Blog Archive

Two Short of Rice Years: Some Birthday Thoughts


Two Short of Rice Years: Some Birthday Thoughts

What follows are thoughts that I jotted down while lying flat on a bed in the old Inverness house that my daughter Sarah and son-in-law John rent every summer. I tripped and fell on the wooden deck outside the house and sprained my foot--nothing serious, fortunately, just uncomfortable--I still can’t walk without limping--and spent several days lying down, reading, looking at things on the new IPad that Sarah gave me for my birthday, and scribbling these notes for a blog.

Back in Berkeley and at my computer, I find lots of Happy Birthday messages to respond to.  Also, more of the appreciative notes that come from readers of this website and watchers/listeners of my video-lectures. I appreciate these deeply, and try always to respond to them. They come from all over, including Japan, Taiwan, and China, snd from all kinds of people. EXCEPT (and now we arrive at the main subject of this blog): EXCEPT (a wide-open hole): except the Chinese art-history scholarly community, especially all those leading figures in it, but also their students. From them, near-total silence. I produce and post video-lectures intended (among other things) to supplement academic courses by providing visual resources far beyond what most scholars and programs have access to. Are they used that way? If so, nobody has told me about it. (I make an exception here of a few of my own former students, from whom I get gratifying messages, but who definitely make up a minority in our field.)

So, why have I become the object of this kind of virtual ostracizing, in my old age? Simply because I’ve lived for so long? That’s part of it. But mostly it’s for the same reason, I think, that I suffered it (although less) during my earlier years as a productive scholar and teacher: (Dick Barnhart once more or less admitted this in correspondence with me.) It’s been because of my persistent and annoying habit of presenting my colleagues with arguments, backed up with strong evidence of the kind that would seem to virtually push them  into agreement, for events and developments in Chinese painting history that they haven’t wanted to accept. How does someone who is put into that position escape from it? He doesn’t; he just looks the other way and pretends that the challenger isn’t there. Let me offer a few examples of papers and lectures of mine that have had this effect, giving references, where relevant, to where these papers appear on this website.

- CLP 64, “Life Patterns and Stylistic Directions: T’ang Yin and Wen Cheng-ming as Types,” a paper given at a Wen Zhengming symposium in Ann Arbor in 1976. Against the then-prevalent belief that Chinese artists of whatever time and situation were free to paint whatever they pleased, as individuals, I argued that certain types, as defined by their positions in society (and identifiable by the ways their biographies were written), seemed more or less constrained--by audience expectations, presumably--to paint within certain boundaries of style and subject. Tang Yin and Wen Zhengming could not have changed places and painted each other’s pictures. (Nor, as I point out in Ch. 1 of my recent Pictures For Use and Pleasure book, could Gu Jianlong and Wang Shimin.) I challenged my audience to find exceptions to the clear correlation I pointed out; none of them could, nor has anyone since then.

- The two landscapes in the Kôtôin in Kyoto, one with a scratched-out “signature” of Li Tang (discovered by Shimada, who published this finding with great excitement.) I argued from the beginning that they were stylistically wrong for Li Tang or his period, and had to be late Song works, post-Xia Gui. But I was almost alone: a whole large book could be compiled of all the attempts (Dick Edwards, Dick Barnhart, Japanese scholars, etc.) to justify the Li Tang authorship  by stretching out Li Tang’s period of activity, or assuming that he had (like Liang Kai) a “fine” and a “free” style--and so forth. Dick Barnhart finally retracted his long-held opinion and admitted that they had to be later, in a little-noticed footnote to an article he wrote. Some major scholars are still publishing the paintings as works by Li Tang.

- Recognizing how much late Ming and early Qing Chinese artists adopted (or appropriated, or whatever) from European pictures they saw, and how important these “borrowings” were for painting of their time and later. The first two chapters of my Compelling Image book presented the visual evidence for this argument; those who believe only in textual evidence (of which, in this case, there can’t be any) still remain skeptical. (Dick Barnhart, honest person that he is, wrote an article, for which I can’t  quickly cite a bibliographical reference, about Dong Qichang’s borrowings, crediting me with pointing this out earlier.) Chinese scholars tend to want their culture to have been insular--except, of course, for the coming of Buddhism from India. What they “borrowed” from Japan in the 19th and early 20th century makes up another unpleasant truth with which they are now confronted, recent studies having opened up this area of research in a big way.

