Seen through the lens of early Western photographers, Chinese landscapes, monuments and scenes from daily life seem to rest under a glow of timelessness and sacral reverence. The portfolios of Felice Beato (British, 1834-1906), John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921) and Jules Itier (French, 1802-1877) all convey a world that seems remote and elevated above the hustle and bustle of the West.
The work of John Thomson is at the peak of early portrayals of China, with its immense range of subjects, razor-sharp definition and unique combination of stillness in scenery and urgency of movement. Thomson created a mesmerizing panorama of a nation, while always keeping in with and even highlighting the individuality of his subjects.
Thomson’s photographs are echoed in an album of engravings he published in collaboration with T. Choutzé, alias Gabriel Devéria: a French diplomat, interpreter and Sinologist who worked for the French diplomatic service in the last decades of the 19th century. Their Viaggio in Cina is an interesting artistic counterpoint to the hyper-realist photographic impressions.
Like the photos of Thomson, the pictures of Ogawa Kazumasa - who was designated by a Commission at the Imperial University of Tokyo to photograph the Forbidden City - exude a timeless grandeur. But they also have a hint of nostalgia and melancholy, especially those showing how neglect and time have harmed what were once proud constructions.
A documentary objective with an emotional resonance: these characteristics can also be found in the photographic reports of the Sino-Swedish expedition led by Sven Hedin. Between 1927 and 1935, several journeys allowed Hedin and fellow expeditioners to conduct scientific and historical research across the north and northwest of China.
Specialists in botanical sciences, meteorology and astronomy, zoology, geography, architecture and arts accompanied Hedin on a perilous journey that would come to a conclusion just before his 70th birthday and unfortunately landed him in debt. Nonetheless, important discoveries had been made, including the Xiaohe Tomb complex in Lop Nur: a cemetery harbouring the largest number of mummies preserved anywhere in the world.
Browsing historical photographs depicting scenes and people of China, themes and patterns emerge that echo both in works of Western and of Eastern origin. These stand in contrast to the ‘othering gaze’ often perceived in cross-cultural portrayals.
One of the most striking visual themes is that of the Great Wall. For foreign photographers, majestic landscapes framing the gargantuan construction have always been a staple of China-imagery. Professional photographers often portrayed the sacrosanct beauty of the monument in a picturesque style, theatrically articulating the natural surroundings with the grand manmade structure.
With images such as those of John Thomson as an inspiration, Chinese photographers of the early 20th century started to use the Great Wall as a symbol of national culture. They often adopted a similar photographic style as well, remodelling and reconsidering Chinese identity in a time of social and political turmoil.
To express the distinct identity of Chinese culture, Western and Eastern photographers alike tend to focus on the specificity of its landscapes, architecture and urban dynamics: from the swirls of the rice paddies and meticulously designed garden vistas to the upswept eaves of the tiled roofs, banners and posters with calligraphy, culinary traditions and modes of transport.
Emphasizing the energy and dynamics of the vibrant communities they portray, these images suggest the position of an observer who is more than an onlooker. He is part of that scene and that action, yet still set apart by the lens in between.
Portraits such as that of the ‘average man from the countryside’ from the Carl Simon collection, on the other hand, suggest no intimacy or personal attachment, but rather a sense of curiosity or a documentary objective.
In this studio image, the averted looks of the Chinese workers and the intentional composition of the scene convey yet a different kind of distance: that of an artist looking at his models.
The China portraits of German photographer Hanna Seidel (1925-2005), on the other hand, dismiss formalities, instead opting for spontaneous interaction. Sometimes extremely close but never aggressive, her pictures capture more than a physical appearance, as they reveal something of the inner world of the model.
No matter what relation or distance they convey, photographs are never free from subjectivity or bias: by choosing a momentum, a position and a perspective, a photographer guides not only the onlooker’s eye but their impressions and interpretations as well.
The depictions of China in this exhibition, too, carry many layers of meaning, each one representing a story waiting to be unwrapped. So take your time and drop by again. Or visit our feature page to catch more glimpses of Chinese heritage collections in Europe. And who knows: you might just end up finding hints of China much closer to home than expected.