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Maggie Bickford. Useful Pictures, Useless Art? Looking Again At Bird-An-Flower Painting

Years ago, on a drizzly evening in the Lake District, Jessica Rawson proposed to hand over to me one of the many projects that her curiosity had conjured up but that she hadn’t the time to pursue. The topic was that of auspicious ornament. I chuckled and replied: ‘I could have a chapter entitled “Huizong, the Lucky Emperor”.’ (Huizong [r. 1100-25] is the emperor who is credited with losing half of China to the barbarians. His given name is Ji, which sounds like 吉 [ji, lit., auspicious], and which constitutes the right-hand element of his given name.) So I began to study auspicious devices in the decorative arts and in popular prints. Later, this new interest converged with my long immersion in Song dynasty (960-1279) painting, and I began my engagement with Emperor Huizong’s bird-and-flower paintings – images that I came to think were made as auspicious omen paintings and presentation paintings. Puzzling over these peculiar images – unnervingly lifelike, yet flat as a board – I concluded that these distinguishing features were driven by functional demands – the jobs of work that these images were created to perform in the first place – as much as by the tastes attributed to the aesthete-emperor. My desire to understand these images in their own terms, rather than in the terms propounded by Song scholar-amateurs who wanted to boost their own stature and that of their friends, has led me to my present task of understanding the long-term processes of aesthetification that transformed useful pictures into (apparently) useless fine art – that is, pretty pictures made merely for sensual pleasure.   

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