83, A Miscellany Of Short Ones

83, A Miscellany of Short Ones

At the end of my computer file of Reminiscences, added to as I write them, is a list of Future Reminiscence Topics, things I jot down (keyboard-wise) as they occur to me, which can be expanded into full Reminiscences later. Quite a few have accumulated that resist expansion, and I will collect some of them here under the above title, to be rid of them. I begin with one inspired by an old movie seen last night on Turner Classic Movies.

A. The movie was “Damsel In Distress,” 1937, a Fred Astaire film in which Burns and Allen replace Ginger Rogers (who had decided she wanted to make no more films with Fred Astaire) as his companions and conversational foils. In pursuit of the “damsel” (Joan Fontaine) they have joined a public tour of a castle in England, and Gracie, seeing a sign reading DO NOT TOUCH ART OBJECTS, responds with “Oh, don’t worry, I won’t touch! If I were Art, I’d object too!” I quickly jotted this down, because it adds another example to the list of alterable signs in Reminiscence no. 80, “Stephen Green In My Life”—I began by writing about one to be seen at the edge of the forest near our house, reading DO NOT DUMP REFUSE, which could be altered by the addition of two punctuation marks to read DO NOT DUMP, REFUSE! Gracie Allen’s is a valuable addition to this list, which could grow to be like the list of “Crash Blossoms,” or newspaper headlines with alternative readings, published recently by Ben Zimmer, who now writes the section “The Language” for the NYTimes’s Sunday magazine section (replacing William Safire, who wrote it for many years, until his death.) The headline in question read “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms” and an editor wondered “What’s a crash blossom?” Now Gracie Allen’s “wrong” reading of the sign as DO NOT TOUCH, ART OBJECTS! can be added to the list of signs with double readings.

The movie also brought back an old memory of my own. At a dinner that Hsingyuan and I gave in Berkeley, one of our guests was Melinda Takeuchi, who teaches Japanese art history at Stanford and was then one of Hsing’s teachers. Melinda was telling how her mother had been a minor movie singer-dancer, and had appeared in this film; I was able to go upstairs and pull the VCR of it from my film library, and Melinda excitedly found a picture of her mother on the cover, and borrowed it to watch—she hadn’t seen it for many years. It really is a film worth seeing again—the main script-writer is P.G. Wodehouse, and the songs are by the Gershwin brothers. Joan Fontaine can’t dance, but Fred has a wonderful song-and-dance sequence with George and Gracie in a carnival funhouse.

Other “short ones,” following my jotted notes:

B. “Story of ryokan across street from Nara National Museum.”
I can’t remember the name of it, but this was a ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, across the street from the Nara National Museum, run by a woman devoted to helping young scholars who came there to study Buddhist art in the Museum and the surrounding temples, by giving them a very cheap place to stay while they were in Nara. The slept in rows on the tatami floor, and had only very simple things to eat, but the nightly fee was very low. One reason was that she didn’t pay the usual taxes. The story I heard was that the (city? provincial?) government tried on one occasion to correct this by imposing the standard taxes on her; but someone organized a protest, and numbers of famous scholars who had stayed there in their student days wrote strong letters in her support, so that an exception was made—she went on enjoying her tax-free status and keeping the nightly charge very low. Dorothy and I stayed there on trips to Nara during my Fulbright year in Kyoto. I assume that it disappeared decades ago.

“Visit to Agnes Meyer’s home.”
Agnes Meyer was one of three women designated by Freer as “Friends of the Freer Gallery” who were permitted (!) to give it gifts—others could only sell things to it. (When Jean-Pierre Dubosc in effect gave the Freer the missing piece from its “Ladies Playing Double Sixes” scroll, he had to accept a $1 payment.) She and her husband Eugene Meyer were owners of the Washington Post, and she had herself published a book on Li Gonglin, with “the help” of a Chinese scholar who wrote most of it—this was common practice at that time. She was, anyway, a powerful and impressive lady. On one occasion I traveled with John Pope to the Meyers home on the banks of the Hudson River, an impressive house designed by the same architect Platt who did the Freer (Nick Platt’s grandfather), grand-scale and elegant, with an indoor swimming pool. We were there to look at Chinese art objects she meant to give the Freer, and later did—a separate publication of these records and illustrates them. (Among them were the “Drunken Priest” scroll attributed to Li Gonglin, and the Li Shan “Wind and Snow in the Fir-pines” scroll, which I had published for the first time in my Southern Sung catalog.) But the main point of my account: over lunch she told stories about herself and Freer, and revealed something I hadn’t heard before: that the illness that afflicted him in his late years, called by a curious name unfamiliar to me so that I had never quite understood it, was really syphilis. He probably contracted this during one of his trips to Asia, Japan or China. He ended his life blind, still (so went the moving story) fingering pieces of jade for the tactile pleasure they gave him.

