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The Changing Landscape of Shenzhen: Displacing the Urban Village from the City’s Memory

August 19, 2022
By 29645

Mengtai Zhang, a 2018 Sylff fellow, utilized an SRA without Overseas Travel grant in 2021–22 to explore the fate of Hubei and other urban villages in Shenzhen, China, which are on the brink of demolition—and oblivion. Faced with COVID-19 travel restrictions, Zhang enlisted a research assistant to conduct fieldwork and interviews on his behalf. What emerges is the dilemma between economic development and such considerations as social justice and preservation of culture.

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Due to China’s rapid rural urbanization in the last forty years, urban villages have become a common phenomenon, where the expansion of urban areas physically enclose rural lands operating under different land tenure. What makes urban villages unique in Shenzhen is that they are a product of segregated policies but have been restructuring the segregation from within over the last few decades. This segregation manifests in a rural-urban division and the resulting unequal allocation of institutional resources.

This division is embedded in the evolution of Shenzhen’s urban villages. With Shenzhen’s rapid economic development as a Special Economic Zone since China’s Reform and Opening Up in 1979, urban villages evolved with a level of self-organization to accommodate the large influx of migrant workers, providing them with access to superior urban resources in an affordable way, while bringing wealth to local rural collectives that own the land. This dynamics shifted from the mid-2000s, when many urban villages began to be demolished and rebuilt by mega real estate developers, often into skyscrapers and large shopping malls, under government planning. By the 2010s, more and more people in Shenzhen had started advocating for the protection of urban villages. Many wanted to preserve the urban villages for migrants and working families who were still suffering from unequal resource distribution. They also believed the urban villages bore historical significance to the rise of Shenzhen.


Collective Memory and the Case of Hubei

In July 2016 Hubei 120, a leaderless movement of artists, scholars, and architects, initiated a series of activities against the demolition of Hubei, an urban village in the Luohu district in central Shenzhen. As Hubei has existed for hundreds of years, participants of Hubei 120 argued that destroying Hubei would destroy Shenzhen’s shared memories and cultural assets. At the end of 2017, Hubei 120 curated a prominent art exhibition at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. I participated in the exhibition and presented two works, a soundscape composition of Hubei and a performance, both of which began during my 2016 art residency in Shenzhen. Both works used sound to create contexts about the impact of urbanization on people’s living conditions. Having captured the soundscape of Hubei when the place was facing demolition, I utilized the SRA without Overseas Travel grant to continue the research on Hubei at the end of 2021, now that demolition and reconstruction were well under way. 


Landscape view of Hubei, demolition in progress, Shenzhen, December 2021. (Photo courtesy of Lemon Guo)


During the research period in 2021 and 2022, I explored how collective memories were impacted by other systems in the process of migration. I was interested in what urban villages meant to different groups of people in Shenzhen and what we could hear from the diverging voices on what should happen to Hubei. With the support of an SRA without Overseas Travel award from the Sylff Association, I hired research assistant Lemon Guo to conduct fieldwork and interviews in Shenzhen, since I was unable to travel to China due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Guo visited urban villages in Shenzhen, including Shangwei, Baishizhou, Shuiwei, Caiwuwei, and Hubei, and took field recordings and photographs. She mainly interviewed anthropologist Mary Ann O’Donnell, who is an expert on the urban villages in Shenzhen, and theater maker Yang Qian and filmmaker Shi Jie, both of whom were significant contributors to Hubei 120. We asked questions regarding the demolition process of Hubei, the characteristics of urban villages, and their memories of Shenzhen’s reform.

O’Donnell told us about the history of evolution of urban villages from spontaneous communities to planned communities and her memories of this process, having lived in several urban villages for most of her two-decades-plus of life in Shenzhen, since before they were even known as “urban villages.” She left us with a heavy comment—that the era of urban villages had reached its end. Yang Qian believed that urban villages such as Hubei symbolized the collective memories of Shenzhen people, which is what they are losing as a city. This was part of his motivation to join Hubei 120 and advocate for Hubei’s preservation. He told us about his role in Hubei 120 and how it operated as a leaderless movement. He also made an interesting observation about the shifting image of rural people in China’s popular culture, from farmers to migrant workers, gradually losing a concrete face and identity.

Shi Jie told us about how he became involved in Hubei 120, the growing number of artists creating socially engaged art in the urban villages, and their tensions and strategies in coping with the economic and political realities. As the conversations went on, we noticed that questions about shared memories and belonging often drew answers about loss and segregation. 


The Shifting Value of Urban Villages in Shenzhen

When viewed from the perspective of Shenzhen’s development, it seems the city struggles to remember, prone to forgetfulness. Shenzhen issued the Urban Renewal Method for revamping its image as a world-class metropolis in 2009 by calling on real estate developers to bid on original proposals for remodeling urban villages, which over the years have led to their large-scale demolition (Liu et al. 2017, 7). On the one hand, the large-scale project drew from urban villages the “useful” aspects, that which is solid and lasting, while the other aspects were considered redundant and disposable, destined for oblivion. In Hubei, what has been deemed useful are the shrines and ancient landscape, which could be transformed into consumable sites of spectacle, while , appear to be defined as something transitional and thus not worth keeping, despite their vital role in the residents’ livelihoods and historical significance in Shenzhen’s development.

On the other hand, what is considered useful by the city could also be volatile and ephemeral when viewed from a longer, historical perspective. As recently as the 1990s, urban villages—still known as “new villages” at the time—were praised as the essential, useful parts of the city. The transformation from “old villages” to “new villages” and the construction of large numbers of handshake buildings were a self-organized innovative solution that helped address a city-wide housing shortage as well as other issues brought about by the city’s reform. Ironically, although new villages had been recognized as valuable resources and celebrated as a huge success of Shenzhen’s development, their title of “new” was shortly downgraded in the mid-2000s (O’Donnell 2021, 58). The name “urban village” replaced “new village,” and what followed were demolition, renovation, and the social stigmas of filth, disorder, and substandardness. At the end of the day, the new, the solid, and the useful in Shenzhen tend to have transient qualities, sometimes decaying quickly from the city’s collective memory. 


