Rezension über:

Michele Matteini: The Ghost in the City. Luo Ping and the Craft of Painting in Eighteenth-Century China, Seattle: University of Washington Press 2023, XI + 233 S., 68 Farb-, 27 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-295-75095-8, USD 65,00
Inhaltsverzeichnis dieses Buches
Buch im KVK suchen

Rezension von:
Stephen Whiteman
Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Anna K. Grasskamp
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Stephen Whiteman: Rezension von: Michele Matteini: The Ghost in the City. Luo Ping and the Craft of Painting in Eighteenth-Century China, Seattle: University of Washington Press 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 2 [15.02.2024], URL:

Bitte geben Sie beim Zitieren dieser Rezension die exakte URL und das Datum Ihres Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse an.

Andere Journale:

Diese Rezension erscheint auch in KUNSTFORM.

Michele Matteini: The Ghost in the City

Textgröße: A A A

The field of late imperial Chinese art history (ca. second millennium CE), somewhat like the art upon which it focuses, is one in which the past and present co-exist, creating a dialogue between established canons and the search for fresh perspectives that is essential and productive, but not without elements of tension or even antagonism. A central example of this is the longstanding centering of 'Southern', or Jiangnan culture (Jiangnan designating the region 'south of the [Yangzi] river'), from which many of premodern China's most renowned and best remembered scholars, writers, and artists emerged. The resulting historiographical emphasis on Jiangnan culture has, over time, led to a fundamental scholarly blind spot: namely, the tendency to conflate Jiangnan with China and, as a result, to neglect significant cultural centers outside the South, such as Sichuan, Guangzhou (Canton), and Beijing.

In recent years, a growth in regional studies has begun to address this shortcoming, particularly in political and social history, and especially during the Qing (1644-1912) period. [1] Art history has been somewhat slower to enter the fray, but a number of recent monographs and article-length studies have expanded our view of art in Guangzhou and the Beijing court in particular. [2]

It is in this context that Michele Matteini's recently published The Ghost in the City: Luo Ping and the Craft of Painting in Eighteenth-Century China has appeared, breaking important new ground. The book focuses on the later works of the late-eighteenth-century "eccentric" painter Luo Ping (1733-1799). A native of Yangzhou, among the most culturally vibrant cities in early modern China, Luo relocated to Beijing's "Southern City" in his later career, where he built an extensive network of friends, confreres, and patrons.

Matteini uses Luo Ping as his point of entry to numerous under- or unstudied questions in later eighteenth-century century Chinese artistic and literary culture. Deftly weaving close readings of paintings and inscriptions with extraordinarily wide reading in poetry and personal accounts, he richly describes new social and patronage networks during the High Qing and the communal and psycho-spatial dimensions that shaped eighteenth-century Beijing culture outside the palace walls. In the process, Matteini helps to decenter the history of eighteenth-century Chinese literati art, shifting our historiographical gaze from Yangzhou, Suzhou, and other Southern cities to the imperial capital.

The volume's title is thus perhaps a bit misleading: it presents Matteini's work as a single-artist monograph with the possibility of offering a view on painterly practice in the eighteenth century - not, at first blush, the most cutting-edge of framings by today's art historical fashions. Leaving aside the fact that Chinese art history very much needs artist monographs - far too many important artists have received no article-length treatments, let alone the book-length studies that the field requires - the truth is that Matteini's work is far more expansive.

It may be difficult for those outside the field of Chinese studies to imagine that Beijing, the largest city in the early modern world, is woefully understudied, but this is the case, particularly from the perspective of cultural and art history. And while the recuperation of Qing court art history in recent years has led to a new appreciation of the artistic milieu within the palace walls - an environment substantially shaped by the court's simultaneous engagement of endogenous, 'Chinese' practices and exogenous, primarily European ideas - Beijing as a whole has retained its stubbornly provincial historiographical position within China's creative geographies.

