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Follow-up Blog

Blog for 11/16/12 (Follow-up to Blog for 11/12/12)

As the above heading indicates, this is a follow-up blog, meant to be attached, so to speak, to the previous one, especially to its Part Four, the concluding paragraphs about the opening symposium for the current Shanghai Museum exhibition, the latest issue of Orientations magazine, and (no surprise) the appearance of that spurious masterwork “Riverbank” in the exhibition and at the symposium. If you haven’t read those paragraphs, please go back and do so. (At the bottom of this blog, click on “next”--which, somewhat mysteriously, really means “previous”--not my fault.)

Now that you have done that, we will continue. You might think that I can’t keep coming up with new and important information about “Riverbank,” new proofs that it is a forgery by Zhang Daqian. But in fact the evidence continues to mount, crucial and damning evidence that (to repeat myself again) should convince any open-minded person of the truth about it.

- First: A further insert has been added to Addendum 2B of the “Pure and Remote View’ video-lecture series, the one titled “Riverbank: A Closer Look.” It reports, and shows, the recent discovery of a “try-out” earlier version of “Riverbank” that has turned up. It’s owned by the prominent collector Gary Ho, and was brought to my attention by Dick Barnhart. Mr. Ho and the painting were both in Vancouver while I was still there, and he generously brought it to my house so that I could see it and Rand Chatterjee could make lots of whole and detail photographs of it, photos we have used for the insert, along with an audio by me. It proves to be a smaller painting, ink on darkened silk, similar in composition to “Riverbank” but simpler, and painted in the style that Zhang Daqian used for his “Dong Yuan” and “Juran” forgeries. (I match it up with images of those in this lecture addendum.) And it exhibits the same manner of “aging” and artificial ripping, done by Zhang with the help of his “ager,” whom I believe to have been the Tokyo mounter Meguro Sanji, studio name Kôkakudô--the same processing, that is, as the rest of his forgeries on silk, with the tell-tale “brickwork” pattern all over it. The new insert appears about forty minutes into Addendum 2B--you can fast-forward to reach it, without re-watching the whole--and will last for about seven minutes. Watch this--for those of you who have been following this gripping drama, it will be another eye-opening revelation.

-Second: A new Zhang fake discovered, with  important implications.

A week or so ago a woman in San Diego wrote me asking for my opinion on a painting she had inherited, a hanging scroll that had been acquired in China by a colonel in the U.S. military during World War II. The work (Fig. 1) is obviously not an old painting, and after first sending her wrong information based on misreadings of inscriptions on it, I wrote that it is clearly a recent forgery, purporting to be a work by the Yuan-period master Sheng Mou.


She sent me more details from the painting, including one (Fig. 2) of the man in the house at the bottom, representing the great Northern Song (11th century) historian and litterateur Ouyang Xiu hearing the wind in the autumn trees and composing his famous “Dirge of Autumn” ode, which is the theme of the painting. And as, late at night sleepless at my computer (“As I nodded, nearly napping/ Suddenly there came” a realization, and) I gazed longer at the figure, at his house with its tiled roof and triangular gable beneath it, as well as other features of the paintings (notably a large pine tree above the house), all of which began to look more and  more familiar--I was suddenly struck with the truth about the painting: It’s obviously another Zhang Daqian fake! Possibly done while he was living in the interior of China during the war, where the American colonel acquired it. and where Zhang must have been producing forgeries to earn money along with his properly signed paintings and his Dunhuang copies--and still not able to enjoy the assistance of skilled helpers in Japan for aging the paintings and making them look more plausible as antique masterworks. On this one Zhang--probably with less capable Chinese helpers--has lavished an excessive array of “important” inscriptions and seals all over the painting, as well as on the strips of mounting at its sides and in the space above it (the “Dirge of Autumn” text copied out and signed by the Ming master Shen Zhou). All very patently spurious.

I sent some of these images, both of the new painting and of comparative materials, off to several people, including John Rohrer, whom I’ve cited in previous blogs (see especially the one for April 19 this year) as a supporter in recognizing “Riverbank” as a work by Zhang; Rohrer has expertly juxtaposed patterns of treetops, their trunk-and-branch structures and the foliage that surrounds these, from old signed paintings by Zhang with those in “Riverbank,” showing them to be so near-identical as to indicate beyond  doubt a common authorship. And Rohrer wrote back agreeing with me: yes, this one is clearly another by Zhang.

