CLP 117: 2005 “The Place of the National Palace Museum in My Scholarly Career.” published in National Palace Museun Monthly (Gugong Wenwu), special issue commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Museum.

“The Place of the National Palace Museum in My Scholarly Career.”

(Published in Chinese in Ku-kung Wen-wu (National Palace Museum Monthly), v. 23 no. 8, Nov. 2005, 93-99).

I first visited the National Palace Museum collection in 1955, when I was a graduate student doing doctoral dissertation work on the “Four Great Masters” of Yuan dynasty landscape painting, and needed access to this greatest single concentration of their major works. The collection was then kept in storehouses near the village of Pei-k’ou some miles outside Taichung, reachable by bus but also, as I chose more often to do, by bicycle. The Palace Museum staff were generous in bringing out the paintings I needed to study, and helpful with advice; I remember especially the wise, sharp-eyed, and highly informed counsel of Mr. Chuang Yen (or Chuang Shang-yen), Director of the Museum.

I came again in 1959, this time with my friend the artist-collector Wang Chi-ch’ien and a photographer, to choose and photograph paintings to be reproduced in the book Chinese Painting that I was writing for the Swiss publisher Albert Skira, which was published in the following year. The photographer was Skira’s favorite, whom he used whenever possible: Henry Beville of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The generosity and patience of the Museum’s staff this time was even greater: we spent about a month looking at a great many paintings, not only those in the main group (cheng-mu) but also several large crates of the chien-mu or “simple list” paintings, so designated in the recently-compiled Ku-kung shu-hua lu catalog. These were supposed to be lesser or unreliable works, but in reality included many fine and original pictures. Wang Chi-ch’ien and I were accompanied in all the viewings by Mr. Li Lin-ts’an, who coined for us the term “Three Painting Worms” (by analogy with “bookworm.”) Li Lin-ts’an was a good friend over many years, both in Taiwan and in the U.S., where he came often. Fine early paintings that were unpublished and little known emerged during this exciting time, and I was given the extraordinary permission to reproduce several of them for the first time, along with more familiar masterworks, and all in color; they contributed greatly to the success of my book.

By this time, the planning for the great “Chinese Art Treasures” exhibition of 1961-62 was underway, and since the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.. where it was to open, had no Chinese art specialist on its staff, the Freer Gallery of Art’s director, John Pope, and myself as Curator of Chinese Art there, took much of the responsibility, along with Aschwin Lippe of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for the U.S. input into the selection of objects and for the writing of the English-language catalog text. I remember well a tense time, while Pope and Lippe were both away in Switzerland working on the production of the catalog (again with Skira as publisher), when I was summoned to the Chinese Embassy by Ambassador George Yeh (Yeh Kung-chao), whom I had come to know well through his involvement with Chinese art as a collector. A crisis had arisen: conservative voices on the committee that governed the Museum, to whom the catalog text had been sent for approval, were objecting to entries for early paintings that did not follow traditional attributions. While respecting the importance, even greatness of these works, we had given some of them datings and attributions that accorded with more recent scholarship, including that of the Palace Museum curators themselves. Now we were being told that unless we reverted to the traditional attributions—which still followed those in the catalog of the 18th-century Ch’ien-lung Emperor—the exhibition was off. John Walker, Director of the National Gallery, who was also present at the meeting, capitulated immediately, saying that it was his museum’s policy to follow always the owner’s attributions (a cowardly and unscholarly policy, in my view, then and now.) I wanted to stand fast, arguing that the catalog would in future become a major reference for students and scholars, so that we should not mislead them with obsolete information. George Yeh, to his everlasting credit and my great admiration, saved the day, appointing his Cultural Officer (whose name I don’t recall) to meet with me and work out compromise wordings that would give the traditional attributions but then go on to suggest the revised judgments of more recent scholarship. He said he would personally stand behind whatever new formulations we arrived at. It was these compromise statements that appeared in the catalog for some of the early paintings. Happily, no such crisis could arise today: the National Palace Museum has long since been open to the most advanced scholarship in Chinese art, in which its own director and curatorial staff are actively involved (as indeed they have been all along), and the judgments of Ch’ien-lung and his court connoisseurs no longer prevail.

