaning just be accumulating or will change through the history?

In order to get the meaning of an artwork, we need to understand the social context for the creation of the artwork. For example, the case study of Morse includes his personal life, religious and political preference, as well as his academic background. Those historical events help us to understand his work, especially the House of Representatives. But through the history development, will those meanings change, or new meanings just accumulate on it?


How we understand Morse

Group Members: Huaiyu Zhang, Zhe Lu, Mary Margaret Ewens

How we understand Morse- from his lifetime of religion and science:

Samuel Morse’s idea of painting reflects his idea of politics and religions, which can distinctly be shown in the theme, figures, and structures he choses, which are features that are directly shown on the paintings that people can interpret from the images. From an early age, Samuel Morse’s upbringing was stalwart in his preacher fathers values in both Calvinism and Federalism. After studying religion and science at Yale, Morse studied painting, where his childhood upbringing shone through into his artistic works. After traveling abroad to England to study art further, Morse became increasingly influenced by anti-Federalist ideals, and began producing works that emulated a more politically minded rather than religiously minded tone and tended more towards a belief  in democratic nationalism.

One can compare these various degrees of change in beliefs to the artwork that was created in each period of Morse’s growing thought. In an early work, Landing of the Pilgrims, critics have often noted the use of plain clothing, a nod to Morse’s Puritan background, whereas compared to what is noted to be one of his most well-known works, Dying Hercules, which shows an anti-sympathetic tone towards the Federalist party his father grew up idolizing. Comparing the two, you can see a clear divide both in time and thought, as Morse’s mind was being opened up to a completely different world of thought than the bubble he grew up knowing. Another Morse painting,  The House of Representatives, which will be discussed below, shows how he expressed his willingness to depict a scene of America features.

Within The House of Representatives and the Gallery of the Louvre, Morse used camera obscura to assist him. Gillespie-Morse-and-Mechanical-Reproduction indicates that Morse’s “utilization of technology did not represent his pursuit of technology, but his emphasis on the development of new innovations and use the painting methods to participate and express it.” The idea of using technology for painting also helps him to generate the idea of portrait photograph by combing the new technology with intelligent painting skills. The combination of new technology with human intelligence generates some special features for the painting.”

What we found about after last week’s visit is the technology for painting The House of Representatives makes this painting did not look like normal paintings drawing a situation or a scene. First, the figures in this painting were recorded by the technology instead of painters’ memory or imagination. So, the gestures of the people in this painting were a little bit strange because in a painters’ view, almost all the people showing their faces in the same direction. There is a certain amount of detail paid to the subjects faces, and you can see many of them looking in the same direction, because as stated before, the painting was originally cast from a photograph that Morse used with his camera obscura.The colors and details of both the outfits and architecture within the space moreover adds to the realism that can be noted within Morse’s later works. There is much more pomp being paid to the overall subject, a complete opposite idea to Morse’s former Puritan way of painting in his earlier years.

Second, this painting tends to record a historical moment in an interesting and ideal way. Instead of creating a serious or strict environment, Morse depicted the painting in an ideal way that Morse wanted it to be, instead of reality.

As Irvine’s article said, the interface function of art could be seen as another kind of “transmitting ideas and communicating through distance”, shares similar ability with telegraph. When Morse considered the material appears in his painting, he is encoding. And when the audience at his time or nowadays view the painting, we are decoding the meaning. The Meta Painting was an even more similar work. When using telegraph, people need to separate the word into letters, and encode. The receiver then decodes every letter, and combine them together to make it meaningful. Similarly, after preparing every interior painting, Morse worked on Gallery of the Louvre. And to fully understand what Morse wanted to convey, we need to recognize the artworks inside it.


How we understand Morse- from the perspective of media interface:

For us, the failure of Morse’s artist career was regretful yet understandable. When viewing The House of Representatives, we approve the painting technique in it. But the work was hardly seen as outstanding, and failed to stir up emotion. Comparing it to Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire, the latter is a more impressive historical epic painting. Course of Empire is more narrative, containing a whole progress of the empire’s vicissitude. The intensive contradiction in this series gives its viewer a huge shock.

