Jaś Elsner Seminar Three:Comparativism in Relief

Moderators: Jaś Elsner, Wu Hung

Speakers: Zou Qingquan, Jia Yan, Wang Yudong, Wu Yanan

Time: September 14 2pm-5.30pm

Venue: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing, 20th floor, Culture Plaza, No. 59A Zhong Guan Cun Street, Haidian District, Beijing

Organizer: OCAT Institute

Co-organizer: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing

Support: Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Co., Ltd.


Jaś Elsner Seminar Series


Jaś Elsner Seminar Series constitutes the second phase of OCAT Institute’s 2017 Annual Programs, and is an integral part of OCAT Institute’s 2017 Annual Lecturership. This three-part seminar series is curated and organized by OCAT Institute. In the preceding Jaś Elsner Launch Lecture Series, two scholars in art historiography have offered solid contextualization of the theoretical debates from the mid-nineteenth century through early twentieth century, which gave rise to Viennese formalism in modern art history. The subsequent Jaś Elsner Seminar Series is offered in the form of three historiographic workshops. These three workshops contemplate what the French theorist and historian Michel de Certeau calls “historiographical operation” within art history, by looking at three critical aspects of art historical practice—a disciplinary moment (the Vienna School), a rhetorical practice (description, or ekphrasis), and a critical modality (comparativism). As such, these three aspects or cross-sections in art historiography correspond to three interlinked stages of thought process in Jaś Elsner’s vision of art history as a discipline—from past, present, to future—which the participants are encouraged to follow through as a logical sequence. 


The first seminar, whose firm focus is on the discipline’s past, aims at an exercise in rigorous historicization wherein methodological debates are localized into episodes of early literature in the discipline and illuminated against wider cultural, political, and ideological backgrounds. Historicization has as one of its purposes the liberation from, and the caution against, facile or wholesale acceptance of any single set of methods. The second seminar, then, moves beyond the historically rooted methodological rifts to draw on a common denominator present in all art historical practices, i.e. the rhetorical makeup of its descriptive act. The third seminar takes the relativizing stance of the first two seminars one step further, and explore the possibility of a “robust comparativism” within art history. How might a pluralistic platform of dialogue be created whose language and structure is no longer held sway by a single dominant cultural model? How might artistic practices originated from disparate cultural and linguistic systems interrogate one another through a productive mode of cross-questioning and mutual illumination? The future of the discipline might precisely lie in the self-conscious attempts at a multi-lateral and critical narrative of comparative art history.



Jaś Elsner Seminar ThreeComparativism in Relief



Jaś Elsner (Oxford University, 2017 OCAT Annual Lecturer)

Wu Hung (University of Chicago, Executive Director of OCAT Institute)


This seminar, as its title suggests, takes “comparativism" as its methodological framework and “relief” as its thematic motor through which to explore the possibilities of a “nuanced and pluralist, non-exclusivist and globally open art history”. By foregrounding and bringing comparativism into relief, it asks its participants to both self-consciously reflect on implicit impulses and deep-seated assumptions that make comparison an indispensable tool for evidential research and interpretation, and to take up the challenge of forging new frameworks of dialogue across wider cultural and contextual spectrums. 


The seminar, chaired by two experts in late antique Roman art and ancient and contemporary Chinese art, seeks to gather a multiplicity of scholarly voices into a focused and critical discussion on a specific (formal) aspect—relief—shared by works of art or artifacts produced within disparate cultural and historical contexts. As such, the seminar adopts the model of comparativist research practiced by the group of scholars at the Center for Global Ancient Art in the University of Chicago, in which vibrant comparative conversations are conducted on the basis of shared methodological conditions (archaeology) and of a shared or at least generalizable set of formal and cultural problematics. Topics range from religious relief carvings, relief as a painting technique (aotuhua, receding-and-protruding painting) and visual effect (rilievo), the personal and collective commemorative traditions in ancient Greece and Assyria as reflected in their relief carvings, and the social and ritual functions of relief across cultures.

Comparativism, as advocated in this seminar, necessarily reflects on the historiographic past of similar practices in the discipline and points towards more experimental research paradigms in the future. Earlier frameworks of comparison, most notably practiced by the formalist art historians, were inevitably underpinned by an implicit desire to confirm the exceptional and normative position of European culture (similar to the concept of syncrisis in ancient rhetorical tradition). Such comparative reflex abounds in Heinrich Wölfflin’s double-slide projection, which generated his broad stylistic periodization and characterization of Renaissance and Baroque and grounded his version of fundamental concepts (Grundbegriff) of art history and a history of visual strata. 


