Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 2019
William Schaefer Shadow Modernism: Photography, Writing, and Space in Shanghai, 1925–1937 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. 304 pp.; 8 color ills.; 38 b/w ills. Paperback $27.95 (9780822369196)

A picture of flickering bamboo leaves in a slick Shanghai magazine is carefully inscribed in Chinese characters as a “painting album” (huaben) and is impressed with an artist’s seal—not of a brush-and-ink painter, but of the photographer of the plant.

A short story features a narrator who spots an earthen mound from a train window and imagines an Egyptian-style mummy of a royal concubine entombed within emerging to haunt the streets of Shanghai.

A painting entitled Ruci Shanghai (Such is Shanghai) shows the city to be a montage of transparent, ghostly visages and body parts: eyebrows, lips, and fingers; the king’s face from a deck of playing cards; the head of a heavily bearded opera actor. The figures are the ground.

These are images of 1930s Shanghai, made during a decade described by William Schaefer as a time beset by urgent questions about what images are and what they do, and how they represent the realities of peoples, places, cultures, and histories. All three testify to a certain persistence, when it comes to picturing the city, of half-illusory pasts, or to an endurance of fragmented remnants circulating into the modern moment, to an obsession with glimmering specters and alien relics of a “past-less” Shanghai: what some, including many of the image makers whom Schaefer writes about, might call shadows.

These images are shadows in the sense that they dematerialize the objects whose outlines they describe—though only halfway. New media technologies like photography collide with the unseen; the literal meaning of the Chinese word for “to photograph,” sheying, is “taking in shadows.” The book begins with a passage by the critic Fu Lei on the ways that photography sets humanity adrift: “Ordinary people have not yet paid attention to the seriousness of this situation.” He observes that “[photography] is proof that one kind of connection holding together the particles of the universe has been eliminated: or in other words, humanity itself has disintegrated, and is simply lost in space” (1). It is an anxious moment. Photography reveals the ways that a culture sees its own long-lived visions fade away, just as it enhances the ways that a culture is blind to its own blindnesses. While a photograph of bamboo, for instance, becomes a ghostly image as it enters into global circulation, its object quality—as if an ink painting—also makes it opaque, material, and, from a perspective inside the boundaries of Shanghai’s art world, where each leaf can be seen as if made by a gestural brushstroke, sentient and enlivened.

These images are shadows in the sense that there is something true about these forms. Schaefer traces the modernist debate about abstraction to an eleventh-century Chinese painter’s observation that “to learn how to paint bamboo, take a branch of bamboo, and on a moonlit night project its shadow on the wall, and the bamboo’s true form will appear” (37). Shadows reveal the true nature of things by exposing something previsual about them. Their darkened shapes on flat walls, like their traces on the flat surfaces of photographs, “suppress the materiality and details of the physical forms of bamboo leaves and instead enable the apprehension of their ‘true forms,’” Schaefer writes, by which he means the form of the plant itself, distinct (somewhat paradoxically) “from the ephemeral, projected forms of shadows” (37).

These images also are shadows in the opposite sense—not pure, but forms that are mutable, fragmented. Schaefer is at his most brilliant in analyzing this dimension of shadows. Three of the five chapters take up the uncanny ways in which shadows emerge as word, paint, and, less concretely, the in-between spaces of cultural boundaries. The third chapter is devoted to writing as a kind of photography. Chinese imagist poetry—a startling prospect—is described by one contemporary critic as possessing a “conflation of verbal and concrete images [that] seems to resist images that are mere traces and shadows” (139), that is, to resist the ephemerality of the photographic image. If photography is deemed by this writer to be a medium for ghosts, then the surreal image of a mummy staggering through the streets of Shanghai only makes that clearer. Shi Zhecun’s story “Demon’s Way” makes visible “the shadowy negative of the past out of which the modern city’s image has been developed, and that is composed out of a series of projections, black shadows, phantasms, and images that fragment, circulate, and combine as composites—dead images (or things transformed into shadow) and images that come to life” (141).