While the exhibition pieces were kept at the National Gallery before the exhibition opened, a large-scale project of photographing and making slides from them was carried out there, by Henry Beville together with the Freer Gallery’s photographer, Raymond Schwartz. The photographing of the paintings—the division of handscrolls into sections, the choice of details, etc.—was directed by myself. All slides were made in originals, not copies, using a special camera that would make multiple exposures on long rolls of film. The sets of slides—complete sets for institutions most seriously involved in the study and teaching of Chinese art, smaller sets for others that did not need so many details or complete coverage of handscrolls and albums—were made available at cost to a great many museums and teaching institutions. They transformed the teaching of Chinese art, especially painting. Before, we had studied the great paintings in slides made from old black-and-white reproductions of the whole works; now these high-quality slides not only conveyed the real look of the paintings, including subtle nuances of ink value and color, but also revealed in close-ups the hand of the artist, intricacies of drawing, and hidden details unnoticed before.

The success of this photographing project suggested another, even larger, to cover, insofar as possible, all the pieces worthy of serious attention in the whole collection. No complete photographic record of this great collection existed anywhere, and, given the precarious position of Taiwan (as perceived at that time), this was cause for alarm and reason enough for undertaking such a project. It was organized by the Freer Gallery of Art and the University of Michigan, funded by three foundations (Henry Luce, JDR IIIrd, Bollingen), directed by myself, and carried out during the winter of 1963-64. I oversaw the photographing of paintings, over a period of about three months; Laurence Sickman came after that to direct, over a shorter period, the photographing of calligraphy, ceramics, and other objects. The photographer this time was Ray Schwartz of the Freer Gallery. George Yeh had by then returned to Taiwan and was a minister without portfolio in the cabinet; he was my principal advisor and liaison with the Museum authorities, one of whom was Mr. K’ung Te-ch’eng, 88th-generation descendant of Confucius and Director of the Joint Administration of National Palace and Central Museums. These two, in addition to their other areas of expertise, were great bon vivants and arrangers of banquets, and the negotiations preceding the photographing were accompanied by nightly feasts that could go on for hours, with K’ung sometimes playing the erh-hu to entertain the guests, and both of them sending messages to the chef about changes and refinements in the menu. Photos of me up to that time show me as a tall, slender person; the transformation toward the portly figure of my later life began at this time.

When the negotiations (and banquets) finally ended and the photographing began, it was carried out in a manner based completely on George Yeh’s advice, I myself being too young and inexperienced to devise and implement such a plan. In an arrangement that was open, entirely honorable, and very effective, those on the Palace Museum staff who handled the paintings, loaded and processed the film, and did other vital jobs within the whole operation were persuaded to expend extraordinary amounts of their time and energies while the work was underway, and were suitably recompensed for this extra time and effort with provender and luxuries that Ray and I, as U.S. government employees, were able to purchase at the local PX. This completely legitimate arrangement (which was, nonetheless, later criticized by some, quite wrongly, as a form of bribery) permitted us to organize the whole operation on something like an American production-line basis, and to get a remarkable amount of work done in our brief time there.

The news that virtually the entire collection of paintings would be brought out for photographing spread quickly through the Chinese painting world, and quite a few of the major scholars in the field managed somehow to escape their academic and other commitments and come to Taichung and Pei-k’ou. C. C. Wang, who was then teaching at New Asia College in Hong Kong, wanted desperately to join us, but when he asked the president of the college, the famous historian Ch’ien Mu, for permission to miss his lectures, he was turned down. Wang, ever resourceful, then played his trump card: Ch’ien Mu’s wife had been auditing Wang’s courses and had developed an enthusiasm for Chinese paintings; she arm-twisted her husband, who had little choice but to grant both of them permission, and they joined the group. The number of outside onlookers grew so large that Ray, viewing on his ground-glass camera back what should have been the image of the painting (upside down), would find the space occupied instead by an expanse of the backs of heads, as the determined kibitzers pushed in to see the newly-exposed work close up. In the end, we had to establish rules that allowed him to work efficiently.

All the black-and-white photography was done on 8”x10” negatives; a sliding screen on the camera back permitted the division of this into two 5”x 8” pictures, used mainly for sections of handscrolls and leaves of albums. All the negatives were made in two copies, one set to be taken back to the U.S. and a duplicate set to be left with the National Palace Museum for their use. All the photographic equipment, and quantities of film and other photographic materials, were also left.

