China and Inner Asia
Columbia University, United States
The Southern Song narrative painting “Illustrations of Auspicious Omens” is frequently attributed to the esteemed landscapist Xiao Zhao. The depicted omens trace Emperor Gaozong’s unlikely path to the throne, and since Xiao Zhao was involved in related commissions, he was a natural choice. Upon closer examination, however, there is little in the content or affect of the painting that is compatible with Xiao Zhao’s surviving work or what is known about his practice. Through the study of local temple history, which reconstructs several mural projects supporting the prince’s omens, and comparisons with other smaller format paintings, this paper suggests a new author for Illustrations that is consistent with its figural and narrative strengths. Moreover, I argue that the handscroll was conceived of as an extended portrait, given the resemblance between the prince and official court portraits that have survived. Its viewing, as an image of the emperor, would have been tightly controlled as an object of veneration, while the application of gold and many later copies of the painting lend to its misinterpretation as an aesthetic object. In rethinking the attribution of this work, one shifts the importance placed on textual records to an approach that prioritizes viewing conditions and reception. Doing so not only enables a deeper understanding of “Illustrations” but also challenges the narrative that in Southern Song painting, style and technical finesse crowded out the kind of pictorial ambition their Northern predecessors possessed.