Zhang’s shrine, on the outskirts of Hubei, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Shi Jie)


Alongside disappearing memories of the villages are unfulfilled dreams of belonging. In recent years, Shenzhen had been advertising its dedication to social inclusion by promoting the slogan, “If you come, you are a Shenzhener” (Shenzhen Government Online 2022). But the demolition and renovation of urban villages and the resulting massive displacement of their residents make this slogan ring increasingly hollow. Urban villages had provided affordable living conditions to most rural migrants to Shenzhen from the 1980s (Hao 2011, 217–18). Due to hukou, a household registration system intended to keep people in place by dividing them into rural and urban categories based on their place of origin, migrants who held rural hukou had for decades faced segregation in the city, including limitations on job opportunities, restrictions in the housing market, and exclusion from many social welfare programs (Cheng 1994, 644–45). Inexpensive and convenient urban villages were essentially shelters for rural migrants, providing access to urban-level resources such as economic opportunities, educational institutions, hospitals, and cultural institutions. 

Ironically, in a promotional video in 2020 by China Central Television, the largest state-owned broadcaster in China, the authorities presented the renovation of Nantou Gucheng, an ancient village in Shenzhen, as a successful materialization of the slogan (China Central Television 2020). The city created discourse portraying the construction of a symbolic identity, which supposedly can be achieved by refurbishing old neighborhoods and ancient landscapes. As the refurbishment continues, countless urban villages in central Shenzhen have been transformed into high-end residential areas, glossy consumer destinations, and grandiose landmarks, displacing vast numbers of lower-income communities in the meantime. This identity-building process redefines who is actually treated as Shenzheners, leaving many migrants who have contributed significantly to the city’s economic development out of the picture. 


Buildings over People

This renovation method reflects a fixation on buildings over people who live in them. Both the local government and the real estate developers claimed to be protectors of the ancient village in Hubei, notwithstanding their plans to displace entire communities and demolish two-thirds of the ancient village. Even the strategies of Hubei 120 ended up prioritizing preserving the old architecture of Hubei over protecting the communities, despite conflicting voices within the group. It fought with the government and real estate developers over the precise square meter of ancient villages that would be preserved (Yang 2017).

As I went through the footage and interviews of this research trip, I caught a glimpse of how the city might remember itself in the future. It would consist of a solidified past that is over hundreds or thousands of years old, symbolized by renovated ancient villages like Nantou and Hubei, as well as a forever-new present, encapsulated in the skyscrapers that grow taller and taller—yet nothing in between. 



Cheng, Tiejun, and Mark Selden. “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System.” The China Quarterly 139 (1994): 644–68. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305741000043083.

China Central Television. “Xianxing: Episode Five [先行 第五集].” Accessed May 10, 2022. https://tv.cctv.com/2020/10/19/VIDEQx2rjSiFM0zzlTT4yehU201019.shtml?spm=C55924871139.PT8hUEEDkoTi.0.0.

Hao, Pu, Richard Sliuzas, and Stan Geertman. “The Development and Redevelopment of Urban Villages in Shenzhen.” Habitat International 35, no. 2 (2011): 214–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2010.09.001.

Liu, Guiwen, Zhiyong Yi, Xiaoling Zhang, Asheem Shrestha, Igor Martek, and Lizhen Wei. “An Evaluation of Urban Renewal Policies of Shenzhen, China.” Sustainability 9, no. 6 (2017): 1001. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9061001.

O’Donnell, Mary Ann. “The End of an Era?: Two Decades of Shenzhen Urban Villages.” Made in China Journal 6, no. 2 (2021): 56–65. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.287948270260541.

Shenzhen Government Online. “You Are a Shenzhener Once You Come to Shenzhen.” Accessed May 10, 2022. http://www.sz.gov.cn/en_szgov/news/infocus/visa/expat/content/post_7900720.html.

Yang, Qian. “Hubei Observation 3 [湖贝观察 3].” The Paper, August 17, 2017. https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1762649_1.


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Some Thoughts about the Future of Culture in “Nonessential” Times

September 14, 2021
By 29373

Violinist Gabriele Slizyte, a 2019 Sylff fellow, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted professionals and students in culture, including herself, and poses existential questions that the pandemic has raised for her. In the latter half of the essay, Slizyte contemplates the future of culture, referencing an article by Leon Botstein that offers answers to some of her questions.

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Gabriele Slizyte

As a violinist, student in musicology at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris, and Sylff fellow since 2020, I would like to share some thoughts about the future of culture in our post-COVID society. Conceived in two parts, this essay first poses some personal questions I have been asking myself during this pandemic and then turns to an article by Leon Botstein titled “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which shares some hypotheses about the future of culture.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Cultural Workers and Students

How does it feel to work in a field that has been considered “nonessential” for more than a year now? For students and young adults, this pandemic made it difficult to visualize a professional integration someday, somehow. After we had lost all our landmarks and convictions about what our daily life should be like, it became clear that culture will still play a role in the “new normal” post-COVID world. However, as we reemerged from this forced break, we found that we have changed. Cultural events, as they might return someday, will gather a public that is already slightly different from the one we have known. How can we prepare ourselves for these changes, and how can we create a safe and interactive environment for cultural gatherings between total strangers who lived confined and in the fear of getting infected for more than a year now?

By its primary conception, culture never was an essential activity, firstly by virtue of its nonmaterial value. It is something we seek only when all the other things—stable and basic things—are assured. However, during the lockdown, we all consumed cultural products in order to stay motivated. So how do we save this nonessential activity? And wait, since when did sense and sensibility become nonessential?

After a great shock and cancellation of everything that was ongoing, cultural workers adapted themselves. Some strayed to Internet broadcast systems, rarely advantageous for classical musicians, some of whom even went viral. Some could not pay their rent, and some took forced vacations from everything to meditate on some big project they never had time to do before. And then there were students who got caught in the middle of a system they did not create. I am thinking about young professionals who just graduated, those who are still looking for jobs in a field where a long-term contract has already expired as a concept.

In France, the voice of depressed and impoverished students took almost a year to be heard. From the beginning of the pandemic, students became one of the most economically vulnerable groups of persons, directly touched by this pandemic. The social impact is here to stay, as well as an existential crisis, the one that no one is talking about because of its nonessential, more personal character. Even if we put aside the economic impact, some questions must be answered. How do we build a network since everything has gone online? How do we stay efficient and take action if you cannot practice your activity? How do we reinvent the way we work and have an impact while still sitting at home, knowing nothing about what the future folds?

