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Notes of a Confirmed Diffusionist


Notes of a Confirmed Diffusionist

What follows will be a series of loose, off-the-top-of-the-head notes on a large subject that deserves better--deserves, in fact, a fully documented scholarly study of a kind that I no longer wish, or am able, to write. By identifying myself as a diffusioinist I am professing a deep belief that styles and motifs in art travel easily, and are easily and often seen and adopted by faraway artists, including those in other times and other cultures. And I am professing also a belief that we should be more free and open than we usually have been in recognizing and acknowledging the artists’ adoptions. My writing about it now is inspired by, among other things, news from several younger colleagues that they are working on essays about the 20th century Chinese painter Fu Baoshi--I have for decades been contemplating a learned article on what Fu learned from Japanese artists during his early years as a student in Japan. I will get back to that subject later in these Notes, which will be, as I say, off the top of my head, written from memory, with some Googling and some consulting of my favorite Old Authority, my own earlier writings, for dates and other information.

First of all, and deeply important: nothing I write is meant pejoratively; I am not in any way trying to reduce the originality of artists by pointing out what they adopted from older, and sometimes foreign, pictorial art. On this matter I follow Michael Baxandall, as cited in the opening paragraphs of the third chapter of my recent Pictures for Use and Pleasure book, on “Adoptions From the West,” in seeing artists as active agents who choose what to use, out of pictorial materials that become accessible to them, because these materials (or “pictorial ideas,” as I sometimes call them) seem to them attractive and useful. They are not, that is, the passive recipients of “influence.” But identifying the adoptions they have made from foreign sources--especially what Chinese artists have taken from Japanese art, challenging the long-cherished idea of the “insular” status of Chinese art--can arouse negative passions. I recall sitting in the audience at a College Art Assn. session on Tseng Yuho, or Betty  Ecke, whom I have known well for many years, listening to her being (quite properly) lauded as a major modern Chinese master, and wondering: what would the response be if I were to  interrupt this session by showing, with slides, how much she took from Japanese art when she was suddenly exposed to it, early in her career, brought to Honolulu by her husband Gustav Ecke? Painting in big color areas on a gold-leaf ground, obvious imitations of early Japanese embellished calligraphy--I could have devoted a whole lecture just to those--and a highly unwelcome lecture. And I have related elsewhere how I gave, by mistake, my talk about how much major Ming-Qing painters took from European pictorial art for an audience of Chinese bigwigs at an embassy in Beijing, and how one of them complained afterwards: Why did you have to give that lecture for these people?

I have been a committed diffusionist for a long time, perhaps more strongly in my later years, and always in the face of strong opposition--or, more commonly, a strong turning away, an attitude of “Even if you are right, we don’t want to hear about it”--from colleagues more strongly dedicated than I to Theory. I once suggested to a modernist teaching in our department that I could show her what I took to be exciting new Japanese sources, beyond Ukiyo-e and Hokusai, for what late 19th century European artists learned from Japanese art--and being told, loftily, “I don’t do influences.” For my own part, I have always “done influences”  in my research and writing and teaching. For many years I delivered, when called on, two lectures in a World Cultures course given by a History Dept. colleague, one lecture showing what China learned from the West in art (as set forth in my Compelling Image book and elsewhere), the other about what Occidental artists took from China and Japan--the Post-Impressionists in Europe, as just noted, and the early Abstract Expressionists, notably Mark Tobey, learned from Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.

For many years, from the 1960s-70s into the early 1980s, I spent a lot of time In Japan, partly because U.S. citizens couldn’t go to China, but also because I felt comfortable there--I spoke the language fluently, and Tokyo was my favorite city in all the world, the place where I could accomplish more in a day, and enjoy myself more, than anywhere else. Much of my scholarship and writing was that of a Chinese painting specialist in Japan, and I took on big problems in early Nanga (Bunjinga) painting, about how and what these artists--especially Sakaki Hyakusen and Yosa Buson--learned from Chinese painting. Japanese specialists in Chinese painting, I observed, paid little or no attention to Japanese painting, while their colleagues who specialized in Japanese painting didn’t know enough about Chinese painting to deal effectively with the Chinese sources for Nanga; I could serve, then, as a kind of cross=over. More recently we have seen more acknowledgement of borrowings or adoptions going the other way: to China from Japan. Ralph Croizier came to Berkeley, it must have been in the 1970s, to spend a year working with me and my students to make a new move into Chinese art--he was a pupil of Joseph Levenson, so we shared an inspiration and a model. What he accomplished in that year led to his 1988 book Art and Revolution in Modern China: the Lingnan (Canton) School. Soon after he arrived he showed me reproductions of paintings by the Lingnan artists he meant to study, who had learned painting in Japan, and I told him: Go look at Takeuchi Seiho. It turned out that they had studied with Seiho pupils; Ralph was even able to find and publish, in collections of their descendants, the original Seiho-school paintings they had copied and learned from. More recently, a group of younger scholars working under the general direction of Joshua Fogel on what China learned and took from Japan in art and art history in this same period, the later 19th and early 20th century, have further clarified this new and important area of research: my former student Julia (Judy) Andrews and her husband Shen Kuiyi, Aida Wong, Hong Zaixin, Tamaki Maeda, others--I have corresponded with them, encouraged their work, attended one of their meetings and gave a paper. (The paper I gave, delivered in 2005 and quite similar to the present essay, is on this website as CLP 85. Read it there if you want to, for more of the same--but without illustrations.)

