Blog Archive

Another Incident in Tiananmen Square

Another Incident in Tiananmen Square
An incident shown on several news programs, and reported in the New York Times, happened in the space before the entrance to the Forbidden City at one end of Tiananmen Square, the entrance above which the huge portrait of Chairman Mao appears.  A flaming car rammed into a group of walkers there, and the police quickly cleared the area and tried to confiscate any photos that had been taken of it--the article explained that this area of Tiananmen is still very sensitive politically.
This reminded me of a much more important event that happened in the same place back in June of 1989. It was the erection, and eventual destruction, of the Goddess of Liberty and Democracy, a monumental (40 foot high) sculpture that stood for four days and nights in this place, confronting Chairmen Mao, before it was pushed over by tanks and destroyed when the square was evacuated on that terrible night.  The story of how it was made and erected, which for me is the greatest interaction of art and political event in our time, has been told in detail only in a single account, the “Beijing Chronicle” by my former wife Hsingyuan Tsao, which was published in several places after she returned and dictated it to me. Her account makes the main text of the video lecture, which is illustrated mostly with photos that she herself took of the making and erection of the sculpture.  This is a moving, historically important account which is absolutely unique-- it could not be told and illustrated by anyone else as it is done here.  It will be appearing before long as one of the GIPs (Gazing Into The Past) and posted on my website, later to be posted by our sponsoring organization the Institute of East Asian Studies.  I urge you all to watch for it and take the time to watch it while it is available.  You’ll find it, as I say, an unusually moving and absolutely unique document.
A number of other GIPs will also be posted before long--watch for them.
Halloween Blog Brought Back
Several years ago, at Halloween time, I published in a blog an account of how I had made a Jack Pumpkinhead figure, like the one that appeared in “The Land of Oz,” when we lived in Washington D.C., for my children Nicholas and Sarah.  With it was a photo of Sarah as a child standing beside the pumpkinhead--this was on the front page of the Washington Post, because the figure had become so famous, with people driving by just to see it.  As I related there, I made it one year just to sit there; the year after, I fixed it so it could wave its hand when the children pulled a string inside; the year after that, I installed a speaker in it and hooked it to a microphone inside the house so that Nick and Sarah could make it talk to passers-by.  The fourth year, I had to trump all those achievements, and I let it be know to the children that I was going to make it come to life-- as the witch Mowgli had done in the Oz book, when she found it sitting on the roadside as she returned home.  She sprinkled the powder of life on it, and it indeed became a living thing.  In the rest of the book, it goes off with the boy Tip, who made it in the first place, and they have various adventures.
Here is the original account and the picture:
(Reprint 10/30/11 “Making Jack Pumpkinhead for Sarah and Nick)

My daughter Sarah has posted on Facebook, on this night before Halloween, an old photo of herself at age four that was on the front page of the Washington Post; she is standing beside a Jack Pumpkinhead figure that I made for her and her older brother Nicholas, and the caption reads:

I will post that old photo with this blog. The Facebook posting has been commented on by quite a few people--my grandchildren Maggie and Abigail, my son Benedict, old friends such as Joseph Koerner. Nick and Sarah mention in their comments, as I do in mine, that I brought the figure to life, and it got up and walked away. This obviously requires some explanation, more than I can provide on Facebook. So I’m telling the story in this blog; I’ll tell it again, with more pictures (from the book), in one of my video-lectures.

The book The Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum was one of the many I read with the two of them, and they were familiar with the story that opens it: how the boy Tip makes the pumpkinhead out of old bits of wood and old clothes, and stands it up in the road so that his guardian the witch Mombi will see it and (he hopes) be frightened by it. But she recognizes what he has done, and takes out her vial of Powder of Life and sprinkles some on him, bringing him to life. Later he (under the name Jack Pumpkinhead) and Tip go off on the adventures that make up the rest of the book.

