cover image The Chinese Art Book

The Chinese Art Book

Colin Mackenzie, Keith Pratt, Jeffrey Moser, and Katie Hill. Phaidon, $59.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-7148-6575-1

Taking on a dauntingly vast topic, this book attempts to survey discrete images and historical contexts from the long history of Chinese art while maintaining threads of cohesion. China is widely considered the oldest extant civilization, and the visual arts that emerged from Chinese cultures remained intricately entwined with their attendant politics, spiritualties, and material realities. Rather than organize this immense visual history along chronology or medium, the authors present the generously reproduced images in suggestive pairings on opposing pages, each work receiving its own page and a brief contextualization. The result reads like a coffee table book with academic heft. In a more pointed set, Liu Chunhua's romanticized painting of Mao Zedong is across from a Qin dynasty Terracotta Warrior, one of thousands of life-sized figures buried at an emperor's tomb. Elsewhere, contemporary artist Gu Dexin's burnt plastic sculpture is presented alongside a 16th century hand scroll, the two linked more imagistically than politically. Largely, the associations are left unspoken, and readers are able to flip through the enormity of Chinese art history without too firm of an editorial hand directing their experience. The necessary concision of the prose, the lavish beauty of the images, and the accompanying timelines of Chinese and world history all aid in creating a pleasurable, heuristic read, worth the distraction regardless of the reader's familiarity with calligraphic techniques or dynastic histories. Color illustrations. (Sept.)