The Chinese Art Book by Colin Mackenzie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'll admit it - when I first learned of this book from Hadrian's outstanding review, I got it from the library to do research for the novel I am currently working on. Being a bit of an art snob, though (I was a humanities major as an undergrad), as well as an art lover, I could justify taking the time to read the book (though, does one ever really have to justify reading anything?) as it did double duty as a research tool and as an object of sheer pleasure.
This book delivers on both counts. Phaidon, THE art book publisher, has produced a beautiful book, as always. Author Colin Mackenzie takes the book to the next level, however, by organizing the book not by time period or artist, but as distinct pairs of color plates that face each other, providing an amazing mental performance space in which the reader's brain can compare, contrast, make associations, and dissociate the images in a focused way that hints at some "Chinese" oeuvre (I use the term realizing that China is as culturally diverse a country as any other - and that these works come from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, with a few expatriate pieces sprinkled in for good measure). I've never seen an art book quite like it. Yes, there is a timeline at the end showing when each piece was created, and you'll get all the typical Sotheby's-esque catalog material, which will tell you everything you didn't want to know about the provenience, materials, etc. Mackenzie provides insightful, beautifully-written descriptions-cum-biographies-cum-histories to each piece of art. Reading it is an education. Knowing what I now know, I will have to go back and rewrite my novel. That's a pain I'm willing to suffer.
I also admit that, as an undergraduate, we spent perhaps a week in each of my survey courses on Chinese art, for a total of perhaps one month of study in four years of education. Now I wish I would have taken the occasional class focused solely on Chinese art. The artists of China were so far ahead of their European counterparts that the Renaissance, Dutch, Italian, or otherwise is such a late-comer to civilized art as to have wholly missed the race. Only now is the West catching up.
Since I'm already being indulgent in this review (hey, it's my review!), I'd like to point out a few of my favorite pieces from the book. Note that links to pictures online do NOT do these works of art justice. The book's reproductions are much better:
A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines by Gong Xian (surrealism in 1670? Yes!).
The Studio of True Appreciation by Wen Zhengming.
Travellers amid Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan.
Original (or Primordial) Chaos by Zhu Derun (abstraction c. 1349).
And, finally, my absolute favorite, Nine Dragons by Chen Rong.
That's only five of the 300 pieces of art presented in this volume.
If I owned this volume, I would add it to my "chained book" list. I shall have to do so - save and spend enough money in the future to secure this priceless view of the past. I'm certain it's worth it.
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