55. Sôgenga: A Modest Exhibition, An Opportunity Missed

Sôgenga: a Modest Exhibition, an Opportunity Missed

From my Bibliography: Sogen-ga: 12th - 14th Century Chinese Painting as Collected and Appreciated in Japan. Catalog of an exhibition, Berkeley, University Art Museum, March 31 - June 27, 1982.


On April 3, 2008, I received copies of two new Sotheby's Hong Kong catalogs, through the kindness of one of their staff, Edie Hu. One of them is titled Two Song Treasures from a Japanese Collection, and is about two objects to be sold on April 11: a superb Guan ware mallet vase of the Southern Song period, and a small, wonderful horizontal painting in ink on silk representing "Li Yuan and Yuanze," attributed to the great 13th century Chan master Muqi. Numerous detail photos are included, and a good essay by Dick Barnhart. Edie HuI wrote a note to accompany the catalogs, reading "Dear Dr. Cahill, You may be interested in the Dong Bangda painting that we have in our Imperial sale ("Splendours of the Qing Court.") The 'Two Song Treasures' Muqi painting is, I'm sure, an old friend. Sincerely, Edie Hu." I wrote to thank her (slightly expanded):


Dear Edie Hu,


Thanks for sending me the two catalogs. The Dong Bangda is indeed interesting, more so than most of his. And the Muqi is indeed an old friend. I can tell you a sad story about that, not the kind you print in your catalogs but amusing in a bitter way.


My 1982 "Sôgenga" exhibition was intended to give a group of my grad students, and a few undergrad majors, a chance to work with important old Chinese paintings, but also to bring paintings of this kind owned by Japanese dealers to the Bay Area for possible purchase. My friendship with the dealers, and my knowledge of their holdings, made this possible. The selection was made quickly, by me, with some bad choices, and I also had to write the text myself to get the catalog out on time. (This was not, that is, the more leisurely and better-funded kind of exhibition in which the seminar members do much of the choosing and write the catalog essays.) The Society for Asian Art in S.F. contributed $5,000 (!) to finance the catalog--cheap show--and their president got commitments of donations for a fund to purchase one or two works for the collection of the Asian Art Museum, which badly needed Chinese paintings,


Hironobu Kohara and I had seen this painting (the one coming up in your auction) at old Sakamoto Goro of Fugendô's place--his retirement villa near the Shûgakuin in Kyoto--on one of our several visits there, and I asked for it and got it for the show, along with fine things from both Yabumotos (Sogoro and Soshiro), Setsu, etc. It was a good seminar, and the exhibition had good attendance. Clarence Shangraw and Stephen Little, both curators at the Asian Art Museum at that time, made separate trips over to spend time with the exhibition, to choose the paintings they most wanted (and they told me their choices.) Then the Director of the Asian Art Museum, Yvon d'Argencé, came for his visit. Shortly afterwards he called a meeting of his curatorial staff and announced that in his opinion, no painting in the show was good enough, in authenticity or quality or condition, to merit a place in the Asian Art Museum's collection. He didn't want any of them. The Society for Asian Art people were shocked, his staff was disappointed, I was again bitterly amused--Yvon was likely to veto anything in which I was involved, as he had, in effect, vetoed the Contag collection of Chinese paintings, which Brundage could have acquired cheap. Yvon did a lot of harm while he was in power in San Francisco.


Other pieces in the show included a wonderful painting of grapes by Riguan (Ziwen), now in our Berkeley Art Museum; a highly refined and beautiful white-robed Guanyin, ink-line on paper, owned by Yabumoto Sôgoro, which would have been a prize; and quite a few others of high quality and importance. There were, granted, a few dogs in the show, which I put together quickly and with no funding. It was intended to be a study exhibition for a university art museum, and included some things properly to be called "study pieces."


An item for the history of Chinese art collecting in the Bay Area. Now in your Two Song Treasures from a Japanese Collection exhibition, the Sakamoto painting will no doubt sell for a staggering amount--as it should.


The whole history of the S.F. Asian Art Museum is a story of bad decisions--unhappy choices of directors (I'm not including the new choice, Jay Xu, whom I don't really know well), bad decisions on purchases (missing the Contag Collection, spending a lot on fan paintings, others), bad move (to the totally unsuitable old library building downtown, with its too-low ceilings in the galleries, etc.) A whole series of opportunities muffed. (This is not to downplay or undervalue the many good acquisitions and exhibitions achieved by the Asian Art Museum staff over the years, which have been impressive and admirable.)


Yours, Jim


On April 6, Edie Hu responds:


"Having grown up in the Bay Area, I do have a soft spot for the Asian Art Museum, but I did not realize all the mistakes that they have made in their past history. I've met Jay Xu several times and found him to be open and forward thinking. I hope that if you're still willing to give out advice, I know that Jay will listen and not be so close-minded like his predecessors. He's not the brash-type that already has his mind made up and thinks he's always right. I think that SF made a great choice in hiring him. Hope you get a chance to meet him."

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