Nor it is exempt from Alois Riegl’s Kunstwollen-driven historicism, which advocated a radical reevaluation of styles and cultures within the entire European tradition through both synchronic comparison across genres, media, and cultural spheres, and diachronic comparison across individual masters, historical periods, and geographic interactions. Separated by a century, we could now better observe how deep-seated methodological concerns were inevitably implicated and informed by a comparative impulse and how these comparisons (or Ur-comparisons) gradually crystallized into a particular way of conceptualizing a Eurocentric art history.


Against this disciplinary background, this seminar seeks to put forward a more radical form of comparativism as a necessary step towards a genuinely global and non-Eurocentric art history. The dialogue forged by the seminar attempts to open up new spaces for a “comparison of equals” in which the search for an interpretive common ground—i.e. comparability—is conducted with equal attention and respect to the specificity of each case involved and “without the guarantee of commensurability” among them. The existence of common grounds, that is, is not assumed but actively sought through conscientiously triangulated testings and conversations.


While comparativism is the methodological core of this seminar, some words need to be said about relief. Firstly, while the term “relief” is used in the title, the first question that has to be examined in this seminar is precisely the transferability of the term across cultures and times as a medium-specific description of disparate artistic practices and formal qualities. Is the notion of relief, as a internally heterogeneous plastic medium, shared across cultures and religions—whether Chinese, Assyrian, ancient Greek and Roman, or pagan, Christian, Buddhist? What are the vocabularies and conceptual languages used in different cultural and historical contexts when discussing what now seems to be a coherent set of objects or medial characteristics? And what implications do these languages have for culturally specific understandings of “relief” and its social and aesthetic function within these disparate settings? 


Secondly, relief as a notion is incredibly versatile. It vacillates between a material form that could assume various appearances (whether bas-relief, high relief, or schiacciato) and a dematerialized, visual and often illusionistic effect (rilievo in the Italian Renaissance, and aotu/gaoxia in China) that arguably lies at the heart of modern conception of spatiality, visuality, and figure/ground relation—hence its centrality in modernist debate on spatial perception, perspective, and formalism. 


Thirdly, relief is an inherently comparative medium. Its comparative nature is at least twofold. As a medium, its attachment to architecture, its standing in-between painting and sculpture, provoked creative thinkings, especially in the nineteenth century and the present, on the inter-relation as well as the autonomy of artistic media, on the question of how to determine the pace of stylistic development across media, and on the mobility and migration of images across material supports and geographic cultures. As a visual effect, any perception of figure/ground relation, any mental differentiation between an incised line and an unmarked surface, between indentation (ao) and protuberance (tu), involves a comparison made within the visual mind. Something has to be set off against something else, in order to be visible and discernible at all. In this sense, any comparison made through the discerning eye involves an act of bringing into relief and a gradual fixing of emergent contours. Relief, in some ways, is borne through perceptual and material comparisons.


While the foregoing explanatory comments on “comparativism” and “relief” constitute one of the conceptual entry-points into the seminar, the concrete acts of comparison could begin from nowhere other than the particular cases and contexts to be addressed by the four contributing papers.






September 14 2pm-5.30pm

Venue: University of Chicago Center in Beijing

Organiser: OCAT Institute

Co-organiser: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing 


2:00-2:10 Welcome and Introduction



Jia Yan (Assistant Professor, Peking University)

The “Production of Space” in Neo-Assyrian Reliefs

(2:30-2:40 Q&A)



Wang Yudong (Professor, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts)

“Relief Painting” (aotuhua): Painting, Sculpture, and Knowledge in Medieval China

(3:00-3:10 Q&A) 



Wu Yanan (Doctoral Candidate, Université Paris Diderot-Paris 7)

Dialogue with a “Woman” in Kerameikos: Necropolis and Heterotopia in Classical Athens

(3:30-3:40 Q&A)



Zou Qingquan (Associate Professor, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts)

Yinqi: Expressional Context, Craft Tradition, and Narrative Taste in the Pictorial Carvings of the Northern Wei Period

(4:00-4:10 Q&A)



Tea Break



Roundtable Discussion

Moderator: Jaś Elsner, Wu Hung

Discussants: Jia Yan, Wang Yudong, Wu Yanan, Zou Qingquan