21.Albert Skira And Chinese Painting

21. Albert Skira and Chinese Painting. Put together from several accounts.

My being chosen by Albert Skira to write the Chinese Painting book for his new series Treasures of Asia was a matter of sheer good luck; I didn't do anything to get the job. (This is true of much of my early career: I fell into things instead of making conscious choices.) During my Fulbright year in Japan (Fall 1954-early 1956) I was visited by Osvald Siren, who asked me to come to Stockholm for three months to work with him on his 7-rolume Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles. I had been warned against taking a job with Siren, who underpaid and overworked his assistants and gave them scant credit. All this proved to be true; but an unexpected benefit made up for all of it: When Albert Skira planned the series, he first asked Siren to do the Chinese painting volumes (originally planned as two). But Siren had signed with the publisher of his 7-volume work a contract prohibiting him from writing another general Chinese painting book for X years, so there would be no competition. Siren would never recommend one of his established colleagues, whom he saw as competitors; instead, he told Skira "Why don't you ask the young American specialist James Cahill?"

Skira came to the Freer in 1957? 58? when I was still working on my doctoral dissertation. He talked first with Richard Ettinghausen, who agreed to write the Arab Painting book in the series, and who then called me into his office and introduced me. Hearing that Skira meant to include a Chinese painting book (really two volumes in the original plan) I immediately began tellling him who shouldn't and who should write the book, referring of course to the older, established people in the field.

Richard said, "Jim, he wants you to write the book." I (figuratively) sank through the floor.

Albert Skira had revolutionized the art book, integrating the illustrations with the text, having them all in color and tipped onto the pages (by a team of old ladies with paste-pots sitting at tables in in :Lausanne, he later told me), including lots pf details. integrating them with the text instead of having them bunched at the end. It was usual for Skira himself to choose the paintings and design the book, then hire someone to write a text to fill the spaces around the pictures—he didn't really care much about the texts, as he said in a published interview around this time. My book had to be different: he didn't know enough about Chinese painting to choose, and left the selection more or less up to me, while keeping some veto power. During the period I was working on the book he would come to New York every month or two, and I would go there to meet with him. His bad English and my bad French sufficed for communication, although it was very funny to anyone listening . We would start out serious, with me showing him photos of things I wanted to include, he giving approval or not. He would be drinking by then—he was seriously alcoholic by this time—and as the evening went on he would lose control. We would be joined by friends—on one occasion it was Salvador Dali. His young assistant Alex, who lived in New York, had arranged everything, including his favorite New Yorki mistress, a beautiful black young woman for the end of it. But by then he had often lost his power to eat (we might be at the Four Seasons, and he could only go on drinking) much less make love. And midway through the evening he would tell me the story of his life and career, over and over, long and fascinating accounts which would be punctuated by "And then I went broke." The magazine Minotaur, with original prints by Picasso, Matisse etc., worth a lot now, he couldn't sell. And so forth. I took him to meet C. C. Wang and H. C. Weng to see paintings they owned—he was wildly enthusiastic about a "Shitao" album of blossoming plum at Weng's, and I had to give him the bad news that it wasn't by the master. He loved saying the names, because they were so similar—"Does this one belong to Mr. Wang or Mr. Weng?" (laughter).At one meeting, fairly far along in the series, when I showed him what I proposed to include he said "Rocks and trees, M. Cahill! Rocks and trees! All you ever bring me are rocks and trees! My readers want to see people, and houses, and stories, not just rocks and trees!" Still, all in all, he was quite agreeable to my selection, and I got most of what I wanted. The two volumes were reduced to one, because his booksellers told him it would be hard to sell a book if the buyers knew they had to come back for another one. But I was paid the same—lots of money for me then.

I had my first inkling of the success of the book when I was in Amsterdam after some days in Geneva, working on last-minute things about the book with Skira; Jan Fontein, then a good friend (we'd been together in my Fulbright year in Japan), read the German translation with the English (as I'd asked him to do, to see how faithful it was)—or was it the French? Anyway, next morning he told me he'd read it all at one sitting, and that it read like a novel. I was to hear that often afterwards. For instance, at a black-tie diplomatic dinner-reception in Washington D.C., John Pope came to where I was sitting bringing a woman who turned out to be the Swedish ambassador's wife; she had found out he was a Chinese art specialist, and proceeded to relate her recent extraordinary experience: she had started reading this book which she expected would be another coffee-table production interesting mainly for the pictures, and found herself caught up and read it all the way through, and said "It reads like a novel!" John laughed and told her he'd introduce her to the author, who was in the next room. Those were typical reactions to the book. "Like a novel" might not be a welcome comment about their books for some art historians, but I was always pleased by it.

I could write a lot about why certain paintings are in, others missing. We got this unusual privilege of reproducing a large number of Palace Museum paintings, including some unpublished ones we (C. C. Wang and Li Lin-ts'an and I) had discovered going through so many in Taichung, including two was it? boxes of the chien-mu, so-called lesser paintings, which contained hidden treasures. (See my reminiscences of the Palace Museum, *CLP 117.) The Boston M.F.A. had unwisely turned over all the rights to producing color images of their holdings to a commercial firm called Sandak, which made color negatives and transparencies from those. Skira hated them, and I had to hold down my MFA selections to a few—no "Portraits of the Emperors," for instance. I was criticized for this omission in a review by Ben Rowland. Many funny stories I could tell about photographing in Japan, traveling with Henry Beville (National Gallery photographer, Skira's favorite) and Akiyama Terukazu, who was writing the Japanese Painting volume. Jonathan Hay somewhere in print criticizes my reproducing the Shitao "Waterfall on Mt. Lu" without the inscription at the top, making some methodological point about this. I wrote him a note describing how we were able to get it in at all. Sumitomo didn't want us to take it out of his house at Oiso, which was Japanese-style with only small rooms. No place big enough to get the camera far enough away to include it all. Finally used a desperate expedient: the scroll was rolled out against a fusuma leaning against one wall, and Henry Beville and his camera were on top of the piano at the opposite side of the room, using the longest dimension (diagonal) of the room. Barely got it all in.

Skira chose the Xu Wei bamboo for the cover—when I told him that this was an artist who had beat his wife to death and done other strange things, Skira wanted to be able to tell this to his friends when he showed them the book. It came out together with a book on contemporary painting by Lionello Venturi, father of Skira's wife Rosabianca; Skira wanted to stress the "contemporaneity" of my book. I got good reviews—Soper in Artibus Asiae, Nancy Wilson Ross (who had by then become a good friend) in the Herald Tribune was it?

The contract I signed with Skira gave him all the rights, in all languages, forever; that payment was the last. No royalties, nothing when it was reprinted, sometimes by other publishers. I used to visit the Braziller booth at book fairs at College Art Assn. meetings and facetiously try to get them to change the blurb from "We commissioned the brilliant young American specialist James Cahill . . ." to "aging and tired American specialist." There it still is, and here am I. I don't feel really uncomfortable reading the book now, although much of it I would write quite differently. It probably wouldn't be such a good read any more.

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