Getty Exhibits Explore Photography in China, Past and Present

Getty Museum China PhotosOn view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, at the Getty Center, December 7, 2010 —April 24, 2011, Photography from the New China displays a selection of Chinese photographs produced since the 1990s, when People’s Republic leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the current period of Opening and Reform. Photography from the New China is shown concurrently with Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road, an exhibition featuring nineteenth-century views of China and other parts of East Asia, creating a powerful contrast with the contemporary works.

“This exhibition highlights the Getty Museum’s recently acquired photographs by some of the young artists emerging from the reinvented society that is present-day China,” says Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs and curator of the exhibition. “The photographs on display provide a contemporary view of Chinese art and culture.”

This exhibition looks closely at recent acquisitions of photographs by Hai Bo, Liu Zheng, Song Yongping, Rong Rong, and Wang Qingsong, which feature dominant styles in recent Chinese photography, including performance for the camera, the incorporation of family photographs, and an emphasis on the body. Supplemented by private collection loans of work by Huang Yan, Qiu Zhijie, and Zhang Huan, the exhibition also explores such themes as pre-revolutionary Chinese literati art, vestiges of the Cultural Revolution, and the newly rampant consumerism.

In the past 20 years, China’s economy has made huge strides. The rapid transition, an amazingly compressed transformation in the lives of millions, has meant great progress in the way art is taught, made, and talked about in China’s flourishing urban centers. This exhibition presents the work of eight Chinese artists using photography to respond to their changing world.

Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road presents the first survey of Felice Beato’s (British, born Italy, 1832–1909) long and varied photography career which covered a wide geographical area—from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

“In 2007, the Getty Museum acquired a substantial collection of more than 800 photographs by Beato, a partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography. This important acquisition is the impetus and foundation for this exhibition, which covers Beato’s entire career from his war photography to his commercial studio work,” said Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs.

The exhibition looks closely at the photographs Beato made during his peripatetic career that spanned four decades. Following in the wake of Britain’s colonial empire, Beato was among the primary photographers to provide images of newly opened countries such as India, China, Japan, Korea, and Burma. A pioneer war photographer, Beato recorded several major conflicts, including the Crimean War in 1855–56, the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1858–1859, the Second Opium War in 1860, the Western punitive campaign to Shimonoseki, Japan, in 1864, and the American expedition to Korea in 1871. His photographs of battlefields, the first to show evidences of the dead, provided a new direction for war photography.

Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road also examines the ways Beato tailored his images of foreign cultures to the Western audience. As Western colonial empires expanded in the second half of the nineteenth century, the market for photographs of distant lands grew dramatically. Tourists and armchair travelers who sought enrichment through reading image-laden travel diaries were Beato’s primary clients. Beato’s oeuvre is exceptionally diverse, including  topographical and architectural views as well as portraits and costumes studies of the countries he visited or in which he resided.

Beato started to make panoramas early in his career, and they became one of his specialties. Taken from a high vantage point, they survey and document cities and landscapes in a wide, allencompassing format. Composed of from two to eight individual prints, they required an expert command of the photographic technique. The final prints were joined together and were often inserted into albums. The process of folding and unfolding these panoramas to view them would have engaged the viewer with their impressive size and detail.

Architectural views were especially popular. Beato often included people to establish scale and create vivid, authentic-looking scenes. The sitters are typically native individuals whose expressions and postures tend to reflect the political status of their respective countries at the time.

In 1863 Beato opened a photography studio in Yokohama, Japan, where he spent more than 20 years producing the first significant series of photographs made by a Western photographer in that country. Later in life, Beato settled in Mandalay, Burma (present-day Myanmar) in 1887, where he established a photo studio and curio shop that became an attraction for foreign visitors.

During his time in Japan, one of Beato’s most important innovations was the introduction of the art of coloring photographs. He used watercolor instead of oil pigments, which provided greater translucency and resulted in a subtle but vibrant colored photograph. Beato also offered the first photographic albums in the country that included scenic views and costume studies depicting Japanese domestic life. They presented an overview of Japanese culture and were sold as souvenirs to tourists.

Chinese Photos Getty Nineteenth Century

Also from the Nineteenth Century, Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China on on view from February 8 through May 1, 2011, seeks to redefine the history of photography in China by illuminating the intersection of traditional Chinese artistic media and the modern technology of photography, drawing special attention to indigenous Chinese photographers.

Brought to Asia in the early 1840s by European travelers, photography was both a witness to the dramatic changes that took place in China through the early-twentieth century, and a catalyst for further modernization. Employing both ink brush and camera, Chinese painters adapted the new medium, grafting it onto traditional aesthetic conventions.

“Until now, these early photographs have received scant attention and there has been little attempt to study them within a social and cultural context. This exhibition helps provide a historical and visual background for understanding modern and contemporary China and its current relation with the West,” said Frances Terpak, curator of photographs in the Getty Research Institute.

The exhibition features more than 100 works, culled primarily from the Getty Research Institute’s strong holdings on the early history of photography in China. The works in the exhibition range from an 1859 portrait of a Chinese family made near Shanghai to glass slides of revolutionary soldiers created in 1911 in Shansi province.

Organized into five sections, the exhibition, which coincides with the beginning of the Chinese New Year of the Rabbit, includes works by Lai Afong and Tung Hing, two of the most notable Chinese photographers of the nineteenth century. Lai’s specialty was the closely observed portrait group, while Hing was a master of Chinese landscape, excelling in extraordinary multipart photographic panoramas. Hing’s six-part landscape of the Min River snaking through the city of Fuzhou exemplifies how Asian photographers drew upon the Chinese literati tradition of landscape scrolls for inspiration.

Also notable are a series of photographs depicting street trades and goods made for Chinese export, and rare gouache and oil paintings made by Chinese painters, such as the Cantonese artist Tingqua, on loan to the exhibition from The Kelton Foundation in Los Angeles.

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