Office of Communications
Stanhope Hall
Princeton, New Jersey 08544-5264
Telephone 609-258-3601; Fax 609-258-1301

CONTACT: Ruta Smithson (609) 258-3763

Copying and Imitation in the Arts of China on View at the Princeton University Art Museum

Exhibition Dates: February 13 through July 1, 2001

PRINCETON -- An overview of the way Chinese artists have traditionally copied, imitated, and alluded to earlier works in the technical production and aesthetic appreciation of art is the focus of the exhibition "Seeing Double: Copies and Copying in the Arts of China," on view through July 1, 2001, in the Asian galleries of The Art Museum, Princeton University.

"Copying is the process underlying the cultural emphasis and artistic value placed on the authority of the past in the arts of China," writes Cary Y. Liu, associate curator of Asian art, in his introduction to the exhibition.

Ancient use of molds allowed bronze vessels to be cast and ceramic figures to be replicated. Such mechanical reproduction methods engender comparison to modern mass production strategies, yet the freedom in detailing each piece and the resulting distinction between copied works appear to have been goals incorporated into the very process of copying.

In the fields of painting and calligraphy, the use of tracings, ink rubbings, and woodblock prints greatly influenced artistic development and transmission. Direct copying through grid, pounce, and tracing techniques were complemented by the tradition of stone and woodblock engraving. Such engravings served as printing blocks for ink rubbings on paper that could easily be reproduced as models for copying. Artists learned by imitating the ancient masters, and tracings and rubbings became major pedagogical sources for artistic training and workshop practice.

The tradition of copying in painting and calligraphy was a method aimed at the formulation of personal style. Except in the case of intended forgeries, exact replicas were not seen as the goal. Instead, artists copied in order to gain techniques and to probe the essential qualities of a past master's style; as can be seen in this exhibition by several artists working in the Sung and Yüan dynasty landscape styles, respectively, of Fan K'uan (ca. 960&emdash;ca. 1030) and Ni Tsan (1301&emdash;1374). Individual investigations through copying led to creative imitations, parody, and the use of allusion. Through this learning process the desired outcome was the synthesis of a new personal style expressive of the individual and the copied past&endash;seeing double.

Awareness of copying processes and techniques can yield surprises when investigating paintings that have been viewed as copies. Until recently, the Museum's ink-on-paper hanging scroll Distant Music, Wind, and Moonlight has been attributed to or judged a copy of Ni Tsan. Close examination now reveals this scroll may be a retouched underlayer of a Ni Tsan original. Paper in China was produced as a series of dipped layers mounted, when finished, on a thick backing. Over time, scrolls need to be remounted and, in some instances, underlayers are removed to facilitate remounting. In such cases, where the ink has penetrated, the lower layers may retain the image of the original composition. Although the original hand of the artist can never be regained, the thin lines and dry brushstrokes, which are absent on underlayers, can be retouched. Consequently, underlayer paintings are more than copies, and are especially valuable if the original painting no longer survives.

Copying is also inseparable from the development and teaching of the arts of China. Ink on paper rubbings and woodblock prints in the form of calligraphy copybooks and painting manuals have provided standard models for teaching through copying. Like a musical score, the rubbing or print provides an outline to which an artist must supply expression in brush and ink. Even today, in the art historical study of painting and calligraphy, exhibiting copies side by side with their original models is crucial to understanding the copying process, and should be an important aspect of any teaching collection.

Consideration of copying as a process raises many other issues including workshop practices, multiple copies by the same artist, relation to mass reproduction, and the historical periodization of copying tendencies. This perspective also encourages art historians and collectors to move beyond seeing art as a pantheon of original masterpieces against which others are judged -- since even an original, such as a Ni Tsan landscape, imitated paradigms of the past. Like the recent academic trends that analyze the arts of China from the viewpoint of material or visual culture, emphasis on the copying process broadens the scope of objects to be considered, yet it also has the additional benefit of primarily focusing on the work of art itself and the background of its making.

This exhibition accompanies the seminar "Special Problems in Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: Copy, Imitation, and Allusion" taught by visiting professor Robert E. Harrist, Jr., in the Department of Art and Archaeology.

The Art Museum is open to the public without charge. Free highlights tours of the collection are given every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on Monday and major holidays. The Museum Shop closes at 5:00 p.m. The Museum is located in the middle of the Princeton University campus. Picasso's large sculpture Head of a Woman stands in front. For further information, please call (609) 258-3788.