Not anymore, however. Thanks to The Ghost in the City, the Southern City comes alive through poets, painters, officials, and intellectuals from all over the empire who have come to the capital to work in and around the court. Matteini describes the area as one of complex cultural encounters and exchanges. It is a place where the relative lack of history - the Southern City had been virtually unoccupied before the Qing, only developing rapidly with the Manchu imposition of an ethnically segregated city - gave the city and its denizens freedom to draw expansively on the past and present to create new visual discourses and cultural networks. As such, The Ghost in the City builds upon other recent works describing capital-South exchanges along the Grand Canal by focusing on the antiquarian-inflected intellectual and artistic discourse of the transplanted commoner cultural elite, who formed a vibrant and distinctive intellectual community while "sojourning" in the Southern City. [3]

Chapter One introduces these denizens, as we learn of the circle that surrounds the official Weng Fanggang (1733-1818), Luo Ping's close friend and primary patron. The chapter draws on an impressive array of textual sources to build a rich context around the works of art that are its scaffolding. Linked by shared interests in books, poetry, antiquarianism, and social interaction, Weng Fanggang's circle both defines and serves as a microcosm of the larger Southern City environment, in which Luo Ping's painting practice helps conjure a form of intellectual sociability that is distinct to the capital.

Chapter Two is similar, but instead of focusing on the networks of social interaction within the capital, it recreates the complex threads of artistic lineage and inspiration that operate within Luo Ping's work, links that connect Luo to his roots in the South. Matteini's reconstruction of these networks contributes to the continued destabilization of the "Orthodox/Eccentric" divide that has long dominated eighteenth-century art historiography. His careful readings of fang, or "creative inspiration"; of the tension between the "scenic" animation of Ming landscape painting and the formalist, abstracting impulse of Dong Qichang's Orthodoxy; and, indeed, of Dong Qichang's own evolving practice as a model for understanding the practices of a whole range of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painters all extend the work of scholars of the Ming and early Qing in this area through the turn of the nineteenth century.

Chapters 3 and 4 take on comparably substantial questions. In Chapter 3, Matteini addresses the lay Buddhist beliefs of many eighteenth-century intellectuals, linking questions of religion to broader thinking about mortality, the relationship between truth and falsity, and painting technique and style. Chapter 4 ostensibly focuses on the departure of an important member of Weng Fanggang's circle for a posting in Sichuan. In the process, Matteini explores the question of connections between palace and extramural cultures from a new perspective, presenting differing pictorial and intellectual responses to civil unrest in Sichuan.

Matteini's illustrations are as innovative as his arguments - the volume contains numerous paintings that were new to me, from a wide range of Chinese institutions and a number of private collections. The volume is beautifully produced, as is typical of the University of Washington Press's art history titles.

Potential critiques come more in the form of wishes for future research rather than criticisms. While Matteini's book focuses on the culture networks of Beijing, there is little sense of the physical spaces through which those networks moved - the bookshops, tea shops, alleys, or even studios in which the Southern City's richly textured sociability was enacted. [4] Similarly, it focuses on elite intellectual discourses, extending the field's well-established engagement with literati culture to a new milieu, thereby both countering and reifying the canon. These are, really, unfair charges - spatiality is not what Matteini sets out to explore, and the expanded networks of Luo Ping's Southern City, which include Manchus, Mongols, and Koreans, are different to those long associated with Southern artistic networks. To have addressed either in any depth would have made this a different project. These observations are offered, instead, in the hope that others will be inspired to continue to explore Beijing and its denizens, and continue Matteini's efforts to reshape our understanding of painting and culture in early-modern China.


[1] For instance, the sub-fields of Qing legal studies in Sichuan facilitated by the Ba County archive, Uyghurs, and Islam in nineteenth century Xinjiang, and indigenous populations in the Qing Southwest.

[2] For instance, Yeewan Koon: A Defiant Brush: Su Renshan and the Politics of Painting in 19th Century Guangdong, Hong Kong 2014; Kristina Renée Kleutghen: Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, Seattle 2015.

[3] For instance, Dorothy Ko: The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China, Seattle 2017; Yulian Wu: Luxurious Networks: Salt Merchants, Status, and Statecraft in Eighteenth-Century China, Stanford, CA 2017; and Kai Jun Chen: Porcelain for the Emperor: Manufacture and Technocracy in Qing China, Seattle 2023. The important distinction here is that all three of these books examine networks that have the court at their center, rather than literati on their own terms.

[4] Though these are addressed to a greater extent in two articles by the author; see Michele Matteini: The Aesthetics of Scholarship: Wang Fanggang and the Cult of Su Shi in Late Eighteenth-Century Beijing, in: Archives of Asian Art 69:1 (April, 2019), 103-120; Michele Matteini: The Market for 'Western Painting' in Eighteenth-Century Beijing: The View from Liulichang, in: Eighteenth-Century Art Worlds: A Global Geography of Art, ed. by Michael Yonan / Stacey Sloboda, London / New York 2019, 35-52.

Stephen Whiteman