Our only serious setback was the result of bad advice from back home: a D.C. photographic company had persuaded us to do the color photographing, not in Kodachrome positive slides (always my preference) but in Ektachrome negatives, from which slides could later be made. After a lot of this film had already been exposed and returned to D.C. for processing, we learned that it was a failure: poor contrast, bad color. All the color photographing had to be redone, this time as Kodachrome positives. These slides, along with those made earlier at the National Gallery, have made up an invaluable visual coverage of the great paintings in the collection, and a significant part of the advances made in Chinese painting studies since then have depended on them. Skeptical people at that time were saying that Kodachrome slides would fade after a few years, but those I have used are still sharp and rich in color, and entirely usable. They have conveyed the glories of the Palace Museum collection on a great many lecture-room screens over the forty-odd years since then, and will presumably continue to do so far into the future.

Late in the photographing, another potential problem arose and was overcome, again with the full-scale cooperation of the Museum’s director and curatorial staff. Once more, conservative voices on the committee of political figures that administered the Palace Museum, the same who had made trouble during the preparation of the Chinese Art Treasures exhibition catalog, were attempting to limit our photographing of the “less important” paintings in the chien-mu or “simple list” group, feeling (as it was explained to us) that to open these to study and potential publication would call into question the validity of the original division, in which some of those same people had taken part. It had been carried out, that is, not by the really professionally-trained Palace Museum specialists who knew the paintings best, but by members of the governing committee higher up, whose expertise, although they were themselves collectors, was more in the political than in the connoisseurial sphere. They had been joined by a famous traditional Chinese connoisseur-collector, whose judgments , however, depended heavily on seals and inscriptions. In this matter, the Museum’s director and curatorial staff were entirely on our side, since they themselves had only very limited access to these “lesser” works, and welcomed outside intervention in getting them photographed and made accessible. By the original plan and timing, we had been expected to spend our entire period in Taichung photographing the cheng-mu, or “main list” paintings. Part of the motivation behind the extraordinary speeded-up procedures described above was to confound this prediction, and we succeeded, completing the photographing of the entire cheng-mu group with about two weeks, as I remember, remaining of our time in Taichung. Once more in consultation with our friends among the Museum curators, we sent to the authorities in Taipei what was meant to sound like a modest proposal: we would use these remaining days to choose and photograph a limited number of the chien-mu paintings, only as many as could be done in this short time. The response came back: agreed.

Now began a super-speeded-up phase of the project that made the earlier production-line methods seem slowpoke. Everybody involved realized how much was at stake: this was an opportunity, not soon to be repeated, to open up this “off-limits” body of paintings, or as much of it as seemed to be worthy of the effort, to study by both Chinese and foreign scholars. Everybody took part. In the storage rooms, workers were hanging the hanging scrolls in rows, or rolling out handscrolls and opening albums on tables, while Dick Edwards and I walked past them exercising a kind of instant connoisseurship, saying “yao!” or “pu-yao!” (Even my very limited spoken Chinese allowed that.) Those chosen for photographing were rushed off to the building where Ray Schwartz was shooting them as fast as they could be hung and rolled up. Another team was constantly reloading the camera backs with fresh film, and taking the exposed film off to the photographic studio where the terribly overworked Palace Museum photographer and darkroom specialist, Mr. Mai Chih-ch’eng, was tirelessly developing and drying the negatives. (If my memory is right, his wife was having a baby just then, and he gave up the pleasures and responsibilities of being with her to carry out our work.) By means of this extraordinary procedure we were able to get through the entire chien-mu group (excepting a few categories we chose to leave out, such as the works of Orthodox-school landscapists in the Ch’ing court) and photograph, both in black-and-white negatives and in color slides, all those that seemed to us of sufficient interest.

When word of all this got to the authorities in Taipei who had tried to limit our chien-mu photographing (we knew that they had an ally and informant among the curatorial staff in Taichung, and knew who it was), a stern directive came down to us: pending further negotiations, we were not to take the negatives and slides made from the chien-mu paintings back to the U.S., but were to leave them in Taiwan. This message came by telephone as I was having lunch with the director and curatorial staff in their lunchroom. As we quickly realized the implications of this order and how we should respond to it, we smiled at each other in silent agreement, and I told the person who had relayed the telephone message to reply to Taipei that it was too late, the slide film and negatives had already been shipped to the U.S. All those present—or all but one—were in agreement with this “white lie,” or justifiable untruth; they knew that the negatives were still in a back building, where I was sorting them into two sets, one to take, one to leave. I finished this sorting quickly during the remainder of that and the next day, and on the following day, our last, while I was bidding fond farewells to our Chinese friends, Ray was loading the boxes of our set of negatives into the trunk of our car. After our return to the U.S. we received another directive forbidding us to make prints from the chien-mu negatives or copies of the slides, but this was difficult to enforce at such long distance, and the works had in effect become accessible to scholarship. Some years later the Palace Museum would itself offer for sale complete sets of photographs made from their set of the negatives, and the taboo was broken forever.