From my perspective, Morse gave up creating this viewing experience for his audience, because he took the painting as something more than a simple picture, but as an interface. He hoped his work could be an interface between the audience and the distant place they couldn’t achieve. Also, the painting should make the audience inspired by the tantalizing, idealistic ideology Morse believed in. He erased all the less polite politicians and the intensive arguments happening in the House of Representatives, and gave up presenting the real and impactive history moments. Instead, he chose to show a grand building, with peaceful, elegant and rational gentlemen working here. What Morse is able to capture is that through his interface, he allows the viewer to peer into the inner workings of democracy, and by using the camera to originally capture the expressions and movements of the people, it creates a realistic view of democracy. There is no friviality added to it to make it seem more exciting or opulent, but rather he chooses to show the viewer exactly how he preserved a specific moment in time. This brings together both his realistic style for painting with his interest and knack for bringing the scientific realm into his works, to create a work that was yes, short of many people’s expectations, but one that continues to show the bridge of reality between technology and art.

For now, the painting also serves as an interface for us and that particular history. The painting itself is not strong enough, for it didn’t record the truth honestly. But by analyzing what was accept and what was rejected in the painting, we could feel the social contradiction and context at that time concretely.

The Gallery of the Louvre also carries the function of interface. Although Morse was still working as a painter at that time, we can see how the work combining many aspects of his later roles. He believes the painting could be an interface between American public and the brilliant European art legacy, by which he actually realized the educational function of public museum nowadays. This, also forecasts the foundation of his school of design. In this way, Morse’s choice of interior paintings is not the same as the exhibition. He also accept and reject parts the reality intentionally, to make the “code” he made contains the meaning he admire. Although he used camera obscura to help his work,by embracing the technology, Morse is not pursuing the resemblance, but took Art as a way to express his abstract idea and value.



  1. Wikipedia contributors. (2019, January 22). Samuel Morse. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:42, February 7, 2019, from
  2. Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011. Excerpts.
  3. Sarah Kate Gillespie, “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.
  4. Martin Irvine, “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”



The Context of the Museum

Articles in this week pointed out several roles of museum. As a node in the Artworld system, museum also takes on a responsibility of defining, and keeping redefining, the boundary of Art. Buren describes the mystical position of museum in his short essay. Once the artwork is selected into the museum’s collection, it was considered and inspected as Art. This is the authority of museum as it serves an interface connecting public to the Artworld. During our tour to the Phillips Collection, the Laib Wax Room was impressive. Once it appears in another place, the mystical atmosphere around it will be subdued. On the first week of our course, Ai Weiwei’s According to What, the installation art, reminds me of seeing a memorial last year. On March 13, 2018, 7,000 pairs of shoes were putted covering the Capitol lawn, symbolizing the 7,000 children killed by gun violence since the 2012 Newtown shooting. The two installation shares similarities: they both combined by the daily articles and in memory of innocent killed children. However, the contexts give them different meaning in the society. According to What appears as artwork in the public eye, while the shoes on the Capitol lawn, shocking as well, carries the political value rather than aesthetic value as a silent protest. Previously, as an outsider of the Artworld, there are some modern Artwork I couldn’t appreciate. However, now I aware that what museum does is not fiercely force the its viewer to admit all the collection carry great aesthetic value, but define the boundary of Art, and makes the viewer identify certain artwork as an Art, then thinking it in a different value system.

I am also impressed by the certain environment museum brings to public, and how could it effect the audience. Viewing the artwork in person is different from online experience. Although I have seen the token of Luncheon of the Boating Party, the real painting gives me another feeling. The frame is bigger than my imagination, and the leisure, optimistic life it portrayed just jumped out, filling my visual field. The light was designed to emphasize the light contrast in the painting, focusing on the left front of the picture. From the material online I read before, I knew it was where Renoir’s fiancée sat. Through the artificial light, the museum is underlying what we can focus when viewing the painting.

How the Painting No.9 was placed is interesting as well. Evolved from private house, the Phillip Collection is not an isolated pure space, but the traits become a merit, not a shortcoming. The Painting No.9 fits ingeniously on the wall, and the rectangle shape on the wall extend the aesthetic meaning of the painting. Several readings in this week mentioned that many museums look like churches or a palace, which creates an elegant and sublime atmosphere to indicates the value of the Art. But sometimes, alternative museum style offers better outcome. When I visited Harvard Art Museum this winter, a Standing Buddha statue impressed me. It was in front of a transparent glass wall. Through the glass, the cloudy sky, chill evening and timeworn modern building of Boston all became the foil of the sculpture, shows how eternal and powerful Art and religion could be. The context also makes me treasure the experience, reminds me how lucky the sculpture and I both are. For we can meet each other, across the time and space distance. This kind of unique feeling could only be brought by museum as the interface.