Another of my enthusiasms in Japanese painting has been, from early on, the recent great master Tomioka Tessai, whom I never met--he died in 1924--but whom I “discovered” for myself during my Fulbright year in Kyoto, 1953-54, and whose works I helped to introduce to U.S. audiences  with the great exhibition sent by the “Tessai temple,” the Kiyoshi Kojin Saichoji located in the hills above Takarazuka, in 1958--that is another great story,  also told in some writings on this website. And, as related in CLP 85 on this website, after arranging--or helping the Temple to arrange--exhibitions of Tessai paintings in the U.S., Europe, and other places, I initiated in 1988 a major exhibition of Tessai paintings in China, shown in Shanghai and Beijing, and also arranged for the artist Li Keran (whom I had come to know through visits to his studio with my wife Tsao Hsingyuan) to write an essay for the Chinese-language catalog. (My only copies of that catalog were destroyed through water leakage in our Chinese courtyard house--if anyone reading this has a copy he or she can spare and is willing to send it to me, I would be extremely grateful.) Li Keran, my memory has it, wrote with enthusiastic praise of Tessai’s paintings, and wrote about how Chinese artists had long known them and admired them, even learned from them. With my 2005 paper (CLP 85) I showed slides, including some of paintings by Tessai, Li Keran, and Fu Baoshi, to support my argument about how the dark, inky landscape style so popular in 20th century Chinese painting was taken, in large part, from Tessai, and about what Fu Baoshi learned from two Japanese artists, Tessai and Kosugi Hoan. Now I am going to reproduce a few of these examples with this essay, to make them available to, among others, those studying Fu Baoshi.

I’ve told the story, in CLP 85 and elsewhere, about how several of us--Howard and Mary Ann Rogers, Hugh Wass, and myself--visited the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo and walked through an exhibition made up of their holdings of an artist unknown to us, but a good friend of the old Idemitsu: Kosugi Hoan. And we went through it murmuring to each other: Fu Baoshi! Fu Baoshi!--because Kosugi’s paintings were so close to Fu’s in many features of subject and style. I have never been able to get reproductions of Kosugi’s paintings to use for illustrating this point, but Judy Andrews and her husband have obtained a reproduction volume of them from the Idemitsu, and they mean to use it in writing about this clear and important derivation. All I have ever had is a postcard from the Idemitsu of one of Kosugi’spaintings (Fig. 1) which I would show to Chinese friends, and they would say, Oh, by Fu Baoshi1 and I would respond: No, by one of Fu Baoshi’s teachers.


Fig. 1

Same figure style, with elongated faces taken from antique Chinese painting, same very distinctive way of applying ink and colors to paper. Whether or not Fu studied directly with Kosugi during his time in Japan, I have never been able to determine, but he could have.

As for his derivations from Tessai: a detail from the lower part of one of his works (Fig. 2--I’ve lost my slide of the whole) can be put beside its unacknowledged source, a well-known painting by Tessai of the same subject. Su Dongpo Visiting the Monk Fo-yin (Fig. 3).


Fig. 2                                             Fig. 3

Tessai’s mode of composing a dramatic picture with heavy ink applications, leaving open spaces within which finely-drawn and richly-colored figures are set, can be seen in many of his paintings--one of them, which he painted in 1921, representing the Tang-period Immortal Sun dwelling in a cave, will serve (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4   


Fig. 5

Again, I have only a detail of one of Fu Baoshi’s many paintings adopting this mode (Fig. 5).

Old Bishop Kojo Sakamoto, for many years the spiritual head of the Kiyoshi Kojin temple and its sect of esoteric Buddhism, had taken on the collecting and propagating of Tessai’s works almost as a religious mission. He had known Tessai in the artist’s last years--those great late years when he had painted his greatest works. (A photograph of the aged Tessai in his study can be seen in Fig. 6), I first met the old Bishop Sakamoto when he was already in his eighties; I accompanied him around New York for three weeks as his companion and interpreter when he came there (alone--currency exchange restrictions of the time prevented him from bringing an assistant.) And I was present in Japan, and talked with him, when he was lying in bed with his final illness, and attended his funeral after he died at age 88. A 1959 photo of the two of us was taken on my first visit to the Temple after the exhibition and his return (Fig. 7).


Fig. 6


Fig. 7

Tessai had developed his heavy-ink landscape style around the age of 70--his Listening to the Rain At a Window By Bamboo (Fig. 8), which he painted in 1905, is a great example and a favorite of mine--and he used it in countless works for the rest of his life. He was in contact with artists and others in China--Wu Changshi carved a seal for him. He himself never went to China, but his son, a Sinologue who taught at Kyoto U., did go there. And Tessai’s paintings were widely disseminated and much reproduced. That his use of the heavy-ink manner had a lot to do with inspiring the same manner of landscape painting favored later by so many Chinese artists--one by Li Keran (Fig. 9) can serve as an example--seems to me virtually beyond question.


Fig. 8


Fig. 9

But to make this point to Chinese specialists in guohua, “traditional [modern] painting,” would most likely get one ostrasized from their company. And, after making that observation, I can do no better than to quote, in conclusion, the last paragraph of my 2005 paper:

“I’d like to suggest, finally, that the lively and productive back-and-forth that goes on between artists, which is revealed in their paintings, is perhaps most easily recognized and acknowledged by the artists themselves. Tessai had no problem in crediting his myriad Chinese sources, from which he plundered endlessly throughout his long career as a sinophile painter; Li Keran, at an uncharacteristic moment for China, acknowledged his and his fellow artists’ acquaintance with Tessai’s work, and at least implicitly, their debt to him. It’s rather the art historians and cultural historians, with their overt or covert political agendas, who will sometimes deny what’s before their eyes and continue to argue for some such myth as the cultural insularity of China. And my final plea is: let us all do our best not to.”

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