Fine Arts Library Brings Chinese Art History to Life

A professor and her class stand around a table, upon which a long scroll is unfurled.
Dr. Judy Andrews examines a facsimile hand scroll with one of her classes.

Dr. Judy Andrews, distinguished university professor in The Ohio State University’s Department of History of Art, had a unique challenge when it came to teaching Chinese art history. 

“Our normal format for teaching here has been to project photographed images, but you completely lose a sense of scale and what your physical relationship to the work of art is when you’re projecting it on the screen,” she explained. “A tiny album leaf will look the same size as a colossal mural painting, and it’s always difficult to convey what it would be like to be interacting with this work of art. Of course, that’s the main thing for any pre-modern work of art; they were meant to be physically experienced.” 

Considering that Chinese art is often formatted quite differently than the artworks with which many American students are most familiar, Andrews felt that a significant portion of the experience was missing as she taught about certain paintings. Fortunately, she discovered a solution. 

“When I was the director of the East Asian Studies Center and the Institute for Chinese Studies, Ohio State received a very large grant from the Freeman Foundation, which supports undergraduate education in Asian studies,” explained Andrews. “Part of it was dedicated to acquiring educational resources. Just around that time, I was approached by an artist and collector in New York. He showed us these facsimiles he was making of Chinese paintings. The collector of the real scrolls allowed him to scan the original works of art directly, then he would color-correct and print them. They looked exactly like the real thing.” 

“I think initially, their idea was that it would be very useful for teaching Chinese painting; the students could copy the facsimiles rather than having to travel to copy the originals,” she continued. “But when we saw them, we thought they would be great for teaching art history as well.” 

Using the Freeman Foundation grant funds, Ohio State purchased a total of 10 facsimile scrolls, containing exact reproductions of Chinese paintings from the 10th through 18th centuries including both hanging scrolls and hand scrolls. The original works exist in numerous collections around the world, including at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and in private collections.  

Three large facsimile scrolls hanging in the Fine Arts Library, each depicting a significant Chinese artwork.

“There’s no one place you can see them all except our Fine Arts Library,” said Dr. Christina Wei-Szu Burke Mathison, associate professor in the Department of History of Art, who uses the scrolls extensively in her teaching. “Most of the originals are rarely on display, even in the collections that they exist in now. It’s wonderful that we’re able to look at exact reproductions of them, because there’s often no other way to see them.” 

“A few of the original works have since been lost,” Andrews expanded. “I’m sure they still exist somewhere, but they’ve gone ‘underground,’ so to speak. We’re so lucky to have these lovely reproductions so we can study the work almost as well as you could if you had access to the original.” 

With the scrolls added to the University Libraries collections, the next challenge to conquer was to figure out how and where to present them to students. 

“You need a pretty tall wall to hang these, and the Fine Arts Library had one,” said Burke Mathison. 

“One of the previous librarians there was kind enough to allow us to put some unobtrusive little nails high up on a few of the walls,” explained Andrews. “We bring the students over to the library, hang a group of scrolls, and allow them to experience the hanging scrolls in full scale.” 

Burke Mathison noted that the experience of seeing the scrolls in their true formats is eye-opening for her students.  

“These were originally designed to be hung on palace walls, and so I really think it’s something for the students to be able to turn the corner and see these monumental paintings hung up and to get a sense for what individuals of the time would have experienced,” she said. “They’re always like, ‘woah, I had no idea they were this big!’ They can look at them very closely and see the details.” 

“It also gets them used to different styles,” continued Burke Mathison. “For example, moving through a hand scroll is so different than approaching an oil on canvas, where you just see everything at once. We get this opportunity to look at things scene by scene as intended. You can’t even do this in a museum context, because everything is ‘on display.’ It’s set out for you, and you just get to see what the museum chooses to show you; usually just one section. Having these hand scrolls, we can actually roll them up, move a little bit further through... it’s much more like how the artists wanted them to be viewed.” 

Up-close and hands-on experiences with the artworks at the Fine Arts Library have led to numerous discoveries for students and faculty alike. 

“You can see things in the reproductions that are hard to see on the screen in the classroom,” said Andrews. “I’ve taught about one of them for many, many years with slides that were taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s; they’re the standard that everyone uses to teach these paintings. I realized that when those photographs were taken, they didn’t notice that there was a human figure in a certain part of the painting, and they didn’t take a detail photo of it. I only noticed it when I saw the original painting again in Taiwan, at an exhibit that included subsequent paintings inspired by the original. I went back to our facsimile and looked at it, and it’s there. You can see it quite clearly.” 

“When people discuss this artwork, they always talk about this one group of travelers in the foreground,” she continued. “They never talk about this other person there. It seems like such a minor thing, but with more research it could be very significant.” 

As part of University Libraries’ collections, the scrolls are available for in-library use by anyone who wishes to view them. To learn more, contact Art and Design Librarian Courtney Hunt