China in perspective

Visions and Perspectives

A young woman wearing festively decorated bright red garments and a big red rose hat on top of the head sits in an ornately furnished chair, other people in traditional dress milling about in the background

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.

an intricately adorned pagoda is visible on the right hand side of the image, surrounded by forest and plains and mountains in the distance

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.

Manchu women in long dresses and with stuck up hair sit around a table in a wooden-palisaded courtyard, tea sets and cups strewn across the table.

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 bird's eye view picture of a large temple structure, long buildings set in rows at straight angles from each other, with several courtyards visible in the middle.

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.

an image showing the inside of a limestone room, the outside visible through three round arches in the back wall. Several tomb-like rectangular structures stand in rows inside the room.

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.

a view on a sandy patch outside, a lightly inclined sand dune visible in the foreground and broken wooden palisades and planks littering the rest of the sand field.

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.

a grainy black and white photo of a craggy mountainous landscape, in the distance the Great Wall of China can be seen snaking its way through the scene

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.

a panorama of the Great Wall of China splitting the mountainous landscape in two, several viewing outposts are visible in the distance breaking the wall into sections.

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.

A coloured-in glass negative picture of a man in blue robes peeking over the great wall of China at a section where the wall is mostly ruins.
A sepia picture of the Great wall of China, ruinous and broken-down in parts, undulating its way over a mountainous expanse in the distance.

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.

A coloured-in picture of a packed-dirt road with elegant Chinese portals spanning the width of the carriageway, several two-wheel carriages rolling over the street into the background

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.

A man shoulders a large display of fans, arranged into a wall of outstretched hand fans, in the middle of a packed-dirt road.

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.

A picture of a man with a flat-top broad-rimmed straw hat, with a long gray mustache, clothed in a loose weave of straw, shouldering a yoke with two metal buckets

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.

Three man pose in front of a smooth wall, two wearing broad-rimmed straw hats and a third with an umbrella and a basket, at a photo studio

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.

A portrait picture of an old man wearing a broad-rimmed woven straw hat, with long white mustache and beard, wrinkled and creased features.

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.

A closeup photo of a person holding an analog photo camera to his face to take a picture of a landscape that is blurrily visible in the background. The man is wearing glasses and a hat with a brim.
A snapshot of a woman operating a camera on a tripod stand to photograph children in a yard

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.

A black and white photograph of a rocky road disappearing behind a rock face, with shadows and rocks obscuring the road ahead. The shadow of the hat-wearing photographer is visible on the ground.