But the part of the painting to which I want to call your attention is not the trees or the mountains but the house, with its tiled roof, triangular gable, open porch, and the scholar (Ouyang Xiu) leaning on the railing and gazing out, turning his head sideways and cocking it slightly upward, listening to the wind (Fig. 2). Where had I seen all these before? To answer that (rhetorical) question I now put beside it (Fig. 3) a reversed detail from “Riverbank,” with the man in the waterside house in lower left, with his wife and children behind him, gazing out over the river. (Zhang’s assistant who was charged--I’m guessing--with painting in the roof-tiles here never finished them, leaving much of the roof unprotected, but he painted odd rows of them, absurdly, into the triangular gable.) The crucial correspondence is not in the architecture, however, but in the main figure, who turns his head sideways and cocks it upward in exactly the same way as does the Ouyang Xiu figure in the other painting--in a way, moreover, that no figure in a genuinely old Chinese paintings can be seen to do. And the faces of both clearly display a higher degree of self-consciousness than any figure in truly old Chinese painting could possibly display--these are modern men. The two images are, in fact, pretty much the same figure, with only hat and beard altered--the pose is exactly the same.  With no genuine Chinese prototype, who is this man, where does he come from?

The answer to that question is, I think, fascinating, and I’m happy to have an opportunity to re-state an earlier observation: I’ve been arguing for decades now that Zhang Daqian loved to paint himself into his paintings, to make the male figures in some of them into secret self-portraits. (He also painted many open and honest self-portraits.) It’s Zhang himself who occupies the crucial position and dominates the scene in both the “Sheng Mou” and “Riverbank,” as well as in some others of his forgeries (Figs. 2 and 3). The pose that he often gives to these figures--and it is a pose, head turned, sideward-looking, face tilted slightly upward--the pose is one that he regularly assumed himself, so that it was familiar to all of us who knew him well (Fig. 4).

It was part of his charisma, his manner of dominating whatever scene he found himself in. It allowed him to thrust his impressive beard forward into space, instead of allowing it just to hang down as beards more commonly do. His beard was an attribute nearly as important to him as his eyes and his smile (Fig. 5). (Just looking at these old photos brings him back so strongly to my memory that I almost want to address him in Japanese, the language we used in talking with each other.)

So, once again, I imagine him in the afterlife, looking back into the real world, striking exactly that pose and smiling that smile, observing the huge success that his beloved “Riverbank” forgery, with himself not-so-secretly occupying a key position in it, is still having in the world, even while some of us recognize it as unmistakably his work. He sees a whole opening session of an exhibition symposium at a great Chinese museum devoted to discussing it as a major pre-Song painting, even (in one leading Chinese art authority’s paper) placed chronologically within the oeuvre of the great and mysterious master Dong Yuan. He sees it written up by another major authority as a work with a “distinguished pedigree” when that authority knows full well that it has no pedigree or provenance at all; and as a work that deserves more attention (positive, of course) than it has received.  And he watches a longtime Shanghai Museum curator accusing that pesky dissident James Cahill of not paying attention to the “brush and ink” of the painting. (Oof! That one really takes the absurdity prize.)

You may well ask, finally: with all this incontrovertible evidence piling up, and the truth about “Riverbank” becoming more and more obvious, how can its True Believers deal with all this evidence, all these proofs? Answer: by not dealing with them at all, by looking the other way. By trying to prevent an article containing two paragraphs with the truth about “Riverbank” from being published in a major Shanghai newspaper with those paragraphs included. Most of all, by pretending that all this evidence and these proofs, as well as the irritating colleague who keeps finding and publicizing more and more of them--that all these don’t really exist. Not, at least, for us right-minded scholars.

Is this an intellectually defensible response? Of course not. Can they keep it up forever? Of course not. When will the popular media seize upon this great story, which can be illustrated with so many terrific mages of both paintings and people, and “break it”? I wait to see. If any of you has the right kind of contacts to make this happen, and wants to come out on the side of truth and give old Mr. Zhang proper credit for his masterwork . . . please do so. You will have the blessing of your old and unrepentant (in fact. rather exultant) blogger,

James Cahill (Nov. 16th, 2012)

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