In the fourth chapter, Schaefer shows us how photomontage in Shanghai “was not only a means of representing place; it was itself conceptualized pervasively as a spatial practice, a geographic aesthetic” (148). By the mid-1930s the city of Shanghai often was configured pictorially in popular magazines by way of dislocated, dismembered, and disembodied images of bodies, jumbled together. Fu Lei described such montage aesthetics as a property of film: “before it can express ‘reality,’ it must first decompose reality and, using a new kind of rhythm, recompose it according to an order completely different to that [to] which we are accustomed” (151). For the Shanghai avant-garde seeking something new, photomontage practices—that recomposition in a new order—could “become a means of composing space” or critiquing it (151). The palimpsest of figures in Pang Xunqin’s photorealist painting Such Is Shanghai do precisely that kind of work: it is the modern urbanscape of Shanghai. Its pendant painting, Ruci Bali (Such is Paris), also pictures a few of the same figures wearing modern dress, surrounded by the accoutrements of boulevard life, rendered in hot jazz colors. But with their migration into Shanghai, the figures become pale, transparent, flattened to the paper surface, disconnected from each other and from the viewer, and through juxtaposition with the head of a playing-card king and a Chinese opera warrior, they drift away from the modern moment. The past “with all of its multiple origins” in Shanghai permeates the present; the city is lost in space and time, yet perceptible all the same (157).

“Barbarians,” “savages,” and the “primitive,” represented in Shanghai’s mass culture “through and as images to be fragmented, circulated and juxtaposed” (186), are the subject of the final chapter. This exploration expands the modern psycho-geographies of painfully familiar European and North American racism. What distinguishes it in Shanghai is not its violence or its eroticism. Neither is it the pursuit of “inner realities” through the image of the “savage,” or the “cut-and-paste aesthetics” of picturing Africans, Pacific Islanders, and peoples on China’s borders—that is, cutting apart photographic images of bodies through cropping and captioning, paired with narratives of headhunting and tattooed body parts, a “fact of blackness” that Franz Fanon writes about as the creation of the white man’s powerful objectifying look in a different colonial context. Rather, it is the critical engagement with, and the rare disruption to, the making of “primitivist” images in modernist texts. Schaefer returns once more to the writer Shi Zhecun. Through a close reading of headless figures and the shadows of boundaryless places in “The General’s Head,” he demonstrates how Shi dismantles modernist literary experimentalism that “enables us to read critically the production of race as image,” as well as revealing how “images of race . . . make visible the assumptions on which understandings of literary experimentalism turned” (186).

The book is deeply conceived and radically historical. Schaefer is right for refusing to take the binaries that have structured much contemporary art history writing about the modern era in China as natural or self-evident (tradition versus modern; East versus West; realism versus nonobjective art). One binary that Schaefer might have been reflected upon more deeply, though, is “art” versus “nonart.” Much of the analysis in the first two chapters is couched in such categorical terms, but actually is directed toward design. The painter Feng Zikai and others write about “design photography” (tu’an sheying), for instance, or “natural design photographs” (tianran tu’an sheying). Later in the book, Evelyn Scott’s sequence of poems in Chinese translation, entitled “Designs,” is critiqued as using “the methods of design painting” (tu’an huifa) (136).

By the 1930s the word for design (tu’an) had stabilized to mean “applied picture,” in its most literal sense as a template for modularly produced objects, and yet designers continued as they had long done to produce artful high-order as well as “nonart” low-order objects. Perhaps more to the point, Feng Zikai was a close friend of the designer Chen Zhifo (the first Chinese student to receive a degree in design from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts), who was in Tokyo with him when they were students and absorbed many lessons in observational practices specific to design education at that time—practices that amount to a kind of Latourian limning of art and science, in which botanical science in particular was employed to train a designer’s eye. The status of photographs as designed objects that make certain demands on the eye, both poetic and “objective,” remains to be more fully studied.

Still, to locate this project in design history possibly is less than fair. For the book is smart and rigorously researched, and the prose is immaculate. By sticking close to his objects of study, no matter how ambiguous, difficult, and distant, Schaefer shows us how Shanghai’s shadows strangely illuminate the cultural history of the city—and the practices of art history. 

Lisa Claypool
Associate Professor of the History of Art, Design, and Visual Culture, University of Alberta