On a personal level, this pandemic made me think from a more philosophical and less self-centered point of view. After so many years spent thinking about the big picture of life, we were forced to focus on details, to look after our near future more than just expecting something to happen. While deeply frustrating, this situation can also be perceived as an invitation to think about new ways of making things. Can culture be less international and more local? Could cultural workers also have an ecological impact in the era of the new green deal? Can we create more social impact for our communities?

Botstein’s Action Plan for Music in the Post-COVID World

Leon Botstein, Conducting the American Symphony Orchestra - photo by Matt Dine.

In the second part of this short essay, I would like to review an article titled “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic”1 by Leon Botstein, which, in my opinion, is worthy of our attention. The discourse of this paper inspires comments because it puts into words things that are sometimes difficult to formulate. More than an action plan, it makes us rethink our conception of culture and can actually be transposed to any field.

Swiss-American conductor, academic administrator, and president of Bard College, Leon Botstein is an editor of the Musical Quarterly. This scholarly musical journal is one of the most important and renowned publications, offering brilliant, neat, and critical papers that are shaping the musical domain.

Naturally enough, Mr. Botstein does not limit himself to just offering an immersion into a dramatic situation that has been shaking American cultural workers. He proposes a seven-point action plan that could help “to prevent the 2020 pandemic from devastating, for future generations, the practice and place of music in American life.”[1] Let us just extend this geographical approach to any country in the world that has a tradition of art music.

“Music must become intensely local,”[2] begins Botstein, proposing a conception opposite of worldwide concert tours that could be applied to any popular band or singer. And why not, because an artist has the power to create a dynamic community where a collaboration and exchange between listeners and music makers could replace a wall syndrome in which both are separated as in the traditional conception of a scene. Music should be “perform[ed] in public spaces” and more often leave traditional concert halls.[3] We should encourage a “direct interaction between performer, composer, and the audience, before, between, and after performances.”[4] Culture needs the public because, by its definition, it is a social activity where reception plays a final role. However, our public must be encouraged to take a real place in music making.

After reading Botstein’s article, I felt as if I was being invited to take more concrete action besides my activities as a musicologist, researcher, and performer—to conceive a project, to create a new learning tool, to dynamize our old conception of culture. I am not sure whether it could prevent us from devastating the practice and place of music, but it could, I hope, help us to be more ready and more awake the next time a dark cloud comes over our path.

Written in Paris in February 2021.

1 Leon Botstein, “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Musical Quarterly 102, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 351–360.

[1] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 357.

[2] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 357.

[3] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 358.

[4] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 359.

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Potters’ Locality: The Socioeconomics of Bankura’s Terracotta

August 26, 2019
By 21711

This report is based on the master’s research by Soumya Bhowmick, a Sylff fellow at Jadavpur University, India, in 201415. It originally appeared in FIRSTPOST. a web-based leading media in India. Bhowmick, currently research assistant at Observer Research Foundation’s Kolkata Chapter, continues  writing on the changing socioeconomics of the potters’ community known for the terracotta Bankura Horse, which  is historically valued in Indian society, especially West Bengal.

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The norwesters in the potters’ village of Panchmura is magnificent in ways more than one. The extremely dry atmosphere during the summer months of April–May make one compare the place to a hot desert with red dust smeared all over your clothes. This period is marked by the holy time of Baisakh, when the potter’s wheel is stopped as it is believed that during this time Lord Shiva appears from the wheel. Many justify it with a scientific reason: that the terrible heat easily exhausts the artisans and causes cracks to develop in the pottery items. After a heavy rainfall, the sweet petrichor is one of the strongest in this part of the town owing to the large amounts of terracotta clay all over the place. The potters are relatively free during these months and are very eager to have a chat with you over tea in their workshops.

An artisan uses the potter’s wheel in Panchmura village.

Mahadeb Kumbhakar, 56, proudly proclaims, “The trademark Bankura Horse [uniquely styled terracotta horse made in Bankura] came into existence because people would offer them as a mark of devotion to different deities and even on the tombs of Muslim saints. It is used as the official crest motif of the All India Handicrafts Board.” He woefully adds that a large number of youngsters in the area, including his own son, have moved to Kolkata not only because of the money but also because of their inability to commit to the labor required for this kind of artistry. Mahadeb justifies that there is no harm in working in an office while at the same time being a marginal potter. That way, the skill is never wiped out from the family.

Unfinished Bankura Horses at Panchmura village.

Panchmura village near Bishnupur, Bankura District, is one of the main hubs of terracotta in West Bengal. Historically, the politically stable Malla Kingdom indulged in a lot of cultural activity and invited high caste Brahmins, expert craftsmen, and masons to Bishnupur, and through the amalgamation of religion and culture, these people contributed largely to the trade and commerce of the region. The Bankura artisans gradually scattered to different parts of the country, but today only the few remaining in Panchmura are still striving to keep this art form alive.

A usual day in Bishnupur.

The origin of terracotta in India can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Terracotta came into existence in Bengal due to the unavailability of stones and large endowments of alluvial soil left by the main rivers in the Bankura District: Damodar, Dwarakeshwar, and the Kangsabati. The soil thus gets a perfect blend and density for it to be crafted intricately and fired in order to produce the required terracotta products. A Panchmura artisan says that a Durga idol made in Bankura is at least three times as heavy as an idol of the same size made in Kolkata because the soil found in Bankura is much more dense and mineral rich, making the crafting process extremely laborious.

The cultural transformation in the community is well captured through the terracotta craft embossed on the walls of various temples, towers, and smaller objects in the region. Many scholars have interpreted this as a translation of the primitive Sanskrit literature into mainstream Bengali narratives that allowed the emergence of such popular cults in Hinduism as Durga, Krishna, and Kali. The terracotta temples in Bankura are mostly Radha-Krishna temples, which drew inspiration from Vaishnavism.

The Munshiganj District in Bangladesh, which is close to the confluence of the Padma and Brahmaputra rivers, is a storehouse of terracotta work on the other side of Bengal. Almost all the temples are dedicated to Shiva, and the temple roofs are distinctly different from the ones found in Bankura, as the ones in Munshiganj are more longitudinally conical.

