CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

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WEIß, Matthias
Gazes that matter:The European Buildings of the Summer Palace in Beijing mirrored in Chinese Engravings and Western Photographs

Session 21 Connecting Art Histories and World Art

Freie Universität Berlin


The European Buildings of the Emperor’s Summer Palace in Beijing were erected from 1750 onwards as a kind of inverted Chinoiserie; today they are more or less destroyed. Hence they are not the direct object of this talk but rather their depictions and how these circulated since the time the palaces were built and especially after they were burned by British and French troops in 1860. The twenty Chinese engravings commissioned by the Emperor himself at the end of the 18th century are central to my argument, because they were sent to European courts and collectors in order to incorporate the palaces into the canon of Western architecture. The plenty of photographs shot by American, German and other travellers between 1870 and 1925 however show beautiful ruins in a landscape. Having in mind that the destruction of the Summer Palace was scandalized not only in China but in Europe, too, I will argue that the photographs superimpose the view of shattered buildings with a different sort of canonized image: the one of the artificial ruin we are familiar with at latest from the invention of the English landscape garden – which in return was decisively influenced by the knowledge of the Chinese art of gardening.


WEIß, Matthias

Prof. Dr. Matthias Weiß studied architecture, art history and theatre studies in Munich and Berlin. After finishing his PhD, he worked in several research groups at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he now deputises Prof. Dr. Peter Geimer. His larger project focussing the former European Palaces in Beijing however is part of the Max Planck Research Group Objects in the Contact Zone. The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things, which is based at the Kunsthitorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut.