Yale Professor Lectures on Song Dynasty Art

Vista paintings from the Chinese Song Dynasty took on a kingly presence during a recent lecture at Scripps College by professor Richard Barnhart, the John M. Schiff professor emeritus of Art History at Yale University. The lecture, hosted at Steele Hall last Thursday, Feb. 11, as part of Scripps' Worldbridge Lecture Series, addressed the evolution of art historical studies of the Song period, particularly with respect to the collection and attribution of Song-era workmanship.

“Professor Barnhart’s lecture examined what American and Chinese collectors and scholars knew in the late 19th century about the history of Chinese arts and the issues of authenticity,” Professor of Art History and Humanities Bruce Coats, wrote in an email to TSL. Professor Coats, who is also department chair of the Scripps Department of Art History, specializes in the history of Asian art.

Professor Barnhart presented and discussed vista paintings by influential Song artists such as Ma Yuan and Fan Kuan, focusing on the visual qualities of art from this epoch. Many of the Song vistas shown were vertical in composition and included elements that professor Barnhart described as being “keenly observed” and evocative of “a sense of falling rain.”

Professor Barnhart also discussed the deceptive qualities of such visual features within other eras of Chinese art, especially in relation to attribution challenges faced by art historians in the modern age.

“Many collectors completely misunderstood older painting styles because they had limited or no access to these earlier works,” Coats said. “[The collectors] thought they were buying 10th to 13th-century ‘Song Dynasty’ paintings but were actually acquiring 16th to 19th-century works at exorbitant prices.”

Professor Coats spoke here of the issues with accurately vetting Song workmanship, which were explored extensively by Professor Barnhart during his talk. He spoke, for instance, about the removal of artists’ name stamps from paintings as a common method of making pieces appear to hail from a different dynastic period.

Advancements in research about Song art have shed light on such occurrences.

“Now that digital images of old Chinese paintings are widely available, we need to reconsider the history of Chinese arts, understand past mistakes, and appreciate how ideas about authenticity have changed. We also need to be mindful that Song Dynasty paintings have been copied or faked since the 14th century, and to dismiss later works is to miss how ideas about art and history have evolved,” Coats said.

Such advancements appear to have to have coincided to a large extent with broader progressions in the field of art history. This growth of the discipline was highlighted by Viola Horton Professor of Art History George Gorse.

“There have been a series of revolutions in the field,” said Gorse, a Genoese art specialist, in discussing how the focus of art history has shifted over time. “My generation in the 1960s learned style art history and iconography as well, and what we wanted to do was make art history more of what we called 'a social history of art' in the '60s and '70s—to make it more grounded in history,” Gorse said. He went on to describe the ambition to further shape art history into “a kind of historical discipline.”

Even so, specialized expertise is said to be one of the primary assets of an art historian.

“There is almost nothing to replace a keen eye,” Barnhart said when asked about the process underlying attribution endeavors today. “Professor Barnhart encouraged students to see, and carefully examine, as many works as they can to train their eyes and their minds about Asian arts, and to have a more nuanced understanding of Chinese arts and culture,” Coats said.

Why might 5C students want to attend a lecture like this?

“I always encourage the students who go to these public lectures outside of their courses; take advantage of them,” Gorse said. “Say every week you went to an event that was not in a class [or a] class related event—over four years, you learn a lot.”

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