- “Pictorial integrity” as a basis for distinguishing originals from copies. This argument is presented and illustrated in Addendum 2A to the PRV series. There I cite Sherman Lee’s use of it in a court case, and elaborate on how I myself have used it in for a number of controversial judgments. The basic idea is: The original artist will represent the thing, whatever it may be, in the “right” way, while a copyist is likely to get it wrong in some way. Go to my lecture for examples. This argument is not, to put it mildly, widely accepted in our field,  since it brands as copies quite a few paintings that some of  my colleagues want to accept as originals.

-  How our acceptance of literati painting dogma as a “central truth” about our subject has impoverished our studies. This argument is laid out as powerfully as I can make it in the opening pages of my recent Pictures for Use and Pleasure book, where wenrenhua theory is seen, not as a doctrine we should accept and propagate without question, but as “the self-serving rhetoric of a male elite minority” which has blocked our recognition of those huge areas of Chinese painting that lay outside their zone of approval,--paintings acquired and used and enjoyed by people on lower economic levels and non-literati, including women. This argument can scarcely be popular among those who have, as I point out, built whole teaching programs around imparting this “central truth.” My attempt at re-direction on this issue was already implicit in my Lyric Journey book of 1996, in which the practice of “poetic painting” was taken away from the literati,  who had always claimed it, and awarded to some of the Southern Song Academy masters who better deserve it.

- And, of course, my piling up of proofs that the would-be “early” painting called “Riverbank” is really a forgery by Zhang Daqian. Perhaps this has become my most heinous crime, for those True Believers who ignore the ever-growing, even overwhelming evidence. But readers of these blogs need no further introduction to that large and fascinating issue. We can only wait and hope that the World At Large wakes up some time and takes notice of these proofs: the resulting explosion should be at least as sensational as the van Meegeren-Vermeer affair of some decades back. How long will we have to wait?

- And behind all these, or most of them, lies the basic Visual/Verbal controversy: Anyone making good use of a visual approach (informedly, judiciously) should usually be able to come to right conclusions about the materials in front of them, and arrive at well-founded decisions on these issues. But few of us really do that. As early as my essay for the 1976 Levenson memorial volume  ("Style as Idea in Ming-Ch'ing Painting”) I was pointing out the inadequacies of, for instance, studies of the practice of fang or creative imitation by Dong Qichang and others that depended only on texts, Any effective demonstration of how fang really worked, why it is not at all incompatible with originality, needs to be illustrated with actual examples that the reader can see. (And if anyone besides myself has done that in all the years since then, I would be interested to learn about it.)

- Articles of mine that I think should have had some impact on our field, and were hailed as ground-breaking by their audiences when they were first presented as symposium papers but seem to have attracted little notice since then, include:

"Continuations of Ch'an Painting into Ming-Ch'ing and the Prevalence of Type-images." In: Archives of Asian Art L/1997-98, 17-41.  And:

“Some Thoughts on the History and Post-History of Chinese Painting.” In: Archives of Asian Art LV, 2005, 17-33.

This is partly my own fault: I should have made them accessible in illustrated texts on this website, and failed to do that. I’ll try to rectify that omission.

- As for my video-lectures: they have deliberately adopted an old-fashioned, virtually obsolete “narrative” mode of art history, as it  was defined by Gombrich and Kubler and others, and throughout have continued to use the above arguments--and others, such as my belief (which underlies Lecture 5) that some artists of the Five Dynasties created intricate spatial schemes that went beyond anything earlier and were not really followed up later, or (Lectures 12b-d) that there really is (as some have denied) an identifiable and important body of Chinese Chan/Zen Buddhist painting. An old movie (“The Loved One,” very funny, about Forest Lawn Cemetery in L.A.) was advertised as offering “something to offend everybody”; my lectures could be advertised the same way.

