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Mr. Sakaki, Galileo, and Me: A Blog of Threes

Mr. Sakaki, Galileo, and Me: A Blog of Threes 

That’s a strange trio in my title: How can I possibly follow it up, bring those three long- and far-separated people together? Answer: Read on and find out. 

My Lecture On Hyakusen. On Sunday the 3rd of March, at 3 PM (you can remember it by: 3rd of 3rd month at 3--three threes), I will lecture at the Berkeley Art Museum on the early Nanga artist Sakaki Hyakusen (1697-1752), about whom I wrote, years ago, a book-length study that was the first monograph on him. The lecture, titled “Mr. Sakaki and Me: Two Frustrated Sinophiles,” is occasioned by our acquisition of a pair of landscape screens by Hyakusen--they are on view in Gallery C, along with a few other paintings by him and his followers Taiga and Buson (three artists). Come if you are in the East Bay area and have the time free. The English version of my writing on Hyakusen is out of print, but the “Conclusion” from it, summing up my findings, will be printed soon on this website (under “Illustrated Writings”) for the benefit mainly of those who hear my lecture and want to read this “Conclusion” in full--I will only summarize it there. 

Galileo and Me. Does that sound like a pretty unlikely pairing, even more unlikely than the one with Mr. Sakaki? Indeed it is, and yet... In the article by Adam Gopnik titled “The Moon Man: What Galileo Saw,” in The New Yorker for Feb. 11 and 18, I read a passage in a philosophical allegory that Galileo wrote about the differences in thinking between himself and the orthodox Catholic churchmen of his time that sounded a responsive and congenial chord in my head. “’What can you trust?’ asks the character Salviati (representing Galileo himself), ‘only some fluid sense impression and strong argument. Therefore, Simplicius, come . . . with arguments and demonstrations . . . and bring us no more Texts and authorities, for our disputes are about the Sensible World, and not one of Paper.’ 

Translate that into my world of Chinese paintings and the visual/verbal controversy over how to look at those paintings and write about them, and we have: What can we trust? Only the sense impressions we receive from looking at the paintings, and the intellectual formulations and convictions raised by looking at them. Bring us no more [old Chinese] Texts and authorities, for our disputes should be about the Sensible World [of the paintings themselves], and not one of Paper--the paper on which those old texts are printed and preserved. 

Galileo narrowly escaped torture and death by recanting what in fact he knew to be true: that the earth moves around the sun. The Chinese texts on painting tell us that it was the scholar-amateur artists who did the finest paintings, the ones we should pay attention to, because of those men’s superior cultural refinements, and that we should judge the paintings by their individualistic and expressive brushwork, not by any technical or representational excellence. Will Cahill, who doesn’t believe those items of Orthodox dogma to be entirely true, ever recant? Don’t hold your breath. Will he be burned at the stake? Only metaphorically, thank the [figurative] lord. 

P.S. My daughter Sarah, whose knowledge and abilities and energy seem inexhaustible, read the above when I emailed it to her earlier tonight, enjoyed it, and emailed me this: 

“Hi Dad- Your Galileo and Me is marvelous, and the parallels certainly ring true.      

Another one might be that you both turned down University Professorships at Harvard, except that I just googled that fact to try to get more information, and instead got the Snopes website, a collection of false rumors and urban myths: 

“So maybe that one isn't true after all, but it's not completely known, apparently.” 

True or not, it’s an appropriate addition to my blog, so I append it here, with credits to Sarah, as another parallel: Galileo preferred to stay at the U. of Pisa (where he had the Leaning Tower to use in his experiments), I preferred to stay at U.C. Berkeley, in the shadow of the Campanile. Objection: “But the Campanile doesn’t lean!” Response: “Well, maybe only slightly.” Or, better: “Nu, so it doesn’t lean!” (The latter is an esoteric allusion to the ending of my favorite Jewish joke “Nu, so it doesn’t whistle!”--see under Reminiscences no. 85, “My Stock of Old Jokes,” in which this is the first item.) 

From March 6th until the 26th I will have three (there it is again!) house-guests, Professor Zhang Jian who is Librarian of the Art History Dept. at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and his two assistants. They will be listing (for Chinese Customs) and arranging to ship most of my library, several (three?) thousand books, which I’m presenting to them. This Cahill Library will join the Ernst Gombrich Library already there, which that great art historian directed should go to them on his death. (About Gombrich, my knowing him, and his association with the China Academy, see Reminiscence no. 76.) I will write more about this large project in future blogs. 

One of the distinguished company of extraordinary students whom I had the honor of teaching during my long years at U.C. Berkeley (mostly women--as I’ve noted before, the men tended to go where the money is, and that wasn’t U.C. Berkeley) was Jane Debevoise.


Fig 1.

I could--and should--write a long account of her during her years in Berkeley and afterwards-about how she went first to Princeton with a full four-year fellowship, and there was given some of my writings to read, and decided she’d rather get it “from the horse’s mouth,” giving up the fellowship and coming to Berkeley to join my mostly-unfunded group. Or about how, later, when the big Chinese art show at the Guggenheim was foundering because of Sherman Lee’s stroke, they had the good sense to call in Jane, who was then living in New York (Brooklyn), and she took charge, enlisting help mainly from former Cahill students and organizing the whole operation with such impressive success that they appointed her a Vice-Director of the Guggenheim, a position she could have continued in. But Jane had other, loftier goals that didn’t involve sloping spiral ramps where you have to stand leaning (like the Tower of Pisa) to look at the art. She later took her doctorate at the University of Hong Kong, and is now about to publish a book titled “Between State and Market: Chinese Contemporary Art in the Post-Mao Era.” I read an earlier version of this, at her request, and made suggestions for supplementing it, some of which she presumably adopted. I’ll write more about the book after I’ve read some of it. Meanwhile, here is a photograph of Jane lecturing (Fig. 1) and another that she sent me of herself beside Mae Anna Pang, taken in Canberra (Fig. 2). (I could add a lovely photo I received recently on a Chinese New Year’s card, showing Jane’s four children standing together: right after she and her husband had adopted a Chinese girl baby, Jane found herself pregnant with--you guessed it--triplets!)


Fig. 2

Mae Anna Pang (the third of the three women who are featured in this blog) was one of that remarkable seminar group of eight women who produced the “Restless Landscape” exhibition of late Ming painting and its catalog. She was also my first Ph.D., finishing her dissertation after she had moved to Melbourne with her husband, who went there to take a job. I have told, elsewhere, the story of how Mae Anna managed, all at once while in the hospital, to carry out a large-scale and excellent purchase of Chinese paintings for her museum from C.C.Wang, to finish her dissertation, and to have the boy baby that her husband’s family was demanding. A triple achievement: there we are again! 

How blessed I have been in my students! On that upbeat and entirely true thought I end this blog, finished in the early morning of this 23nd day of February, 2013 (don’t miss those threes!). as written by JAMES CAHILL







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