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Francois Louis. Book Review: Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China by Jonathan Hay, Reaktion Books, London, 2010

Although ostensibly a study of early modern Chinese decorative arts, Jonathan Hay's latest book is first and foremost a contribution to art-historical thinking as a scholarly endeavour at large. The book tackles a rather paradoxical problem within the discipline, namely its longstanding reluctance to discuss art in relation to the pleasure it is so obviously meant to elicit. Hay concentrates on the one form of artistic practice that he recognizes as most fundamentally concerned with pleasure: decoration. The data set he uses to conceptualize decorative practice is made up of Chinese secular luxury objects from circa 1570 to 1840. This choice of materials turns out to be particularly well suited for his purposes. Leafing through the effectively illustrated pages, one realizes that decoration in this period reached an extraordinary level of sensory richness. His examples range from carved containers, smooth porcelain and patterned silk to glossy stone, inscribed metalwork and furnished interiors. The book shows how this vast corpus of decorative material can be understood as a coherent whole.

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