So, one Halloween--it must have been around 1960, when I was a curator at the Freer and we lived in Cleveland Park--I put together a Jack Pumpkinhead out of old pieces of wood from the basement, dressed it in old clothes of my own, stuffed it and set it up beside our front steps. It attracted some attention from passers-by, and Nick and Sarah loved that. So next year, I rigged it with a string attached to its right arm strung through a loop above and leading indoors, so they could pull it and make Jack wave to people. This was better, and presented a challenge for next Halloween. This time I rigged a small microphone inside the pumpkin and ran the wires inside, where the two of them could make it talk to people outside. This is what the caption to the Post photo talks about. (It also claims that it was rigged so that it could turn its head from side to side--maybe so, I don’t remember that--it would be easy to do.)

So that left me, on the fourth Halloween, 1964 it must have been, with a challenge: how to top all those? So I hinted to the children, who spread the word to their friends, that this year I was going to bring it to life. Dorothy and a few other mothers (as I remember) made a post-Halloween dinner for a dozen or so children, friends and classmates of Nick and Sarah. After dinner the women herded the children out onto our porch, to the end away from the steps, and stayed there to keep them from moving out toward the Pumpkinhead. I had replaced the porch light with a blue bulb, to make a more eery atmosphere. I pulled on the string, and Jack Pumpkinhead waved his hand, as before. And I produced a plastic vial of the Powder of Life, chanted the magic incantation (made up, as I remember--none in the Oz book)--and, slowly, Jack Pumpkinhead stood up, walked down the steps and down our walk toward the street. The children by now were screaming, trying to get past the mothers, who held them back. Jack crossed the street (narrowly missing being hit by a car), climbed over a fence on the other side into an unused field owned by the Washington Cathedral, and disappeared. Going there next morning, the children found the pumpkin head, nothing else. I told them that Jack had gone back to Oz, leaving behind his somewhat spoiled head.

How was it done? It didn’t really take the children long to guess, although they pretended not to; and two of the little girls at the party, when they got home, made their father let them smell his hair, which indeed smelled like pumpkin, confirming their suspicions. This father, who was tall and lanky,  had come over, by arrangement, while the party was going on, and had disassembled the pumpkinhead figure, putting on its clothes, cutting a larger hole in the bottom of the pumpkin and fitting it over his head; and he was sitting there in the same posture when the children came out. He dutifully waved his hand when I pulled the strong, and so forth. We almost, as I say, had a bad ending when he came close to being hit by a car as he crossed the street.

Days afterwards, Nick’s teacher at school was getting the children to tell their Halloween stories, and Nick told his, and she said “That’s a great story, Nick--now tell us what really happened.” And Nick went on insisting that his story was what really happened--and he had a classmate who had been there and corroborated it. She later told me, “I wish you wouldn’t do something like this without telling me, Mr. Cahill--I’m trying to get the children to distinguish reality from fantasy, and doing this kind of thing doesn’t help.”

So there, the secret is out. Those of you who can go on Facebook can find Sarah’s posting and all the comments it has elicited. And a happy, scary Halloween to all of you.