A terracotta temple in Munshiganj District in Bangladesh.

Narratives on terracotta were sources of both information and entertainment for the people, depicting stories from the mythological texts of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hitopodesha, Jataka, and Panchatantra. There has been emphasis on scenes indicating rural life, farming techniques, male and female dancers, musicians, and village gardens. Bengal architecture is uniquely different from the architecture that coincided with the Muslim rule in India, and by the end of the sixteenth century a new Bengali style of temple art became prominent and established itself as an artistic Hindu expression.

The exquisite Rash Mancha in Bishnupur.

Unlike most of the other art forms that emerged with the purpose of aesthetic value in creativity, terracotta was made to serve practical purposes, such as food and water storage, weapons, and utensils. From being necessary commodities of daily use, these artifacts evolved into something more creative imbued with a high level of craft, making terracotta a cultural commodity with great marketing potential.

A shop in Bankura.

The Bankura District is known for its popular handicrafts in the form of terracotta, the Dokra handicrafts of Bigna, the stone craft of Susunia, and the Baluchari silk of Bishnupur. The global interest in Indian terracotta can also be found in a letter by Swami Vivekananda regarding the time when Okakura Kakuzo, the famous Japanese scholar, visited India in 1901–1902. Okakura was extremely impressed by the craftsmanship of a common terracotta vessel used by the servants and, owing to the fragility of these handicrafts, he requested Swami Vivekananda to replicate the piece in brass for him to carry it back to Japan.

Terracotta is still of high interest in the global market, and Panchmura, Surul, Chaltaberia, and Shetpur-Palpara are the major villages in West Bengal that export terracotta to international markets. However, the artisans face a number of key problems that are crippling the market for this kind of artwork, including the issues of equipment, transportation, and other logistical problems; the lack of interaction between the artisans and the urban consumers in Kolkata; and the high dependence of terracotta artisans on local patronage. Moreover, the inadequate capital, sluggish marketing, and falling demand are causing these marginalized artisans to become extinct, and the lack of interest from the new generation along with insufficient government schemes further add to the woes.

Terracotta craftwork in progress at Bishnupur.

Toton Kumbhakar, 30, says, “We get some idea of consumer preferences in the handicrafts fair in Kolkata every year, where people mostly demand the Bankura Horse, since it has a certain traditional value as a regular showpiece in the Kolkata households.” The potters admit that they charge much more for the handicrafts in Kolkata and are also financially dependent on the various regional festivals, for which they make large idols for relatively hefty prices.

The terracotta temples in Bishnupur show a much better quality and precision than the artifacts being produced today. For example, the details on the terracotta tiles used in the temples are much more intricate and portray a more complex network of lines, curves, and dots. How is this possible despite improvements in technology and intruments? The extinction of skill-specific labor is the answer to this. According to the locals, the process of terracotta production in Bankura previously included three major classes of workers: the clay collectors and sievers, who would give a fine texture to the clay; the artisans, who would add the intricate details; and finally the market traders. There is no specific class of labor anymore for each of these three roles.

Ancient temple architecture in Bishnupur.

“Bankura is my native place, and so terracotta has a special place in the lives of my family members,” says an urban consumer in Kolkata. “Apart from items to decorate the house, we use terracotta items for daily use. For example, in summer we do not drink cold water from the refrigerator but instead use an earthen terracotta vessel. My mother makes it a point to do a certain fish preparation in spite of it being time consuming, so that she can use the particular terracotta utensil.”

In the urban milieu, the demand for terracotta goods in Kolkata households has reached a saturation point. As the central government actively pushes for the promotion of various handicrafts from different states, art forms of other regions, particularly Madhubani paintings and Rajasthani handicrafts, are certainly very popular. Bankura’s terracotta seems to be lagging behind in this regard.

Bankura’s terracotta is a classic case of a dying cultural heritage. Sustaining the art is a social responsibility. Unlike the rest of West Bengal, the parliamentary constituency of Bankura has voted against incumbent leaders and political parties twice in the last decade, which is a major indication of people’s awareness and urgency of development in the region.

Culture is a matter of recognition, and aesthetics is more about perception than materiality. Very recently, the West Bengal state government has reportedly nominated Bishnupur’s terracotta temples for the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This should be considered as a massive step toward drawing attention to this part of Bengal’s history and culture. However, only time will tell how efficiently such measures could facilitate the socioeconomic advancement of the potters’ community in Bankura.

(Note: All the pictures used in this article were taken by the author in Bankura District, India, and Munshiganj District in Bangladesh during the surveys.)

 Reprinted, with editing, from FIRSTPOST, https://www.firstpost.com/living/bankuras-terracotta-can-timely-measures-facilitate-socio-economic-revival-of-potters-community-7001001.html.


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The Portrait Image of Emperor Akbar in the Akbarnama and Beyond

September 5, 2016
By 19609

Dipanwita Donde is a 2014–15 Sylff fellow from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. Using an SRA award, she visited London and Dublin to see and study some of the original manuscripts of the Akbarnama, a beautiful illustrated book commissioned by a Mughal emperor. In this article, she explains how portraiture in the book is used to justify the sovereignty of the successors.

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In the closing years of the sixteenth century in India, there was an unexpected burst of portraits of medieval Indian men drawn from life that appeared in illustrated manuscripts, patronized by the third Mughal emperor1 Akbar (r. 1556–1605). The portraits included Turko-Mongol ancestors of Akbar who ruled in central Asia during the Timurid dynasty (1350–1507);2 Akbar’s immediate ancestors, Babur and Humayun;3 the men of Akbar’s court belonging to several different cultural and regional backgrounds;4 and Emperor Akbar himself. During Akbar’s reign, hundreds of thousands of folios were produced (for assembling into albums and manuscripts) in the imperial atelier by an estimated 100 artists working together as a team.5 The subjects explored in the manuscripts were primarily Persian texts authored by medieval poets such as Firdausi, Nizami, and Jami. Along with Persian epics, Akbar had the reigns of his ancestors written and compiled into histories, several copies of which he ordered to be produced into magnificent manuscripts. These illustrated manuscripts contained portrait images of Timurid and Mughal ancestors based on textual descriptions available in the writings of Timurid princes, including Babur,6 and made into stunning folios by the imperial artists. Akbar also ordered the history of his own reign to be chronicled, and Abul Fazl was chosen to write it. Abul Fazl took several years to complete it, finally presenting the Akbarnama (Book of Akbar) to the emperor in 1579.7 The text written by Abul Fazl was further produced into illustrated manuscripts, documenting pictorially the important episodes in the life and reign of Emperor Akbar.