Why is all this so important to me, so that I risk alienating so many of my colleagues by taking these unpopular positions and arguing fervently for them? Partly (as others have recognized) because of my Irish pugnaciousness; but also, and more importantly, because I believe they are true, and believe that it’s better for our field to proceed on a basis of truths than on one of old myths and biases. I’ve sometimes quoted an inscription by Dong Qichang on one of his paintings--I believe it’s a leaf in the album in the Princeton Art Museum--in which he likens himself to the Buddha who wanted to lead all beings onto the True Path before entering nirvana. Dong was lamenting his failure to have done that for painting. I feel the same way, and continue to work toward rectifying this part-failure.

Perhaps art history is more open now than it has been in some past decades. Big Theory (which I write with a capital Thuh) seems to have subsided, and also the neo-Marxist approach advocated prominently by my colleague T. J. Clark, which had so many of our best students pronouncing that no issues interested them except those of  “race, class, and gender.” I admired Tim and liked him, while learning and accepting more from another departmental colleague, Michael Baxandall, taking as a model his judicious use of all kinds of evidence for the arguments he makes, with the visual strong among them. Recent reviews of exhibitions of European art, such as one on some great Dürer figure paintings, suggest an expanding tolerance of openly and unqualifiedly representational painting, after a long period in which we were assured that admiring these betrayed a low critical taste. Perhaps my video-lectures on the great Southern Song Academy masters will help to push our field further in that direction, and open it up again to a fair appreciation of truly great pictorial representation.

And that brings me, at last, to my conclusion. The Japanese (but not, to my knowledge, the Chinese) refer to one’s eighty-eighth birthday as the “rice longevity” year, beijû in Japanese. This is because the three characters for 88 (hachi-jû-hachi) can be compressed (with the first turned upside down) into something resembling the character for “rice.” Tomioka Tessai, when he reached this age, painted a great album that is treasured as his “Beijû Album.” I believe I can, with two more years of good enough health, finish and post enough more of my video-lectures to offer strong models and incentives for the visual approach, and otherwise try to open our field to more of the unpopular but true positions described above. If you agree with me that this would be a highly desirable outcome, wish me a two-year extension, a beijû or “rice longevity.” At least two years, that is--anything beyond that will be a real gift of the gods.

James Cahill, August 15th, 2012


Miscellany Blog


Miscellany Blog

In a few hours I will be picked up by my daughter Sarah and go with her across to Bay to Marin County, and to Inverness, that idyllic place with easy access to great beaches and scenery, a vacation place for Berkeleyans and others who need to escape from cities, even one that has as many good, anti-big-city qualities as Berkeley has. I’ll stay there until the fourteenth, the day after my 86th birthday, and then will be back in Berkeley. There will probably be no more blogs during that time, because I will be doing recreational reading, enjoying the pleasures of Inverness, Point Reyes, and the Point Reyes Peninsula (perhaps my favorite place on earth), taking it easy. This blog, then, will be only a miscellany to fill this space until I get back and can post another. So, here we go:

1. News item: Critics rate ten greatest movies of all time, putting “Vertigo” first, followed by “Citizen Kane,” Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” and Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game.” Then “Sunrise,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” John Wayne in “The Searchers,” one I don’t know, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 “Man With a Movie Camera,” and finally Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” and Fellini’s “8-1/2.”

This is the ranking of the British Film Institute’s critics, who have published such a list every ten years since 1952. From 1962 until this year, the top movie has always been “Citizen Kane.” I don’t argue against that; but putting “Vertigo” first is preposterous. It’s a good thriller (I watched it again recently when I happened on it on late-night movies) but nothing more than that, full of Hitchcockian tricks and unconvincing plot-turns. Putting it above “Rules of the Game” is like putting some Eric Ambler or Alan Furst novel above Proust or Zola. And they have left out a number of my favorites, which I won’t list here (see my “Movie Notes” under “Writings of JC”), any one of which would certainly top a John Wayne western. What, for instance, to name only one popular favorite, became of “Casablanca”? The real question: what has happened to the critics?

