Synthesizing a Dual-Definition of Façade in the Western Palaces of the Yuanming Yuan: Art, Politics, and Place-making in the Garden of Perfect Brightness

Stella Gatto

The Imperial Summer Palace, also known as Yuanming Yuan or Garden of Perfect Brightness, emerged as the center of the Chinese Empire during the eighteenth century and served as the official residence of five Qing Dynasty emperors. However, tension percolating in the mid-nineteenth century regarding British demand for treaty revision resulted in the Second Opium War and the burning of Yuanming Yuan in 1860. The façades and structures of the “European” or “Western” style palaces of the garden were the only buildings not completely obliterated by the fire and have become a symbol of Yuanming Yuan as a whole. This essay analyzes several engravings of the European-style palaces and gardens by court artist Yilantai (1749-1786) and documentary photographs depicting the remaining traces of the palaces taken by German photographer Ernst Ohlmer (1847-1927). The buildings continue to act as a façades in the way their reproduction over three centuries creates an uncanny mixture of the factual and the fantastic. In comparison to the engravings, the photographs might be understood as carrying an indexical documentary potential. However, by examining these two sets together in a more synthesized manner, both present the buildings in a theatrical yet formal method of depiction: they exhibit the very “fairyland” quality Emperor Qianlong had in mind when commissioning their construction, and their simultaneously decorative and void structures provide the backdrop onto which the complex synthesis of art, politics, and place-making in China are projected. After situating the duality of theatricality and illusion alongside the historical framing of Yuanming Yuan, this paper concludes with an analysis of the Yuanming Yuan Ruins Park, a tourist attraction where the factual and the fantastic that marked the buildings in the past continues today.

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STELLA GATTO received her Bachelor’s in the History of Art, Design, and Visual Culture from the University of Alberta, and her Master’s in the department of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory from the University of British Columbia. Her thesis, titled New Cuts, Dark Continents: Hannah Höch’s “From an Ethnographic Museum”, examines how Höch’s series captures the socio-political landscape of the Weimar Republic, particularly the inseparability of primitivism and ethnography from psychoanalytic discourse in Berlin at the time. Stella’s professional experience includes assistant to the Director of the Modern and Contemporary Art Collection at the National Gallery in Prague, where she was the lead researcher and curatorial assistant for a Gerhard Richter retrospective, and as curatorial assistant and project coordinator specializing in contemporary indigenous art at Fazakas Gallery. She currently teaches in Vancouver, Canada.

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