AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 623

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 623: Revisiting Alexander Soper

Organizer: Nixi Cura, Christies, London, United Kingdom

Chair: Stanley K. Abe, Duke University, USA

Discussant: Stanley K. Abe, Duke University, USA

Over a century has passed since China, together with Japan, entered the realm of art history in the European sense. Alexander Soper (1904-1993) was one of the leading figures in the elevation of these traditions as equal to that of Europe. Recent research has begun to revisit the founding figures of the field—archaeologists, curators, collectors, dealers, art historians. Their approaches and conceptual frameworks defined the study of Chinese art in the West, and continue to inform art historical practice to the present day. Soper's pioneering work, grounded in scrupulous philological research, prefigured border-crossing before it became fashionable. His scholarship ranged from rigorous formal analysis, literary contextualization, the study of gender in cultural production, to the investigation of iconographies and technologies transmitted across East Asia. Individual papers explore two major areas covered by Soper in his publications. On Buddhist art, Winston Kyan examines textuality and visuality in Soper's work on Tang temples, while Lukas Nickel considers Soper on Buddhist sculpture in light of recent discoveries and research. Turning to Soper's writings on painting, Nixi Cura situates his analysis of pictorial representation amid that of his peers and afterwards. In a similar vein, Kathleen Ryor re-reads Soper's translations of painting texts as part of a critical history of Chinese painting theory. Stanley Abe, expert on early Chinese Buddhist art and its historiography, will serve as chair and discussant. Given the extent of Soper's oeuvre, the relatively few issues raised in this panel aim to encourage broader assessments of his groundbreaking work.

Strange Visions: Translating Soper as a Source of Medieval Chinese Visuality
Winston C. Kyan, University of Utah, USA

As historiography and the investigation of disciplinary foundations become increasingly important to a "critical" Asian studies, certain scholars emerge as figures not only pivotal for their times, but also prescient in laying the groundwork for current methodological concerns. Accordingly, this paper reconsiders the wide contributions of the art historian Alexander Coburn Soper (1904-93), known primarily as a western scholar of Asian art who rejected the Orientalist fantasies of his predecessors and called upon a rigorous study of Chinese art based on a mastery of language and historical documents. While this approach, which might be termed the "Sinological turn" in the study of Chinese art, has become standard practice since the mid-twentieth century, this paper focuses on the impact of Soper's seminal translations of East Asian texts on the turn towards visuality in Asian art that now defines the field as it enters the twenty-first century. Which cognitive perceptions informed historical modes of viewing? What peripheral observations illuminate the relationship between diverse media? What strange visions constitute an alternative history to orthodox art criticism? This paper argues that Soper's translations, including Duan Chengshi's (d. 863) Youyang zazu (Miscellany of Youyang), shed light on these questions, while providing perspectives onto the intersections of text and image, history and theory, Sinology and art history that remain critically relevant for the interdisciplinary demands of current Asian studies.

Alexander Soper and the Study of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture
Lukas Nickel, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

Trained as an architect and a historian of European art, Alexander Soper took an approach to researching East Asian art that was very different to his contemporaries in China. He investigated and integrated the three branches of "fine art" in the traditional European understanding: architecture, sculpture and painting. While painting—together with calligraphy—constituted a research field that could be classified as "fine art" in the Chinese context, his interests in architecture and sculpture pioneered and shaped new research fields in East Asian art for decades to come. At the same time, he recognized the overwhelming importance of the Chinese written tradition for understanding the context of Chinese artworks. Through his writings on "literary evidence," he introduced this tradition to a worldwide audience. Given the general lack of excavated material during his time as an active researcher, his work on Buddhist sculpture mainly concentrated on objects in collections and in extant cave temples, and was led by his profound understanding of Buddhist transmitted literature, next to his thorough knowledge of Japanese scholarship on Chinese art. This becomes most obvious in one of Soper's most influential writings on Buddhist sculpture—"South Chinese Influence on the Buddhist Art of the Six Dynasties Period"—which sets the scene for the modern understanding of the formative period of Buddhist art in China. The current paper will investigate the framework that Soper laid out for research on sculpture, and will revisit his work in the light of modern archaeological and art historical findings.

Alexander Soper and Chinese Pictorial Representation
Nixi Cura, Christies, London, United Kingdom

As editor of Artibus Asiae, Alexander Soper (1904-1993) set a high standard in scholarship for himself, his peers and subsequent generations of researchers in Asian art. In his more than twenty articles written for the journal, along with numerous reviews, forewords and topical notes, he relentlessly advocated the use of Chinese texts to support analysis of art in all forms. When writing about pictorial representation, however, it could be argued that he presented his most important work to a wider readership of art historians whose field of study focused on Europe. This paper focuses on two pieces Soper published in Art Bulletin: "Early Chinese Landscape Painting" (1941) and "Life-Motion and the Sense of Space in Early Chinese Representational Art" (1948). In these articles, he underscores the applicability of Western methods of analysis—the systematic study of draftsmanship, composition, perspective, style—bolstered by textual exegesis, one might expect in the examination of classical or Christian iconography. Soper also makes liberal references to canonical artists and works to engage non-specialists and, crucially, to raise the perception of Chinese artistic production as equivalent in stature to that of Europe. Soper did not work alone in this project; by drawing attention to ongoing debates among Chinese art scholars, he reinforces the vitality and hence the viability of the field. As many of Soper's assertions have retained their currency, this paper will also consider how current research and pedagogy has retained, adapted and revised these writings on Chinese pictorial arts.

Alexander Soper and Chinese Painting Theory
Kathleen M. Ryor, Carleton College, USA

Arguably one of Alexander Soper's greatest contributions to the field of Chinese art history is his translation work. In the subfield of Chinese painting studies, many of his translations of Song painting treatises, such as the 11th-century Tuhua jianwen zhi (Experiences in Painting) by Guo Ruoxu, are still exclusively used sixty years later, as no other scholars have published new versions. While Soper's legacy of rigorous Sinological method applied to the study of Chinese painting texts has been employed by a few Western scholars of later generations, some of the critical issues that he raised regarding the translation and understanding of Chinese art criticism and theory remain understudied. This paper will examine Soper's work on Chinese painting texts and reassess his translation work against the current state of the field, in which scholars now enjoy access to a vastly larger number of texts and works of art that in Soper's time. It will also address the following questions: Can a critical history of Chinese painting theory be written? If so, what methodologies are best employed to that end? Can the study of painting texts really shed any light on extant works of art, and, if so, how? By looking into some of the still relatively unexplored areas into which Soper first ventured, as well as aspects of his translation work that need to be updated, this paper will hopefully provoke a discussion of the larger issues pertaining to painting theory in China.