It may well be that world events have simply been too crushing for critics, or anyone else, to sustain a balanced perspective on anything at all. But then, having written that (and left my computer for a while), my upset subsiding, I return and continue:

2. The Olympics. On this big current topic I have nothing at all to write, only that I am enjoying reading about them and watching them on TV as much as everybody else. I was never myself seriously engaged in athletics--I was a big disappointment in this way for my father, who was a physical director and wanted me to be a great swimmer or some other kind of athlete. The only Olympics reference I can think of to send you to is: look back at my Responses and Reminiscences nos. 36 and 37, the ones on Avery Brundage, for remembrances of a man who was the Chairman of the Olympics Committee for a time, and had exactly the poisonous racist attitudes that have largely, I hope, been overcome--at least reading about the present Olympics in London encourages me to think so. Maybe there is something in this world that gets to be better instead of worse.

3.  Good news comes by email: From my young collaborators in China, Huang and his wife Liu Shanshan, I learn that the book we have co-authored, on representations of gardens in old Chinese paintings, is about to be published there. I can’t write Chinese on my computer, and can only say that the title, translated, would be something like: “Imperishable Groves and Streams: Garden Paintings of Old China.” It will be a picture-book, offering good colorplates of many Chinese paintings of gardens, beginning with the great “Zhi Garden” album by the late Ming artist Zhang Hong. But there will also be a substantial text--old writings of mine in translation, but more importantly, new writings by Xiao and Liu, based on their research and discoveries. I hope that the publisher, Sanlian Press in Beijing, will do an English-language version--my contact at Sanlian, Yang Le, has told me she will urge her superiors to consider that. Meanwhile, tell your Chinese friends (or yourself, if you read Chinese), to watch for this book. It will be a “first,” in that no book on this subject has (to my knowledge) been published before.

That’s it for today, off to pack for Inverness,

James Cahill

Escapist Blog


Escapist Blog

The news in the NYTimes and elsewhere is so near-uniformly bad that I have no urge to respond to it in a blog. And the Bad Guys in my book who carry much of the responsibility for the disasters--the NRA and the Gun  Lobby, the deniers of global warming, much of the Chinese government, most of Wall St. and the .01%ers (I could add, for longer-term damage, the unadmittedly racist Obama-haters and Be Tough On Immigrants advocates)--they all seem so close to being impregnable that solutions to the problems they cause appear to be far off. So I take the easy out, for now, and write an escapist blog about something entirely different: the art-forger.

No, it’s not my old friend Zhang Daqian again, although I could go on writing about him more or less forever. This time it’s a painter named Ken Perenyi, subject of an article on the front page of the Arts section of the NYTimes for July 19th. The article begins: “Madeira Beach, Fla. -- For nearly three decades Ken Perenyi made a small fortune forging works by popular 18th- and 19th-century artists like Martin Johnson Heade, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Bird King.” My first reaction to this (apart from the old professor’s “substitute ‘such as’ for that ‘like’ and put a comma after ‘Stuart,’” and “Who are Heade and King? Popular? Never heard of them”) was: If they know he’s a forger, why isn’t he in jail? It turns out that the F.B.I. has been “onto him” since 1998, but for some reason hasn’t charged him with crimes, and he’s now developed “a new business model,” selling his paintings openly as “reproductions” of these masters. And so forth--interesting, as are all revelations about authenticity and forgery in art. But I don’t mean today to pursue those issues into the really great cases of van Meegeren and Zhang Daqian, or why the would-be early Chinese landscape painting known as “Riverbank” has to be by Zhang--I’ve offered enough proof of that already to satisfy any open-minded person, and if the closed-minded aren’t responding to my presentations of new damning evidence, that’s their problem. (I still hope I live to see a real “break” in this story, comparable to the one that made the van Meegeren affair an international sensation--it should be, if anything, bigger, since Zhang was a much more interesting, versatile, prolific, and talented artistic personality than that Dutchman. But to go on:)

