37 / 2013
Nataša Vampelj Suhadolnik

Chen Shizeng’s “Theory of Subjectivity”: The Influence of Chinese Literati Painting on the Artistic Search for Western Modern-‘isms’ in the Republican Era


The encounter, both direct and indirect, with the West at the turn of the 20th century led to a profound crisis in Chinese art. Many young artists went abroad to study Western art in order to reform traditional Chinese painting, which was often accused of being rigid, lacking perspective and creativity, and thus unsuited to portraying the contemporary world. It was during this period that the celebrated Beijing painter Chen Shizeng in a famous essay proposed a “theory of subjectivity” in defence of literati paint- ing. Taking that essay as a point of departure, and through the exploration of Western–Sino–Japanese interactions in artistic trends, the present paper seeks to explain why many Westernised Chinese artists identified with Western avant-garde movements instead of its academic tradition of realism. This phenomenon can also be understood as a positive reply to Chen’s theory of subjectivity, in which, based on its elements of self-expressionism and subjectivism, he compared literati painting with Western modern-‘isms’, finding more affinities than differences between them.

KEY WORDS: Chen Shizeng, subjectivity, literati painting, Western modern-‘isms’, Japanese influence