In this paper, I raise three questions about the portrait of Akbar in the Akbarnama and attempt to answer them through my research.
1. What was the significance of portraiture during the reign of Emperor Akbar?
2. Which transcultural prototypes helped shape the portrait image of Emperor Akbar in the painted folios of the Akbarnama?
3. Were there any differences between the portrait of Akbar illustrated during his reign and posthumous images illustrated during the reign of his son and successor, Jahangir (r. 1605–1627)?

These questions are relevant to my research on the portrait of Akbar, which occupies a significant position in the genre of portraiture, explored extensively during the reign of Akbar and his successors. By raising these questions, I wish to trace how portraiture became a political tool for stating the ideology and sovereignty of Mughal emperors.

Significance of Portraiture in Mughal Manuscript Art

Portraiture—that is, images of persons drawn from life—was introduced into manuscript art8 in India during the reign of Emperor Akbar. The hundreds of portrait images of Akbar that were illustrated during his reign and during the reigns of his successors Jahangir (r. 1605–1627), Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58), and Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707) signify a preoccupation with portraiture in manuscript art.

Akbar ascended the throne in 1556 at the age of 13, after the untimely death of his father, Humayun (r. 1530–40, 1555–56). Humayun had reconquered India in 1555 with the help of the Shia ruler of Iran, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76). In addition to military support, Humayun had also requested the services of two painters from the Shah’s court to join him while he was in exile in Kabul. The two artists, Mir Sayyed Ali and Abd-ul Samad, joined Humayun’s camp at Kabul and accompanied him to India during his reconquest. Trained in Persian manuscript art, they were two of the finest artists in the court of the Shah, having displayed their brilliance in the several manuscripts produced during the reign of Shah Tahmasp. The artists brought with them a knowledge of Persian painting, which included portraiture learnt from the great master artist Bihzad (1450–1535) himself. Thus, the Persian iconographic canon that was in vogue in central Asia became the foundation of Mughal art, which originated during the reign of Emperor Akbar.

Soon after ascending the throne, Akbar launched a massive imperial manuscript art project, recruiting hundreds of artists from regional centers in the sub-continent. The two Persian artists who accompanied Akbar’s father to India became ustads (masters) under whom the Indian artists began illustrating episodes from Persian classics as well as the histories of the Timurid-Mughal dynasties. Under Akbar’s orders and his personal supervision, the histories of the reign of his ancestors as well as his own history were first documented textually and then illustrated into fabulous manuscripts, displaying the mature Akbari style.9 These illustrated histories carried portrait images of Akbar’s ancestors, some drawn posthumously, based on textual descriptions; some were copies of portraits of Babur and Humayun that had been drawn from life. Akbar also ordered portrait images of his courtiers to be drawn from life and assembled into an album for his perusal. He further showed keen interest in Sufis and Indian holy men living in his realm and ordered their portraits to be illustrated. These portraits of Timurid sultans, Mughal emperors, Rajput nobility, and other ordinary men displayed in the albums produced for Akbar, along with his own portraits represented in the Akbarnama, must have been the largest collection of portraits of medieval men in India in the sixteenth century.

My research, however, focuses on the portrait image of Akbar in the Akbarnama, tracing the different transcultural strains that were sourced and transferred from Persian, Indic, and European prototypes to shape the emperor’s portrait image.

Portraits of Akbar in the Akbarnama

During my research, I studied the portraits of Akbar in the Akbarnama published in art history books and read essays written by Mughal scholars about portraiture in Mughal art. I was deeply influenced by the writings of Dr. Susan Stronge, especially her essay in which she categorized the images of the emperor shown in one codex into different genres, which helped shape the personality of Emperor Akbar. Dr. Stronge further divided the illustrations into separate categories and placed groups of images under these subcategories. This exercise was very useful in that it enabled future scholars to study and compare the genres defined by Dr. Stronge.

The portrait of Akbar, indexing his particular characteristics, was used like a stencil in multiple compositions. Portraits of Akbar from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Akbarnama Mughal c. 1586–89	 Victoria and Albert Museum, London (visited January 14–30, 2016)

The portrait of Akbar, indexing his particular characteristics, was used like a stencil in multiple compositions.
Portraits of Akbar from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Akbarnama
Mughal c. 1586–89
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London (visited January 14–30, 2016)

Dr. Stronge argued that the paintings fell under five identifiable categories: the royal hunt, the depiction of treachery, scenes of prestige, battles, and the life of the king.10 This categorization, however, limits any further study of Akbar’s portrait, as the imperial image is repeatedly represented without much variation to his form, despite occupying a prime location within carefully composed narratives. If we were to expand the concept of portraiture by including the emperor’s personality and attempt to trace prototypes that could have served as models, we should be able to identify ideologies and identities absorbed from transcultural sources that defined the portrait image of the emperor.

After studying the portrait images of Akbar illustrated in the Akbarnama, I realized that these categories needed further research. I questioned where these ideas originated from. In other words, were there any textual sources that informed the construction of Akbar’s personality in the Akbarnama?

My research led me to medieval Persian texts, imbued with tales of epic heroes and kings that were used as models for Timurid rulers of central Asia. The sultans of central Asia fashioned their biographies upon the lives and reigns of ancient heroes and kings narrated in Persian literature. Painted codices with portraits of Timurid sultans often had ruling sultans emulate figures of protagonists from ancient and medieval Persian texts.11 The circulation of these ideas in the wider Persian-speaking world during the 1500s ensured that all kings who conquered and ruled over local or foreign territories were informed by ideas of kingship from ancient classical and epic tales written by great poets of Persian literature. Hence, I was able to connect several pieces of texts composed during medieval times with images painted during the Mughal dynasty, in which, like their Timurid ancestors, the Mughal emperors displayed themselves as heroes of ancient and medieval epics. The image of Akbar, categorized into different genres within one codex, was an amalgamation of several transcultural prototypes drawn from Persian, Indic, and European sources.12

Two manuscripts of the original illustrated Akbarnamas, one illustrated in 1590–95 and the second painted in 1600–05, are now preserved in institutions outside India; the main bulk of the folios are preserved in the UK. Hence, I was very keen to avail myself of the Sylff Research Abroad fellowship to travel to the UK and study the original manuscripts.