It is important to emphasize that while we on the U.S. side, because of economic advantages, could accomplish things on a material and technological level that were difficult or impossible for the Palace Museum staff, they had a knowledge and understanding of the paintings and their background far superior to ours, so that we needed to depend on them for their expertise at every stage of the operation. It was entirely a cooperative project, carried out in an atmosphere of mutual dependence and respect. The things we did were things they also wanted done, and were never, I hope, imposed on them.

I do not remember exactly the number of black-and-white negatives and color slides that Ray Schwartz shot in those remarkable three months, but it was a staggering number, something like 2,500, perhaps more. Ray also managed, with considerable help from others, a major change of life during this same time: shortly before we returned he married a Chinese young woman, Jenny, whom he had met at the Taichung Officer’s Club, where we went every night to draw money and where she worked behind the cash-dispensing window. When I had left the Freer, the women employees there had charged me with an extra responsibility: to find a wife for Ray, who had reached an age of over forty without marrying (prevented until then by problems with a difficult mother and a Catholic religious faith.) He was very shy, and the whole courtship had to be managed and nurtured by others; Dick Edwards’s wife Vee, for instance, who came from Fukien and so could speak intelligible Taiwanese, undertook the job of persuading Jenny’s family that Ray was a legitimate and honorable suitor, while I and my family took the two of them on long outings into the mountains, to give them opportunities to be alone together--a difficult thing to arrange in Taichung at that time, since foreigners courting Chinese girls were regarded, with good reason, as probably having bad motives. But in the end it all was successful, Jenny said yes, and they were married in Taipei, again under the sponsorship of George Yeh, who speeded up the whole process of getting permission for her to accompany him back to the U.S. George, not understanding the ramifications of Ray’s Catholic faith, asked him after the civil marriage in the U.S. Embassy, which enabled him to begin work on Jenny’s exit permit: “Where are you two staying tonight?” Ray’s reply, “Jenny is staying with her relatives, and I’m staying at the YMCA” mystified George, who had, of course, expected them to spend their nuptial night together. What needed to be explained to him was that for Ray the marriage would not be legitimate until it was carried out before the altar in a Catholic church, as happened the next day in a second ceremony. Ray and Jenny are still living happily in Washington; Ray is long retired.

The negatives and slides from the photographing project were all consigned to a newly-created photographic archive at the University of Michigan, which has greatly expanded since then, adding material from many other collections and exhibitions, to become the Asian Art Photographic Distribution. They have made the photos and sets of slides from the National Palace Museum photographic project available to institutions everywhere, again making a major positive impact on the teaching and study of Chinese art.

My involvement with the National Palace Museum since that time has been less personal, more as a member of the wider community of Chinese art scholars. The first great international gathering of Chinese painting specialists--apart from a modest two-day “Chinese Art Treasures Post-mortem Conference” that I had organized in New York on October 4-5, 1963, to argue authenticity and dating issues concerning the paintings that had been in that exhibition--was held at the National Palace Museum in 1970; the papers from it were published in 1972 in a volume titled Proceedings of the International Symposium on Chinese Painting. A number of notable writings that were to have a big impact on our field of study were presented at this symposium, which was also notable for opening some controversies that were to continue. Michael Sullivan presented a paper on European pictorial engravings in books recorded as having been brought to China by Jesuit missionaries in the late Ming, pictures that were thus made potentially accessible to Chinese artists. I used his paper to argue that some Chinese painters of the time, notably Wu Pin (the subject of my paper), adopted in their paintings features of foreign style that they must have learned from these prints, to enhance the illusionistic power of their pictures. This argument was relatively new and controversial at that time, and both Michael’s paper and mine were denounced vigorously in the discussion period by two young Chinese scholars and greeted with skepticism by some others. Again, this response belongs to that early time; the negative response would not be so severe today, when the visual impact of foreign pictures on Chinese late-Ming and early-Ch’ing artists is generally accepted by most people in the field. (Most of us, moreover, have by now turned away from the “influence” model of understanding such cross-cultural episodes, in which one cultural tradition is seen as “influencing,” i.e. imposing itself on, another, a version that understandably makes the whole process seem objectionable; we recognize that artists of the receiving tradition can freely and voluntarily, and to their benefit, adopt or appropriate new “stylistic ideas” from the foreign tradition that has somehow become accessible to them. This is, for example, what French painters of the later 19th century did when they encountered Japanese prints; the effect on French painting was stimulating and liberating--no one sees this as a case of Japanese art somehow forcing itself on the French artists.) My Wu Pin paper was supported by a special exhibition of this artist’s works, his first “one-man show,” held in one of the galleries of the new Museum; it was made up of all the Wu Pin works in the National Palace Museum collection (including one formerly catalogued as “Anonymous Sung” which is clearly identifiable by style as Wu Pin’s work), together with three paintings by him that I had brought for inclusion.

