Exemplars 10

Painting and Experience

College of Arts and Sciences

Art historian Elizabeth Kindall, along with graduate students Katherine Czarniecki Hill and Marria Thompson, discover the stories behind Chinese landscape paintings.


Chinese landscape painting has been the subject of scholarly attention for centuries. It was considered worthy of comment and consideration almost from its inception in China. In the West, it was one of the first areas of art historical attention, along with Chinese bronzes, following the Second World War. Examinations of style and biography dominated these early studies. Recent studies have striven to enlarge the discussion through analysis of how landscape painters worked and for whom; the politics and religious beliefs that surrounded such artists; and why they produced these works. Recently, and appropriately, the cult of personality has been under attack as scholars have begun to question the names associated with specific landscape paintings and the reports of and about said artistic personalities. These studies have paved the way for my research interest–to examine the experiences offered in site-specific landscape paintings produced by comparatively “unknown” artists and suggest how these paintings functioned.

   Some family members will argue that I was interested in Chinese art from a very young age. I was seven when my mother took me to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, to see the first exhibition of artwork from mainland China to tour the United States. I remember standing at eye-level with a pair of bronze and gold paperweights in the shape of two leopards. Their eyes were made of rubies. In high school my parents allowed me to enroll in an elementary Chinese class at the local college. A year’s study abroad in Taibei, Taiwan, and an introductory course in Asian art were the two experiences that led me to Chinese art history. I went on to study for both a master’s and doctoral degree in Asian art history at the University of Kansas. I had always loved Chinese landscape painting, and I specialized in 14th through 19th century landscape painting for my doctorate. But I became particularly interested in paintings of identifiable sites through a paper that I did for a KU seminar that focused on previous scholars’ attempts to deal with Chinese topographical paintings. My paper focused on the only known instance, that I have thus found, of a painted subscription appeal to fund the renovation of a Buddhist monastery.

   Today, my work focuses on lesser-known artists working in the 16th and 17th centuries who painted identifiable Chinese sites. Site-specific paintings were particularly popular in southeast China in cities such as Suzhou and Hangzhou. Although a few recent studies compare place paintings to photographs, none contain detailed analysis based on the experience of moving through the topography in question. This is what I attempt to do in my research. I research paintings of sites as varied as the Buddhist Mount Chickenfoot in southwest Yunnan Province to the Heavenly Pool in the southeast city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. My research compares the topography and physical experience of the actual sites to their respective paintings in an attempt to recreate the implied position of historical viewers to the paintings and the structured viewing experience the paintings presented to viewers. I qualify my experience of these sites with written reports from 17th century and modern writers. My experiences of these sites have so invigorated my reading of the topography of these site paintings that the landscape has emerged from its role as “background” to become an active participant and narrator of the journeys illustrated. I have labeled these paintings “geo-narratives.”

   My research interests and fall seminar–focusing on modern Shanghai–merged when two of our art history students approached me last spring with a project idea for the new St. Thomas Graduate Research Team grant program. Katherine Czarniecki Hill and Marria Thompson were interested in studying how Chinese national identity is portrayed through architecture in the China Pavilion, a structure built for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China. Place and experience would be major components in their analysis, which addressed questions such as: how is national identity portrayed through large-scale architectural projects intended for international events? How do these events create an architectural stage for national representation? Is this larger tradition of World Fair/Expo built environments relevant or sustainable in today’s modern world? Here was an opportunity for modern analysis of much that I consider in 16th and 17th century painting. Plus, I would be teaching this very city in my fall seminar. I was in.

   Group study is not as common in art history as in other fields. Yet, I have not had a more engaging research and teaching experience. We traveled to China to examine and experience the China Pavilion and the architectural landscape of Shanghai. For comparison, we also visited the well-known 18th century Yonghegong Temple in Beijing, the 15th century Fahai Buddhist Monastery outside Beijing, the modern architecture on Tiananmen square, and the 14th century gardens of Suzhou–all in two weeks. Having surveyed China’s architecture from ancient religious to 1930s international art deco to modern Communist and post-modern skyscrapers, the team is off to an exciting start. Ms. Hill and Ms. Thompson have been hard at work collating our experiences and analyzing Chinese reports of the site. Plus, we have already had two paper proposals accepted to an Asian Studies and Architectural symposium in which our findings can be shared. I must admit, however, that the most exciting aspect of the research has already occurred: sharing my love of experiential research with my students.  

Elizabeth Kindall
“Group study is not as common in Art History as in other fields. Yet, I have not had a more engaging research and teaching experience.”