Instead, I want to raise again, and respond to, the question that revelations of this kind always arouse among artistically unsophisticated readers. It is: If you can’t tell the difference, why does it matter? Why pay tens or hundreds of thousands for a real Gilbert Stuart (or Winslow Homer or whoever) when you can have another indistinguishable from it for a small fraction of that price? Why should we pay so much for “authenticity”? Or, as the headline of the article on Perenyi reads, “Forgeries? Call ‘Em Faux Masterpieces.” Why not? And the answer or refutation to that, if not immediately obvious, is (I believe) in the long run compelling: Because after a while it won’t be the same painting, and you won’t like it any more. Spending time with the painting, seeing real works by the purported artist of yours, will more or less inevitably open your eyes to what’s wrong with yours as a work by that master, and those points of “wrongness” will stand out, take prominence over the once-positive impression of the whole, whenever you look at it. Also, part of the pleasure of owning a painting by a good artist is showing it to others and listening to their admiring comments about it.  If, instead, you hear embarrassed equivocations or outright expressions of disbelief in its authenticity, these can’t help coloring your own perception of the painting.  Some expert will look at it and pronounce it a forgery, and his or her words will come back whenever you look at it. You may say now that it will still be the same painting, and in a simple material sense it will be; but as it exists in your mind--which is where it really exists for you--it won’t be the same painting at all. I write this from experience, my own and those of others as I have watched and listened to them.

Another way out is to say: it’s just a matter of opinion; I have mine, you have yours, and that’s the end of the matter. But that’s like denying the possibility and value of judgments of quality. Somewhere I’ve written about a course in aesthetics I audited long ago given by the philosopher Abraham Kaplan, who spent some class sessions setting up criteria for defining “good” experiences in art: complete, disinterested, prepared-for, etc., vs. incomplete and otherwise “bad” experiences of it, and how these lead to better- or worse-founded judgments of it. And in the end he gave us this formulation: if enough of the best-qualified people, experiencing the work under the best conditions, judge it to be a masterpiece (or a failure), then we can only say: it is a masterpiece (or a failure). Asking for anything more is asking for a judgment from Heaven, and that we aren’t going to get. So, when enough of the best-qualified people declare that the “Supper At Emmaus” was painted by van Meegeren and not by Vermeer, then it was. I know all the objections to that argument--the commission charged with determining authenticity in would-be Rembrandts that couldn’t reach agreement on some of them, and so forth. But those cases are uncommon, and don’t last forever--usually  the really qualified people will reach near-agreement in the end, and objective criteria for analysis will support their judgments.

So, how in the end can we determine authenticity, firmly and finally, when expressed opinions by established authorities continue to differ? Some will answer: Never, so long as well-qualified people disagree over it. And we should remember that they may well have motivations other than real, disinterested conviction that push them to misstate their true beliefs. The disbelievers in “Riverbank” as a Zhang Daqian forgery want its age and authenticity to remain an open question, and they continue to insist--as an old and valued friend has done--that they still can believe somehow in its antiquity, against all the evidence.  And he has advised me not to write of this as an intellectually dishonest position or a cop-out, as in fact I believe it to be.  (For one, only one, of the visual proofs linking “Riverbank” to Zhang Daqian’s hand, contributed by one of my readers and pronounced by another to be “the final nail in the coffin” of “Riverbank,” look back to my blog for April 19th this year on this website. He juxtaposes a passage of tree foliage in an old, published painting by Zhang with a similar passage from “Riverbank,” revealing a correspondence or near-identity that is indeed damning. )

Why does it matter so much to me? My only response to that question is: Zhang was much better than Ken Perenyi, he was a major artist who did far more than paint forgeries, and he never found himself pushed by the F.B.I. or any international agency of art authentication into acknowledging his copious production of fakes. We have to do that for him, and for future art historians so that they won’t be deluded into allowing his works to distort their histories of early Chinese painting. And in the end, the non-antiquity of “Riverbank” will be established by a drastic reduction, if never total elimination, of doubters. That’s because we cannot, alas, get a judgment from Heaven on the matter--or an admission of guilt like Perenyi’s from my old friend Zhang as he enjoys his afterlife up there. (So, in the end, this blog turned out to be really another one about the inescapable Mr. Zhang.)

James Cahill, July 25th 2012

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...