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In Session: Artistic Interventions in Print: Twentieth-Century Chinese Art and the Book in a Transnational Context
2: Free the Nude: Picturing Idealized Women and Modern Design in 1920s China
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Dickinson College, United States
The female nude is a site of visual modernity, male-female power relations, and colonial dominations. Painting the nude in modern China, however, was also a symbol of the West, of the modern, and of freedom. Despite the widespread practice of figure drawing and painting in 1920s China, the female nude remained a difficult subject not only because of its perceived transgression of morality, but also because there was little room for formal innovations when compared to other fine art genres such as landscape and still-life that had long existed in Chinese pictorialism. This paper demonstrates that the medium of design (tu’an) offered an alternative approach to internalize female nude imageries in 1920s China. More specifically, it examines modern China’s most influential pictorial design project between the artist Tao Yuanqing (1893–1929) and the formidable writer Lu Xun (1881–1936). Tao produced some of the period’s most remarkable images in the form of book covers for Lu Xun’s publications and those he oversaw. He was free to experiment in design, where genre was irrelevant, with a wide range of motifs and styles, various degrees of abstraction that were otherwise difficult to synthesize in painting. Enabled by modern design’s intermedial reach across painting, printmaking, archaeology, the Chinese script, literature, and advertising, the paper argues that the female nude was an effective instrument with which to deconstruct canonical representations of female subjects in Tao’s designs.