Bing Wang

It was a great honor to receive grants from the National Committee for the History of Art (NCHA) and to attend the 34th CIHA (Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art) World Congress of Art History held in Beijing. As a Ph.D. student concentrating on the photography of Greater China from the 1840s to the 1930s, it has been an incredible experience for me to gain knowledge directly from art history scholars. These experiences gave me a window into their latest research projects. By listening to and interacting with these scholars and other art history students, I discovered different viewpoints that inspired me.

One of the scholars I met was Mr. Gao Chu, with whom I hope to stay in touch. Mr. Gao is noted for his research on Chinese photography after World War II. His studies extended to the end of the Cultural Revolution, a period marked by documentary/propagandistic-type photography in which only a selected few were active. In his revolutionary statement, Mr. Gau discussed the duality that characterizes the works from this time. Photographers strived to achieve a delicate balance between the “required” propagandistic functions and their personal artistic pursuits. This perspective encourages the field, and myself, to reevaluate the artistic and historical significance of photographs and photographers during these years, and to reconsider what forces shaped contemporary Chinese photography. Mr. Gao is now in charge of the Social Archive of Chinese Photography (SACP) of the China Academy of Art. The research and collecting interests of SACP focus on the period beginning in the 1840s, when photography was first introduced to China, up to contemporary times. Staying in contact with Mr. Gao and collaborating with him will allow me the opportunity to significantly progress in the field. In addition, I will be able to connect with more senior researchers, possibly gaining access to private and closed-door collections.

Dr. Gu Jiawei, an associate professor at Nankai University, gave a talk on aesthetic education in China during the 1920s that greatly increased my understanding of my areas of interest. After World War I, the rise of nationalism encouraged dialogue among intellectuals about “what makes China China.” They attempted to establish “modern” Chinese aesthetics, by critically inheriting the fine traditional culture as well as learning from the well-developed Europe and America. This period witnessed photographers such as Liu Bannong (1891–1934) and Lang Jingshan (1892–1995), who together established a new genre called “fine art” photography. It was characterized by imitating traditional Chinese painting and combining certain elements from the pictorial photography that flourished in Europe and America during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Dr. Gu’s talk focused on Chunhui High School, whose artistic pursuits were a precursor to “modern” Chinese aesthetics. Her talk encourages me to reconsider the broader social context of the emergence of “fine art” photography, and the dilemmas faced and overcome by fine-art photographers.

The presentation by Dr. John Clark, Professor Emeritus from the University of Sydney, was also inspiring. I took advantage of the precious opportunity to communicate directly with this senior scholar about the concept of “The Asian Modern,” an area to which Dr. Clark has dedicated himself for decades. “The Asian Modern” is a significant area of my research, as it is the theatrical cornerstone for many of the activities that took place during the period I am interested in. The new “modernity” that has captured the art/photography world through a number of aspects. These include the prominence of artists’/photographers’ self-promotions, the growing importance of new media such as newspapers and lithograph books, the competitive nature of the market with regard to pricing and technology, and larger-scale consumption. Learning directly from Dr. Clark his new thoughts on this complicated but not yet well-theorized concept will allow me to keep pace with the latest viewpoints and reconstruct my previous perspectives on this theory.

At the conference, I had many encouraging interactions with art history scholars and students, as well as museum and archive professionals. As a second year Ph.D. student, the experiences and knowledge that I gained during the conference provided me with significant inspiration and broadened my understanding of various aspects of my areas of interest. All in all, the conference prepared me to formulate theoretical and methodological approaches to my dissertation.