The Definition, Boundary and Research of Manuscripts
Manuscripts are important materials for the study of art history. Through manuscripts, we can track the creating process of completed works, and the difference between the first composition and the finished works. Researchers would make interpretations of the differences, and try to unveil the secrets or puzzles that the works may contain based on manuscripts, especially in the case of important historical works.
For example, people wonder whether the mysterious smile of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa belongs to the model herself or because of other reasons. To solve this problem, researchers have studied da Vinci’s manuscripts of his self-portraits, which have also been X-rayed for verification. In 2001, Central Academy of Fine Arts also organized a manuscript exhibition to discuss the sense of procedure in the artist's creation. How should the manuscript be understood? Its meaning and boundaries should be rendered clearer after our discussion.
If the manuscript is a kind of material in the study of art history, what kind of material can be regarded as the manuscript? In this exhibition, many works on display have their own individuality and cannot be distinguished from the finished works. The small size should not be a criterion of manuscripts. Can a manuscript prepared for creation reveal the artist’s privacy? Should human intention be private? These are some aspects we need to pay attention to.
Mr. Sun Zhenhua gives a wider definition of manuscripts, including privacy, authenticity and process. On the other hand, the manuscripts of many contemporary artists today are created as part of their works. Such manuscripts are entirely the design and pre-plan of the works. There is hardly anything private and subconscious in them. We need to be discreet about these materials.
Among the manuscript studies I came across in my recent years of work, the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in the UK was a good example. We are all familiar with the creation of Van Gogh and we only see his finished works. What did this exhibition do? It was a manuscript study, and the manuscripts were Van Gogh's letters and diaries, in which Van Gogh drew a lot of sketches. Almost all of these sketches correspond to his later works. Some sketches were finalized while others were not due to limited conditions. Every manuscript reveals a different issue. Not every manuscript can be the answer that we want it to be; some reflect authenticity, some process, and some are independent creations.
I think real manuscripts are those created out of a habit with no polishes or designs. They are true reflection of the painter’s feelings and contain richer meanings than the finished ones. In contrast, paintings always have a purpose in mind, and once the extrinsic visual pursuit is excessive, they would lacks in casualness when analyzing the subconscious element of the artist. The manuscript with a casual mind can reflect more true feelings of the artist and with more taste of drawing, which is more abundant in its content than the finished work. Therefore, we should sort out different types of manuscripts and techniques so that we have a clear understanding of the huge amount of creative materials.
We’re talking about manuscripts made on paper, but what about photography? Many artists shoot images as preparations, and they can also be studied together with the final works. In this digital age, there are digital arts. What about the unfinished art work on the computer? Does it count as a manuscript, a blueprint, or a sketch? We can see that the definition of manuscripts is both clear and vague, covering long-existing materials and techniques as well as new changes, and ranging from paper to the three-dimensional, from the physical to the virtual, extending the boundaries of the manuscript. From another perspective, should the manuscript be seen as an exercise, a path of growth, or as a creative process?
How do we evaluate every part of the art process? Works such as videos and movies cannot be collected, especially the performance. In fact, in the process of creation, today’s artists regard every step of the process as his manuscript, including sketches, hand-made and digital drawings. For example, sometimes the work is split up and printed independently. Looked through such lens, I believe that the manuscript is very important. At the same time, we also need to clarify its boundaries and connotations. In this way, when we are planning an exhibition, it would be more than just still pictures on the wall. Of course, some manuscripts are independent works. We need to understand the boundaries of manuscripts more clearly. On the one hand, we must carry out the work. On the other hand, we should also think about whether the study of manuscript can replace that of finished works, or it is just supplementing or enriching art history research. These are all the points that we can discuss.