CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


Tradition or Innovation? European Exhibitions and Reception of Modern Chinese Guohua Painting in the Inter-War Period

Session 5 Self-Awareness or Self-Affirmation


Although Chinese decorative arts had been popular in Europe for several centuries, Chinese painting only gained recoginition in the latter half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Moreover, this was mainly true for classical Chinese painting, with an emphasis on the works of Song and Yuan dynasties. Modern, or more precisely contemporaneous Chinese painting, i.e. works of the masters active in the same period, were virtually unknown in Europe until mid-1920s. These were only introduced from 1924 onwards through the activities of Chinese artists settled in Europe, those sent over with an official mission to present Chinese painting to their European contemporaries, and a few pioneering European artists and collectors, who were curious about the development on the other outpost of the Eurasian continent.


Chronologically, the very first presentations of modern Chinese painting took place in the mid-1920s in France and were organized by Chinese artists settled in France. Some of them were studying there with the aim of learning about European painting concepts and techniques, and hoped to reform the discipline of Chinese painting after their return to China. Among them were some of the avant-garde painters who were inspired by European modernism and introduced modernist painting styles to Chinese art. Later on, Chinese government sent official selection of paintings by artists active in their and immediately preceding periods to tour around Europe and be shown at important cultural centres. The leaders of the young Chinese Republic strove to gain recognition as representatives of a progressive nation with a creative potential comparable to and even surpassing that of Japan and other East Asian countries. Besides that, European artists and collectors appeared in the same period, who were lucky to experience the tumultous period of change in China itself and even took part in this development as teachers of European art techniques and advisors to Chinese government. Some of them, out of whom the Czech painter and collector Vojtěch Chytil (齊蒂爾, 1896–1936) stands forth, introduced their own selection of modern Chinese painting of the day in different European cities and advocated for Chinese artists and their innovations of the established canon of subjects, techniques and approaches.


This paper will focus on the three categories of exhibitions staged in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, examine their contents and the way the paintings were introduced to European audience. It will try to demonstrate the fact that whereas some of the exhibitions were indeed presenting groundbreaking changes that occured in Chinese painting shortly after the fall of the Qing dynasty, others were mainly focusing on the “national style” (guohua 國畫) paintings, which were only mildly innovative and followed in the age old tradition in painting in ink and light colours on paper or silk. They were, nevertheless, presented as revolutionary and novel to European viewers, using vocabulary that was very close to that pertaining to the paitings in European media and techniques. This obvious inaccuracy, or rather ambiguity of the terminology used in relation to modern Chinese painting of the inter-war period is striking and deserves further atention.