25.Working For Sirén

25. Working for Sirén

As described above (#21, Working for Skira) I got the job of writing the Skira book on Chinese painting on the recommendation of Siren, who was first asked to do it but was prevented by his having just published a general book on the subject, and signed a contract prohibiting him from publishing another for seven years. Siren suggested me as the author, So I was in a sense rewarded for having worked as Siren's assistant and helping him in other ways, against the recommendations of those who knew him well. I used to use this as an example of how one can do the "wrong" thing and come out fine: one never knows what the consequences of one's decisions is going to be. (Cf. the fable in Liezi, the Daoist philosopher, about the man who lost his horse.)

Sirén was not a generous man; Bo Gyllensvard, when I was in Stockholm, told me that anyone who became a Chinese art specialist in Sweden did so in spite of Siren, not because of him. He treated his wife and chidren badly, and was notorious for overworking and underpaying his assistants, and for failing to credit them for their contributions. I knew this, but took on the job anyway. Siren came to Japan while I was a Fulbright student there, in late 1954 or early 1955, and I went around with him to see collections and museums. He invited me to come to Stockholm to work for him for three months, helping finish up the first three volumes of his

Chinese Painting, Leading Masters and Prnciples, especially working on the "Annotated Lists of Chinese Paintings" for the early periods which would be part of Vol. II. He would pay me, he said, 1000 Swedish kronor a month, "a salary any Swedish worker would be happy with." I agreed. The series was to be published by Lund Humphries in London.

My stay in Japan was prolonged a few months, and I didn't leave until late in 1955. Dorothy went by ship, much slower; I flew. First to Hong Kong, where I spent a very rewarding week seeing collections, introduced by Cheng Chi/Chu Hsing-chai (together) and by Walter Hochstadter, on alternate days. (This is recounted in my "Seeing Paintings in Hong Kong," CLP 172). I then flew to Rome and spent several days there, taken around and shown the city and its art by Fritz Lowe-Beer. Fritz, who had been a minor Czech nobleman (see Orientations 37.8, November/December 2006). had lived in China and become a dealer in the U.S. (partner with Walter Hochstadter) and was a great specialist in Chinese lacquer. He had strong ideas about what was worth seeing in Rome and gave me a whirlwind tour, sometimes walking through the congregation in a church where a service was underway to a see a favorite chapel. He lived in Italy now because the Italians had been relatively lenient to Jews when he had been forced out of Germany.

Then I flew on to Stockholm, where it was very cold and dark—the northern winter, with 3 PM sunsets. I refused at first to wear a hat, but got an ear infection from the cold and reluctantly bought a fur hat. Dorothy arrived two months? after I did (bad memory—maybe shorter.) It turned out that the pension/boarding house (Kosmopolit? something like that) where he had booked a room and board for us used up nearly all my salary, something like 975 kronor a month, so that in the end Dorothy had to take a job doing typing for him to permit us to stay in Stockholm. Food there was plentiful and not bad. Thursday evenings it was a big bowl of very thick and rich soup, peas or beans or whatever, followed directly by an equally heavy and rich dessert, maybe linganberry cobbler with lots of whipped cream; after this one lumbered off to bed. I also encountered lüdfisk, fish dried on the ice in the far north until it is hard as a board, then soaked in lye (!) to soften it, after which the long washing out of the lye leaves it very soft and without much taste. The Swedes love it.

As I read through Siren's text, I found quite a lot f what seemed to me mistakes—mistranslations from Chinese, or things quoted from unsafe sources. One of these, Nan-sung yüan-hua lu (Record of Southern Song court painting) compiled by LI E (or Li O) in the early 18th century, is particularly treacherous, since it is a collection of excerpts from earlier texts, chosen uncritically—much of it comes from the famous catalog of fakes, Bao hui lu, which prints lots of colophons by famous artists and other people, all spurious, made up in the Ming. I would come upon one of these and try to convince Siren to delete it; he (not really reading Chinese very well—his translations were done for him by others) couldn't understand what the problem was. As I told Dorothy, it was like trying to explain a chess problem to someone who doesn't play chess. One such spurious quotation got through, missed by me, and is in his book—Wu Zhen writing about Xia Gui, as I remember. (I included a warning against this book, along with others, in the Bibliography sessions I always gave for my grad students; one of the best of them, nonetheless, used a Bao hui lu quotation from Li E's book in her masters thesis draft and had to go back and rewrite.)

Siren was a plunderer, traveling around the world and collecting photographs, getting his translations from the Chinese done by everyone from great Dutch sinologues such as Hulsewé in Leiden to his Chinese houseboy. This was someone he had brought from China? (unclear) who cleaned his house and also translated Chinese texts for him. Eventually he began to be used as an informant by the Chinese language program at the university. "In the end," Siren told me quite shamelessly, "he got grand ideas and began to neglect his work, and I had to let him go."

Siren lived in Lidingö, a short train ride from Stockholm. I was sometimes invited to dinner—his wife, a very nice person who got no support at all from him and made money by doing programs on French culture on the radio and TV, was a warm hostess. (I learned later that when they traveled by train, Siren would go first class, she and the children second or third.) The Swedish government had just relaxed its prohibition against alcoholic drinks, and we drank aquavit—but only for toasting, never alone. Siren took me to meet notable people—at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, he introduced me to Karlgren-- maliciously, I'm sure, as a disciple of Max Loehr. Karlgren and Loehr had been feuding for years, and i had to spend thd next fifteen minutes listening to Karlgren denouncing Loehr—his character, his scholarship, his politics. Bo Gyllensvard, then the Director? of the Museum (I'm unclear) was more generous with his time and introductions; he arranged for me to spend part of an afternoon with the King, who was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector of Chinese antiquities. So there I was, a grad student, being asked by the King of Sweden: "What do you think of this? How would you date it?" Gyllensvard also took Dorothy and me to see the Carl Kempe collection—Chinese gold, and white ceramics—in an 18th century? villa some way outside Stockholm. Other pleasures included the (Royal?) opera, which was producing a complete Wagner Ring cycle that winter. Birgit Nilsson at her best, several singers named Bjoerling (presumably relatives of the great tenor Jussi Bjoerling?) and the wonderful soprano Elizabeth Söderström. Hearing her as Suzanna in Marriage of Figaro was a memorable experience.

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