Summary of Major Findings

The Sylff Research Abroad award allowed me to realize a dream: to see and study sixteenth-century Persian manuscript illustrations produced during the reign of Akbar in India. The original manuscripts of the Akbarnama, of which 116 illustrations are preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and 66 illustrations at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, contain several minute details that can only be gauged with the naked eye. The fellowship allowed me to travel to the UK and research primary material. In addition, I met several scholars of Mughal art, who shared their knowledge with me and discussed what is being currently researched on the subject.

Along with the original folios of the Akbarnama, I studied more than 400 illustrations painted during the Mughal period that are preserved in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library, and the Chester Beatty Library. I also researched Persian manuscripts illustrated during the Timurid and the Safavid periods in central Asia, which were the precursor to Mughal painting, and studied stylistic commonalities and differences between the Persian and Mughal manuscripts.

Directly accessing primary material containing portrait images of Emperor Akbar helped me analyze how the portrait of Akbar functioned differently for each emperor. For Akbar, his own portrait imitated the model of Hero-King, Just-Ruler, Prophet-King, and God-King from Persian, Indic, and European sources. During the reign of Jahangir, however, Akbar’s portrait image underwent changes to suit the role of a divine Mughal ancestor on which Jahangir chose to shape his own portrait image.

Akbar wearing a halo. An Equestrian Portrait of Akbar The Late Shah Jahan Album  c. 1650, India In 07B.21b The Chester Beatty Library (visited February 1–11, 2016)

Akbar wearing a halo.
An Equestrian Portrait of Akbar
The Late Shah Jahan Album
c. 1650, India
In 07B.21b
The Chester Beatty Library (visited February 1–11, 2016)

Akbar without a halo. The Elderly Akbar Receives Murtaza Khan Shuja' al-Dawla Album  Manohar  c. 1600, India, In 34.2 The Chester Beatty Library (visited February 1–11, 2016)

Akbar without a halo.
The Elderly Akbar Receives Murtaza Khan
Shuja' al-Dawla Album
c. 1600, India, In 34.2
The Chester Beatty Library (visited February 1–11, 2016)

According to my research of the primary material preserved at the Chester Beatty Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum, functions of portraiture differed between father and son, due to three factors.

Firstly, the portrait image of Akbar developed during the emperor’s rule was carefully constructed to address a polity that would recognize and be familiar with the symbols of kingship that was in circulation. Thus, the portrait of Akbar as depicted in illustrated folios addressed his audience with the visual lexicon developed by his ancestors, the Timurids of central Asia. They relied heavily on Persian literary sources, which were in circulation throughout the Persian-speaking world.

Secondly, in the Persian tradition, the king had to display certain characteristics to project himself as a suitable ruler for his subjects. These characteristics were:

i) a great hero-king based on the personality of Rustam, the hero of Shahnama (Book of Kings) written by Firdausi in the tenth century;
ii) a humanist king based on Sufi literature developed by great poets like Jami writing in the Timurid courts during the fifteenth century;
iii) a prophet-king emulating the character of Iskander, Alexander the Great, in the Iskandernama (Romance of Alexander) written by Nizami in the twelfth century; and
iv) in Akbar’s case, a god-king based on Sanskrit texts that discussed several avatars of Lord Vishnu and considered the king, including a Muslim emperor like Akbar, to be an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Akbar’s personality as depicted in the Akbarnama displayed all these characteristics of an ideal ruler, gathered from several literary and transcultural sources.

Akbar as a brave hero(left), and Akbar as a just ruler(right) Portraits of Akbar from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Akbarnama Mughal c. 1586–89 Victoria and Albert Museum, London (visited January 14–30, 2016)

Akbar as a brave hero(left), and Akbar as a just ruler(right).
Portraits of Akbar from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Akbarnama
Mughal c. 1586–89
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London (visited January 14–30, 2016)

Akbar as a Sufi(left), and Akbar in a spiritual trance(right).  Portraits of Akbar from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Akbarnama Mughal c. 1586–89 Victoria and Albert Museum, London (visited January 14–30, 2016)

Akbar as a Sufi (left), and Akbar in a spiritual trance (right)
Portraits of Akbar from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Akbarnama
Mughal c. 1586–89
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London (visited January 14–30, 2016)

Thirdly, when Akbar’s son and successor Jahangir ascended the throne, he needed to reimagine Akbar’s portrait to suit his own demand for an ancestral hero-king imbued with divine qualities. The reimagining of Akbar’s portrait was necessary to articulate an alternative politics that suited the newly announced emperor and help Jahangir project an image of himself as a world conqueror with divine attributes.

During my visit to the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, I was able to match text with image, which helped me locate certain alterations in Akbar’s portraits13 that were illustrated during the reign of his son. This finding helps me prove my argument that the portrait image of Akbar was remapped by Jahangir to suit a dynastic-ancestral image to legitimize his own rule.

Transcultural Distinctiveness at Akbar’s Court

Illustrated manuscripts can tell us many aspects of human societies and how social relations were hinged upon a keen understanding between a ruler and his subjects. During the reign of Akbar in India, the emperor followed a structure of protocol that included systems taken from many cultural sources and applied universally at the royal court. This transcultural homogeneity was the most unique aspect of Akbar’s reign that transferred traditional courtly culture informed by Persianate tradition, as well as shaping a new courtly culture based upon systems absorbed from Hindu traditions.

The medium of portraiture, which formed the bulk of the images in Mughal art during the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, allows us a window by which we can not only study the physiognomic particularities of men belonging to a particular region, but also glimpse the popular models that were in vogue and which helped shape the portrait images of Mughal emperors, their coterie, and their subjects. Furthermore, by studying the changes in the visual lexicon between portraits of emperors depicted during their lifetimes and those re-created during the reigns of their successors, we can trace the politics and ideology articulated by the ruling emperor through the medium of manuscript art.


