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More About Old Mr. Zhang and His Finest Production (Or One Of Them)


More About Old Mr. Zhang and His Finest Production (Or One Of Them)

My previous blog ended, after a long build-up, by advising all readers, if they haven’t done so already, to go off and watch the last-minute insert in Addendum 2B, the last item in our now-completed Pure and Remote View series, which is to be found (and watched and listened to) some twenty minutes into that last lecture, the one titled “Riverbank: A Closer Look.” It has been accessible on my website and the IEAS’s for several weeks now, and I have been waiting for responses from colleagues without yet receiving any. Well, one former student, writing me about something else, adds at the end: “Your Zhang Daqian bricks video is great. Something else to look for when I see it.” When she next sees the original painting, that is--a good response: see for yourself. I wish I could still travel to look at it once more, but I can’t, and don’t really need to: the evidence is clear enough from the photographs, and from Rand Chatterjee’s skillful drawing up from them (under my guidance), from scattered places across the surface of the work, the damning, clearly identifying pattern.

Several weeks earlier, about two weeks before these final Addenda were posted on the web, I sent an email out to some twenty colleagues who have been especially engaged in the Riverbank controversy, on one side or the other, giving them a reference to a website that would afford them early access to these Addenda so that they would have a preview and not be surprised and unprepared when they were publicly posted. And then I waited for responses. And what were they? The same as the responses to our two  press  releases for the PRV lecture series; that is: nothing, nil, nada. My well-meant pre-notices sank like stones in the water. I wrote to one of the twenty, someone I’ve believed to be relatively neutral and fair-minded while not one  of my  students, and have been carrying on a correspondence with him since then. It was he who, when I sent him an earlier version of this blog in which I castigated my colleagues for their non-response, wrote back advising against doing this. And, following his good advice, I’ve toned it down considerably.

I did receive, however, a supportive email from a recent correspondent named John Rohrer, who wrote (and I quote with his permission):

“I just finished viewing Addendum 1B: Riverbank: The Controversy, and Addendum 2B: Riverbank: A Closer Look

I understand now why you couldn't just leave well enough alone. I bought and read Issues of Authenticity in Chinese Painting a few years ago,

And I have to admit I did not know whose opinion was right.

“I am now convinced that you are correct in your attribution on Riverbank. The arguments that really swayed me...

First, your problem with the water being shown with no sense of depth. I have attached some ammunition that I think helps support your observation of the problem with the water representation in Riverbank. The image that I have attached is from page 107 of Zhang Daqian's Chinese Painting published in 1988 by Ho Kungshang in Taiwan. The image shows Zhang creating a uniform pattern of waves that show no depth or recession, similar to the wave pattern that you pointed to. The presentation of water became to Zhang Daqian a stylistic problem not one of occularity. [See Fig. 1 for this image.\


“Second, I think I found Zhang Daqian's signature treatment of tree branches in Riverbank. Zhang Daqian trees are at times 'mind trees' that do not really exist, but instead bend and twist into abstract patterns that could not be found in nature. He tended to leave the unpainted media as the base for some of his trees. Examples are attached. [See Fig. 2 for this image.]

“To quote you "open mind and open eyes"

Your student

John Rohrer”

I wrote him back with thanks and appreciation for his opinions and his pictures, adding “If it was an irrefutable argument before, now it will be irrefutable plus two.” His pictures, taken from Zhang’s own publication of some of his paintings intended for teaching students how to depict water, trees, etc., do indeed match up so closely with the same in Riverbank as to provide still another nail in its coffin. (The time should come soon when it can no long rise out of the coffin, like Count Dracula, to go on plaguing us all.) Rohrer’s three-part juxtaposition of Zhang’s painting of trees--two from his acknowledged pictures flanking the detail from Riverbank (the cover of the Symposium volume!)--is devastatingly convincing as all coming from the same hand, that of my late friend. I reproduce the photos he sent, again with his permission. (Figs. 1 & 2 )

The time will also come, I hope while I am still here to observe it, when this whole affair will be recognized as a case of brilliant and large-scale art forgery that at least matches, and in some respects surpasses, the project of forging Vermeer and other Dutch masters by Hans van Meegeren, I remember  very well when that story “broke” in the 1940s, and was the  subject of numerous articles in the popular press and  several books. (I show and talk about several of van Meegeren’s forgeries briefly in my “Authenticity and Dating” lecture, Addendum 2A.) I read these with great interest, and recall especially that for a time there were still those who said:  “Yes, he made Vermeer forgeries; but the ‘Supper at Emmaus’ [his finest production] can’t possibly be one of them--that, at least, is a great Vermeer painting.” And I expect the same will be true for some time of Zhang’s forgeries; some will be holdouts, saying “Yes, but not Riverbank!” But that position cannot survive for long either; the evidence piles up--or, rather, is increasingly recognized (it’s always been there)--and Riverbank will have to be added into Zhang’s creations, in the end, as “Supper At Emmaus” was added to van Meegeren’s.


And even then, there will still be a few of his works going unrecognized, still treasured and exhibited and published as old paintings, especially those in Chinese museums--I think of two in the Shanghai Museum, one in the Palace Museum, Beijing--perhaps I will identify these in a future blogs. (But the one in Beijing, an “Emperor Huizong” painting of a rock, is already identified in PRV 10B, the second of the two Birds-and-Flowers lectures.) So Zhang Daqian will continue to fool some of the leading scholars and curators in the Chinese art world for a long time to come. You still move among us, old friend, and prove again that Barnum was right: you can fool some of the people all of the time,  and all of the people some of the  time. You can, that is, if you are Zhang Daqian. I will end by reproducing another photograph of him (Fig. 3), which I took from the web, positioning it so that he seems to be gazing up at these words of mine and saying (in Japanese, our common language in which we always conversed): Good, friend Cahill, keep working at it--now that the paintings are out of my hands and into the museums, I’m happy to have them credited to me, instead of to all those old guys. And I respond: OK, Cho-sensei, I’ll go on doing my best to see that they are.

Yours, James Cahill                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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