October 16, 2013

Wu Bin
Two book-length publications that I have acquired recently are devoted to an artist whom I used to say that I “invented,” meaning that I had published his work for the first time and called attention to his importance in art history. They are both devoted to the late Ming master Wu Bin, who was the subject of my first publication--as you will see in my Bibliography, which can be pulled down at top left.  I gave a paper on him in the first great gathering of Chinese painting specialists, a symposium held at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan in 1970.  I made use of a paper given by Michael Sullivan (the late Michael Sullivan, alas--see below) that identified illustrated European publications that were in China at that time--I used his work to show how Wu Bin derived parts of his style from these.  And when the paper was presented at the symposium, I arranged for the Palace Museum to give him his first “one man show,” made up mostly of Wu Bin paintings in their collection but including also several that I brought or had taken there-- they included the great landscape in the general manner of Fan Kuan that I had found recently and it was being remounted in Japan--that was brought to the symposium by my friend Cheng Chi. I myself brought an early landscape by him that I had acquired, and I had arranged for them to include in the exhibition a painting that was then called Anonymous Song, which I knew from its style to be a work of Wu Bin.
I wrote about him also in my “Compelling Image” book--he was the main subject of the third lecture/ chapter--and also in my in book on late Ming painting “ The Distant Mountains,” published in the same year, 1982.  These introduced more works by Wu Bin, and elaborated on my thoughts about him.
My early article is mentioned in both the new publications, but only briefly.  One publication is the book “Dimensions of Originality” by Katharine Burnett who teaches Chinese art history at the UC Davis campus near Sacramento. She got this job back at a time when my then-wife Hsingyuan Tsao had just received her doctorate, and she applied for it too--if she had gotten the job, we could have stayed in Berkeley and she would have commuted to teach there.  But they had already had Katharine Burnett teaching there, and she was the one who was hired and has been there ever since.  I have never met her, but have read her writings from time to time.  Her “Big Idea” is about the importance of the concept of ch’I (qi) meaning something like “strange” or “remarkable”, in late Ming art and culture.   She wrote about this in her doctoral dissertation, which was for the University of Michigan--she worked under Dick Edwards-- and has expanded her ideas about it in the present book.
The exhibition in the National Palace Museum I knew about from their posting in the internet, and I wrote to them to ask whether they had given due acknowledgement to my early article, since it was not mentioned in the accompanying announcement which had a long text.  They responded saying that my article would indeed be mentioned in the large publication that they were issuing in connection with the exhibition.  They have included all the works by Wu Bin in their collection, along with others borrowed from other collections.  Curiously, the painting that I recognized as having belonged to myself, the great landscape in the manner of Fan Kuan, reproduced as a plate in my “Distant Mountains” book, appears in this catalog as the property of the National Palace Museum.  I have to assume that whoever acquired it from my first wife Dorothy, who received it in her part of the settlement in our divorce, must have sold it to someone who sold it or gave it to the Palace Museum.  Nothing in the text mentions that it was once mine, so I can only assume from the reproduction that it is the same painting.  During the period when I owned it, I used to hang it sometimes in the Berkeley Art Museum next to a full-size reproduction of the great Fan Kuan landscape, and ask students to write comparative essays after viewing the two together.  It was one of my treasures, and I was sorry to lose it.  But then, I had so many treasures that are now only memories.  
Art and Mortality:  How the First Enhances One’s Life Until the Other Ends It
The Thursday, October 10th editorial page in the New York Times features, under the Letters from Readers section in upper right, responses to an article published the previous Sunday about how literary fiction can teach empathy (feeling others’ emotions sympathetically) to readers. It is headed, “Does Reading Fiction Teach Empathy?” And the readers’ responses all say: yes, it definitely does, and they give examples and affirmation from their own experiences as teachers and otherwise.  And they cite works of literature assigned to students that do indeed call up emotional responses--one of them cites several pieces of writing as good examples of literary works that have this capacity. 