Beach, Milo C., B.N. Goswamy, et al, eds., Masters of Indian Painting, 1100–1900 (New York: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 2011)

Crill, Rosemary and Kapil Jariwala, eds., The Indian Portrait, 1560–1860 (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 2010)

Dimand, S. Maurice, “Mughal Painting under Akbar the Great,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, vol. 10, no. 2 (1953), pp. 46–51

Eraly, Abraham, The Mughal World: Life in India’s Golden Age (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2007)

Koch, Ebba, Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology: Collected Essays (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Losty, J., The Art of the Book in India (London: The British Library Publishing Division, 1982)

Sims, Eleanor, Peerless Images: Persian Painting and Its Sources (Mapin Publishing in association with Yale University Press, 2002)

Soucek, Priscilla, “Persian Artists in Mughal India: Influences and Transformations,” Muqarnas, vol. 4 (1987), pp. 166–181


1The Mughals were the descendants of Turko-Mongol sultans of the Timurid dynasty who ruled in central Asia from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. The Mughals ruled in India from 1526, when Babur defeated the Lodhis and established the empire. The last emperor of the Mughal dynasty was Bahadur Shah II, who was exiled by the British empire in 1857.

2The Timurid dynasty began in 1370 under the reign of Shah Timur (r. 1370–1407) in central Asia. The Timurid princes were great patrons of Persian literature and patronized several brilliantly illustrated manuscripts during their reigns. Beatrice Forbes Manz notes that the cultural revival that began under Shahrukh (r. 1405–1447) reached its zenith under Sultan Husayn Bayqara (r. 1470–1506), who turned Herat into a “shining centre of cultural patronage” (Manz, “Temür and the Problem of a Conqueror's Legacy,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 8, iss. 1 [1998], p. 39). Also see Thomas W. Lentz and Glenn D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century (Los Angeles: Museum Associates, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989) and Beatrice Forbes Manz, “Tamerlane’s Career and Its Uses,” Journal of World History, vol. 13, no. 1 (2002), pp. 1–25.

3Babur was the first Mughal emperor in India. He conquered India in 1526 and reigned there until his death in 1530. Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, ruled India in 1531–40 and again in 1555–56.

4The men of Akbar’s court were Persian, Uzbeks, Afghans, Jesuits, and Rajputs belonging to Shia, Sunni, Christian, and Hindu faiths.

5Milo Cleveland Beach, The Imperial Image: Paintings for the Mughal Court (Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1981), p. 19.

6Babur was the author of Baburnama, the first autobiography written by a Timurid prince.

7The official history of Akbar’s reign was begun in 1589 and completed in 1598, in the fifth and final decade of Akbar’s rule.

8Manuscript art, also known as miniature painting, originated in Persia during the reign of Mongol conquerors in the fourteenth century. Illustrations made on paper were accompanied by Persian calligraphy written in text boxes within the composition. They were usually assembled into albums and bound with a leather cover, decorated with gold inscriptions and intricate designs.

9J. Losty, The Art of the Book in India (London: The British Library Publishing Division, 1982).

10Susan Stronge, Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book, 1560–1660 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2002), pp. 68–84.

11See Eleanor Sims, “The Illustrated Manuscripts of Firdausī’s Shāhnamā Commissioned by Princes of the House of Tīmūr,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 22 (1992), pp. 43–68. Discussing three illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama produced for the three Timurid princes—Ibrahim Sultan (1435), Baysangur (1433), and Mohammad Juki (1444)—Sims notes that each contains at least one illustration that could be interpreted as a “portrait” of the prince who commissioned it (p. 44); as cited in Linda T. Darling, “’Do Justice, Do Justice, For That is Paradise’: Middle Eastern Advice for Muslim Rulers in India,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 22, nos. 1 and 2 (2002).

12See Catherine Asher, “Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine,” in The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Milo C. Beach, The Imperial Image: Paintings for the Mughal Court; and A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

13The use of the halo, a heavily jeweled Emperor Akbar, an older monarch than seen imaged in the first Akbarnama with gray hair and a slightly stooped body—these were some of the alterations in Akbar’s image made during the reign of Jahangir.

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Sylff@Tokyo:Juilliard Fellow Hopes to Promote Multicultural Communication

June 16, 2016

Erika Mitsui, second from right, with members of the Tokyo Foundation.

Erika Mitsui, second from right, with members of the Tokyo Foundation.

Violinist Erika Mitsui, who received a Sylff fellowship in 2015 while attending the Juilliard School, visited the Tokyo Foundation on June 6. She is not only a very talented musician but also a socially engaged future leader with an open mind and deep insights into global issues.

Mitsui, who earned a master of music in May 2016, is actively involved in organizing social activities through the medium of music. After the powerful Kumamoto earthquakes in April 2016, she took the initiative to raise funds for the restoration of disaster-struck areas. And following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, she participated in the Tsunami Violin Project to make violins from driftwood found among the tsunami debris. She played a beautiful piece with one such violin in New York in memory of the quake victims.

In the future, Mitsui hopes to organize activities to promote communication between different cultures. She became interested in the subject when she realized during a multinational workshop that music had the power to break down barriers and connect even those people with different mother tongues.

The Tokyo Foundation applauds Erika’s initiatives and achievements so far and wishes her great success in her path as a socially engaged musical artist.

Sylff fellows and steering committee members are always welcome to stop by the Foundations’ office while visiting Tokyo.

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Theories of Modernism in Cinema

March 31, 2016
By 19686

Miłosz Stelmach, a 2014 Sylff fellow at Jagiellonian University in Poland, conducted research at Columbia University in New York on cinematic modernism. In this article, he provides insight into two contradictory definitions of “modernism” in cinema.

* * *

Modernism in painting - Picasso's Guernica

Modernism in painting - Picasso's Guernica.

As a medium conceived at the very end of the nineteenth century, cinema is contemporary with such technological inventions as X-rays, radio, and the diesel engine, and with scientific breakthroughs like the discovery of electrons and radioactivity. It is the child of an era when modern science and modern society were being formed. Cinema is not only a modern technological invention; it is also a modern social practice. As a radically democratic medium, it served as one of the foundations of the emerging mass society and popular culture. Moviegoing was to become one of the most popular leisure activities for millions of people in the decades to come as the movie industry became one of the vital economic and social forces that shaped the modern world.