I came to the National Palace Museum many times after that, to see and study paintings for various research and writing projects. An “International Conference on Sinology” held in 1982 was under the sponsorship of the Academia Sinica, but several of the Palace Museum curators participated in the History of Art section, and viewings and a banquet were held at the Museum. I was not involved directly in the great 1996 exhibition “Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum,” which was organized mainly by Wen Fong and James Watt for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but I contributed an essay to the catalog, and enjoyed seeing the paintings, most of them by now very familiar, in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. And, like most Chinese art history specialists, I have found myself writing often for permission to reproduce paintings in this greatest of collections, and have always received it, along with help and advice from the curators. All in all, it is difficult to imagine—and again I speak for others in the field as well as for myself--how impoverished my career would have been without the unfailing generosity and cooperation of the National Palace Museum administration, curators, and staff. I feel a deep debt of gratitude to all of them, along with nostalgic memories of our pleasant, productive, and sometimes lively interactions over half a century.

Captions for Photos:

1. Eight people in tropical dress: outside storage buildings at Pei-k’ou, during photographing for Skira book Chinese Painting, 1959. From left: Wang Chi-ch’ien; Mr. Chang? (in charge of storage; unclear on name); Li Lin-ts’an; Mr. Wu (ceramics specialist); Henry Beville; James Cahill.

2. Small photo: James Cahill, 1959. I stopped off at a small rural photographic studio while bicycling between Taichung and Pei-k’ou and had this made; it catches something of my feeling at that time.

3. Photo of five people: during negotiations for photographing project in Taipei, 1963. Far right: K’ung Te-ch’eng; center: Han Li-wu? (unclear: I think so); second from left: myself. Other two I don’t remember; maybe someone else will recognize them.

4. Seven people in suits: opening of Chinese Art Treasures exhibition at National Gallery in Washington, D.C. From left: Na Chih-liang, Aschwin Lippe, T’an Tan-ch’iung, James Cahill, Henry Beville, Li Lin-ts’an (holding catalog), John Pope. (Behind: famous painting by Ts’ui Po.)

5. Group of participants in 1970 International Symposium on Chinese Painting, gathered in San Francisco en route to Taipei. From left: Tour leader for Lotus Tours (forget name); William Wu; Jeannette Shambaugh Elliott; Joan Hartmann (New York dealer); Max Loehr; Margaret Chang (artist); Richard Barnhart; John Crawford; Susan Bush; James Cahill; Chu-tsing Li.

Dear Professor Cahill,

Sorry that I just came back from London for the Three Emperors' exhibition.I am happy that you are satisfied with our presentation of your article.I am sorry that there are some confusions here...

What we are doing for celebrating the 80th anniversery of the Museum in our Monthly is actually not a special issue, but a special column. Until next August, we will have an article about the past of the museum in every issue. It is this special column that you, Professor Lawton, Professor Wen Fong, and many others have all contributed. We are also thinking about to put all these valuable articles into a book and publish it next year. When this happens, I will let you know.

As for the reactions to your revealing, I am quite surprised that everyone here in the musuem seems all very calm about it. I think the atmosphere here has changes a lot since DPP took the office.

Anyhow, have a very nice day!

All the best,

Dear Lai Yu-chih,

Thanks for your email. Now I understand about your plan for the NPM Monthly. If you do publish a book with these articles, would you include the original English-language texts also, in cases where the original is in English? It would be a help for non-Chinese readers.

One minor matter: I sent, with the photos, identifications of the people in them. For one of them, with myself and Kung Te-ch'eng in a group, you identified others I'd forgotten about but didn't identify K'ung. Any reason? Is he now somehow in bad repute?

Interesting that no one reacted to the revelations about out photographing project. I guess nearly all the old people who were somehow involved have died out, leaving only a few survivors such as myself.

Best wishes for the New Year.
James Cahill

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