I am, of course, entirely in sympathy with this view of literature, and would like to see it extended to music and other forms of art.   As all readers of my blogs know, I have been a vocal opponent of the notion, common to so much recent production of art and music and literature, that the artist or writer or composer should avoid trying to call on the emotions of his listeners, readers, or viewers.  My belief is in conscious opposition to the notion that is much more common among writers on art today, and the one that underlies much art criticism one reads.  Readers of my blogs will remember that in the 1970s I threatened to hang a big sign that read “Doing Dumb Things and Calling It Art Is Over!” in our University Art Museum, and that pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter.  Alas, dumb things have become the very substance of most artistic projects today, and it is definitely moving away from the idea of provoking emotional responses in its readers, viewers, and listeners.  A recent article in the New York Times told of a forthcoming performance of a “piece” by Yves Klein in which the orchestra and chorus play a single major chord for twenty minutes, and then sit silent for twenty minutes with the audience watching them, bored but gratified by the sense that they are participating in an important work of art.  If we were to drop this latter assumption, it would be revealed for the nonsense that in fact it is. 
As for the big question of how works of art move the human feelings, evoke emotions, and so forth: I again can only refer to old blogs in which I reveal that the explication of this matter that most convinced me in my early years was in the writing of Susanne Langer, her “Philosophy In a New Key” and her “Feeling and Form”.  These are, I’m sure, terribly out of date and out of keeping with what advanced thinkers are advocating today, but I haven’t read anything lately that makes better sense.  But then, I haven’t done a lot of reading in the literature of art theory, since much of it is quite unintelligible to me.
Everybody who loves classical music knows very well what works most move our emotions: movements in the late quartets of Beethoven, movements in the symphonies of Schubert or Brahms, the songs of Debussy and Duparc as sung by the great French singers.
I have sometimes written that if only someone had said, at the right moment, “Good joke, Monsieur Duchamps, a urinal exhibited with the title ‘Spring’--ha ha-- good joke.  Now let’s go back to doing art.” If only they had said that, instead of the collective, “Oh wow” that was in fact the response, art of the twentieth century would have been a lot different, and a lot better.
Another article in the New York Times, this one on page nine of their Sunday October 13th Review section, is titled “Is Music the Key to Success” and is a long explanation of how “high achievers say musical training played a central role in their lives.” Again, all of us who have had experience raising children and watching how music affects their lives know the truth of this, but it is good to have it asserted publicly, at a time when so much art, music, and literature seems to be deliberately avoiding the crime of raising the feelings of the hearers, or affecting them emotionally at all.  Again, the writer cites his own experience at length, and then quotes prominent people about the role music has played in their lives. Prominent among these is Woody Allen, who as many of his admirers know, plays the jazz clarinet and takes part in public performances often. 
The writer goes on to point out that the practice of music, and getting better at the performance of it as one practices, convinces someone that “there’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better--you see the results.”
Two Departed Friends
 Within just the past week, I learned of the sudden and unexpected deaths of two old friends, both of whom played important parts in my life.  The first was Michael Sullivan, who died after a brief illness at Oxford in England.  He had recently been traveling in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and had seemed in the best of health, able to move around freely, much more so than myself.  The other was Roger Covey, the head of the Tang Research Foundation that sponsors my video lectures.  He apparently had a sudden, massive heart attack and died of it.  He was the one who really persuaded me to begin my series of video lectures, and supported it heavily through his Tang Research Foundation. To lose both these two people “out of the midst of life” is another reminder, which I scarcely need, of the mortality of all of us, and again I thank my lucky stars for my own long survival.  How the death of Covey will affect the continuation of our video lecture series is something I cannot predict--Kate Chouta of IEAS and others will have to contact the Foundation and find out their intentions.
Meanwhile, Kate and others have embarked on a project of sending out an appeal for funds to a huge number of people whose email addresses I somehow had, both those who had written me praising the series and a lot of others.  There haven’t been any very hopeful responses so far, but we will see.  If you yourself, reading this, feel inspired to contribute to our project, please write to Kate Chouta, whose email address is:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
Meanwhile, about my own situation: I continue to be pretty much bedridden, going out only infrequently, since it is a big operation for me and my helpers.  Yesterday, they took me to the heart clinic and to see Dr. Cecci, who gave me the welcome report that I seem to be recovering nicely, and am in pretty good health.  But the trip there and back, and waiting for hours in a wheelchair, were not pleasant, and I’m afraid I will avoid such outings as much as possible in the future, unless my situation changes. 
So I end this blog,
James Cahill
October 16, 2013
Michael Sullivan recently
Michael Sullivan, 1984