But if all that makes cinema an inherently modern phenomenon and one of the staples of modernity, what is it relation to the “art of the modern”—that is, to modernism itself? This question bothered film historians and theorists for years. The answer is necessarily related to what we understand by “modernism” in general. Only once we understand how the word is defined in terms of art history or literature can we start thinking of appropriating it to cinema.

Columbia University

Columbia University

To explore this matter more thoroughly I used an SRA grant to visit Columbia University in New York. There I was able not only to access all the basic written and visual materials in the field but also to meet distinguished scholars whose academic work has investigated various problems related to modernism. My encounters with their expertise in different fields of the humanities (comparative literature, art history, culture studies, and film studies) and their various nuanced points of view enabled me to trace how our understanding of modernism has developed.

James Joyce, one of the most important figures of literary modernism.

James Joyce, one of the most important figures of literary modernism.

The traditional and still dominant account of modernism, and the one with which I was primarily familiar before my visit to New York, developed in English-language scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s. It was during this period that a comprehensive theory of the subject was developed by scholars and critics like Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Raymond Williams, who defined modernism as an artistic movement that had developed in different fields of cultural production in the late nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth. Modernism marks a break with the conventions of nineteenth-century realism in favor of extensive experimentation with medium—subjectivity, fragmentation, and nonlinearity. As manifested in the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dalí, the 12-tone musical compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, and the stream-of-consciousness literature of James Joyce, modernism, as understood by Greenberg and others, employs a high level of self-consciousness and reflexivity, resulting in extensive efforts to explore the limits of a given medium and employ forms specific to it.

This definition of modernism, underlining formal innovation, self-referentiality, and medium specificity, was easily (and readily) transferred to the field of film studies. This wasn not difficult, especially given the self-evident link between developments in cinema and the other visual arts in the 1920s. Avant-garde artists like Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Richter, and Salvador Dalí made movies themselves, and a number of cinematic movements were clearly inspired by the visual arts of the time, as reflected in names like German Expressionism and French Impressionism. Surrealism and constructivism also had a clear influence on the development of the esthetics of cinema.This understanding of modernism as a high-art tradition involving avant-garde experimentation with film language carried over to postwar international art cinema.

Ingmar Bergman, a chief modernist of cinema, working on the set.

Ingmar Bergman, a chief modernist of cinema, working on the set.

Scholars like András Bálint Kovács (author of Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980) and John Orr (who wrote Cinema and Modernity) demonstrate how this type of cinema, best represented by the so-called New Waves and New Cinemas spreading all over the world in the 1960s and 1970s, ultimately stems from modernist traditions. We can call this definition “exclusive” because it refers to the rhetoric of innovation and auterism (as epitomized by figures like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few well-known examples) and sees these trends as marking a break with classical cinema realized in the elitist field of highly sophisticated artistry. Summarizing this point of view, Kovács identifies subjectivity, reflexivity, and abstraction as the basic characteristics of all modernist art and finds these qualities in the postwar films associated with the French New Wave, New German Cinema, and Soviet post-Thaw films, among others.

The “Modernity Thesis”

When I started my research on the concept of cinematic modernism, the standpoint described above seemed to me to be widely accepted and uncontroversial. But once I started digging deeper I realized that strong opposition to this view has emerged over the last two decades and that this understanding of the relationship between cinema and modernism has increasingly been challenged and reconfigured. From the 1990s on, many critics contradicted the traditional, Greenbergian theory of modernism as a drive toward formalist, artistic sophistication and medium specificity with their own, “inclusive” definition. These critics saw modernism simply as a cinematic reflection of modernity and its various aspects, one that did not focus on “high art” in particular but rather embraced mass culture in its entirety.

Probably the most emblematic and influential case made on behalf of this definition was an essay written by Miriam Bratu Hansen in 1999 entitled The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism. In the course of her argument, Hansen called classic Hollywood cinema “vernacular modernism.” In her words, “modernism encompasses a whole range of cultural and artistic practices that register, respond to, and reflect upon processes of modernization and the experience of modernity, including a paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed.” In this sense, newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and Soviet socialist realism of the same period are just as modernist (if not more so) as the novels of Marcel Proust or the paintings of Jackson Pollock because they exploit the new possibilities of production, perception, and cultural engagement brought about by the modern world and transformed by the spirit of modernity. This theoretical standpoint was later dubbed the “modernity thesis.” One of its basic conceptions is that cinema as a whole is a modern art—an inherent product and consequence of modernity defined necessarily by its technological and industrial character.

The Gap

After studying the most important bibliographical materials and consulting with specialists in the field of modernism studies, I am coming to believe that the two theories of the same object (cinematic modernism) I have outlined above might not in fact be as distinct (and contradictory) as they appear. In my opinion, the difference between them is not that they approach the same phenomenon with different tools and conceptions, but that they are actually examining two different fields, and merely claiming the same name for them. The gap between the “exclusive” and the “inclusive” traditions is seen not only in the choice of material their proponents wish to analyze (“high” and “popular” culture) but also, more importantly, in the way they want to approach them.

The supporters of the “modernity thesis” and the idea of vernacular modernism are interested mostly in the context (as opposed to the text itself), focusing on the social, industrial, and cultural forces shaping the work. This is why Hansen and others look closely at the specific conditions that made the cinema an important part of modernity as experienced in the early years of the twentieth century. As she declares, her aim is to identify a certain historical point of “paradigmatic transformation of the conditions under which art is produced, transmitted, and consumed.” By contrast, the idea of modernism developed by Clement Greenberg and represented in the field of film studies by András Bálint Kovács concentrates more on the relationships within cinema history itself. It emphasizes such questions as aesthetic autonomy, along with the internal evolution of specific narrative and artistic forms and their characteristics. Political, social, and cultural contexts naturally still play a vital role in these lines of investigation, but they are usually seen as possible explanations for certain formal and stylistic features and are not the main point of interest.

This is why I would like to argue that the conflict between the two theoretical orientations is in fact only illusionary. They are intertwined and in some cases complementary to each other—but most of the time they constitute different areas of film and culture studies, revealing to us different contours of what we call modernity.