Beautiful Women Blog

Beautiful Women Blog

This one is not about beautiful women I have known and been engaged with-- alas, there haven’t been enough of those to make up a blog, since I am not myself a Hollywood-idol type who would attract them. It is, instead, about paintings of beautiful women, Chinese meiren paintings, a genre I discovered long ago and have been working on ever since. Our exhibition of them-- the exhibition titled “Beauty Revealed: Paintings of Women in Qing Period China”, which I have put together with the help of Julia White and others, will open soon at our Berkeley Art Museum. Julia and her helper Fong-fong Chen came by yesterday bringing me a copy of the catalog and news of the arrival of the paintings and their installation. We have managed to borrow them from quite a few sources, and the exhibition will be a high-level representation of these paintings as they survive. More than one of them has survived only because it is falsely identified as something other than what it is. This genre of painting has never been valued by Chinese connoisseurs and collectors-- I was in fact the first to recognize it as a significant genre at all.

       How that happened is an interesting story in itself. Back in the early 1970s, when our “Restless Landscape” exhibition of late Ming painting which I had put together with a remarkable seminar of eight graduate students, all women, was still on the road, I came to the realization that one of the paintings in it had been misrepresented in the catalogue. Traveling on the East Coast, we saw at the Fogg Museum at Harvard a painting they had recently acquired, a beautiful-woman painting with an inscription containing an early Qing date and the name of an obscure artist along with the information that the woman represented was Mme. Hedong, or the famous literary woman Liu Yin, who became the concubine of Qian Qian-yi. It was written up in the catalogue as that, and was the subject of an article by Robert Maeda, as well as a Masters thesis by a young scholar who has gone on to become of the luminaries of our field, all hailing it as an important portrait of a noted literary woman, unique in Chinese painting. It took me a while to realize that this inscription was in fact spurious, written to raise the importance of the painting at a later date. What it really was, was a generic meiren, or beautiful woman painting. I discovered several similar ones, and eventually was told by my younger colleague Jerome Silbergeld about another version of the composition reproduced in an old journal, there identifying the woman as another courtesan of the period.

Once having made this discovery, I put together a lecture titled “The Real Mme. Hedong” and went about giving it wherever I was invited. Eventually, I came to give it at Harvard, to the great distress of Max Loehr, who had been responsible for purchasing it, from one of the heirs to the estate of the late Senator Francis Henry Taylor. Loehr and John Hay, who was teaching there at the time, resisted this re-identification, and it was an uncomfortable time for me. But truth had to prevail, and as more examples appeared and the genre took focus, all the resistance had to give way. But it was still years before we could pull together the kind of exhibition that is about to open at our Berkeley Art Museum.

The opening will be on September 23rd. The catalogue, in addition to essays by Julia White and myself, will contain one by Sarah Handler, on the physical surroundings of the women in these paintings, and entries for the individual works, mostly put together by Fong-fong Chen. Nancy Berliner, who is now the Curator of Chinese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but was previously at the Peabody Essex, from which we borrowed one of the paintings, will be coming out bringing it, and Clarissa von Spee will be flying all the way from London carrying a famous example in the British Museum. A few of the really important datable and signed examples in Chinese collections we were unable to borrow for reasons of cost, so they are only reproduced and discussed in my essay. Julia and others have made serious studies of some of the paintings and gone beyond anything I had suspected in revealing the nuances of meaning in the women’s surroundings and apparel. The exhibition will be mounted in galleries 4 and 5 of the Museum, two of the projecting galleries near the top, which gives lots of space for hanging scrolls, and for the larger paintings-- the picture of “Eight Beauties”, which is the on the cover of my recent book, and two large paintings that may originally have been screens, which we discovered at the last minute and decided to include.

Our exhibition will be shown from September 23 until December 22, so if you plan to be in or near Berkeley at that time, don’t fail to come see it. It will, believe me, be a revelation, persuading even those who begin as skeptics that these paintings have a great deal to offer in sheer richness of content, quite apart from the beauty of the women in them.


Exhibition Opening at Berkeley Art Museum and Book Launch


Our exhibition “Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting” opens tonight, and to my surprise, I’ll be attending the opening-- I hadn’t intended to but my daughter Sarah and son Benedict are taking me.  This is the realization of a long planned project, and it is accompanied by a book-sized catalogue with essays by Julia White, Sarah Handler (on the furnishings and physical surroundings of the women in the paintings), and myself, along with entries for the paintings put together by Chen FongFong and others.  The exhibition will continue until December 22nd so be sure to see it when you are in the Bay Area.  The paintings are beautiful, and the subject is new, the intricacies of meaning and expression, along with the differences in style, are more than I ever expected.

More on Salinger

I bought the new book on Salinger, by two people who went around interviewing those who knew him and looking into letters and other sources of information and insights, and have read most of it, along with the responses and reviews that have appeared in the New York Times

and elsewhere. They illuminate quite a bit more about Salinger, but chiefly in areas other than the one I wrote about in my “Thoughts on the Death of Salinger”(which is on the present website).  His obsession with teenage girls and his bad treatment of them has received a lot of well-merited anger.  But the question of why he retired into seclusion and stopped publishing still hasn’t been adequately answered, it seems to me, and my suggestion in my paper still strikes me as informed and valuable.  So let me suggest again that any of you with contacts to the mainstream media may want to mention it to a friend.




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