C. “Seeing All the Tessai Paintings at the Kiyoshi Kôjin”

Everybody seriously engaged in studies of art is familiar with the experience of spending a lot of time in an exhibition of works by a single artist, and becoming so imbued with that artist’s special vision that one’s whole apprehension of the world around one is altered for a time. I recall a particularly vivid and powerful experience of that kind, when I spent four or five whole days looking at paintings by (or purportedly by) Tomioka Tessai at the Kiyoshi Kôjin, the temple in the hills above Takarazuka which has a huge collection of his paintings. (About this, see Reminisce no. 52, “Tessai, the Temple, and Three Bishops.”) Because of my sponsorship of Tessai exhibitions in the U.S. and elsewhere, and my assistance to the old Bishop Kôjô Sakamoto when he traveled to New York for the opening of the first one at the Met in 1957, I enjoyed a very special relationship with the Temple—which, not irrelevantly, was made very rich by large contributions from its believers. I never visited Japan without going there for a stay of several days. On one such visit, longer than usual, I was shown their entire holdings of Tessai and would-be Tessai paintings, under the guise of soliciting my “valuable opinion” about the authenticity of the paintings (their collection contains a lot of imitations and fakes along with a larger number of genuine works). This was before the building of their Tessai Museum, and the paintings were still stored in a building near the large main hall where guests were put up. I sat there, or knelt, at a long table together with Kôsô-san, the adopted son and successor to the old bishop, while other priests carried in the paintings in their multi-layered boxes, took them out and unrolled them before us, then rerolled and packed and took them away. Kôsô was kneeling beside me the whole time and taking notes; after looking for a while at each one I would say either “tate” (upright, real thing) or “yoko” (sideways, fake.)  When I said the wrong thing (he knew much better than I what the right answer was, and was asking my opinion only out of courtesy, and to enable me to see the whole collection), Kôsô would clear his throat and murmur something like, “I’m sure you really mean yoko?” and I would hastily agree. So we spent four or five days, for quite a few hours each day, mornings and afternoons. (Dinners at the Kiyoshi Kôjin could be the subject of another Reminiscence.)

I had never before had the experience of seeing so many works by or close to a single painter at one stretch, and never would again. My whole vision was so totally taken over by Tessai’s way of seeing and representing the world that when, on a day after our viewing was over, we drove through the hills to the Arima Onsen, the hotspring resort on the mountain above Kobe, for dinner at an inn there, all the scenery along the way was the scenery of Tessai landscapes. It was an experience burned deep into my memory.

D. “I’ll Always Remember What’s-his-name.”

During my Fulbright year in Japan, 1954-5, I lived in Kyoto but made frequent trips to Tokyo, riding cheap student-class on an overnight train that provided a kind of hard shelf to sleep on, arriving mornings to enjoy a simple breakfast in some streetside eatery before making my way to an equally cheap ryokan or inn. But, in a pattern with which young art historians become familiar, I found myself moving also in the more comfortable world of well-off people of the sort who could collect art, or dealers who became prosperous through handling it. (I had made friends with Junkichi Mayuyama while still at the Freer, and through a chance meeting in New York when we were both feeling in need of companionship; his store near Kyôbashi, Ryûsendô, became a center for my stays in Tokyo for many years. I never knowingly helped his business, and he understood that.)

On one of my trips to Tokyo I met—through the Fulbright Commission?—an elegantly-dressed young man named something like Moriya? (memory fails—hence title of this.) We’ll call him Moriya. He took me to a good and expensive dinner, I remember, and then to his hotel room where he showed me paintings in his possession. They included, to my astonishment, the small painting of a monkey ascribed to the Southern Song Academy master Mao Song, which was supposed to be in the Manju-in, a temple in Kyoto. How could he have acquired it? Temples are sometimes forced by poverty to sell their treasures; it must have been through such a sale. He was having it remounted and restored. He also had major emaki (picture scrolls) ascribed to Sôtatsu based on the great Saigyô Monogatari scrolls, and others important works I don’t remember, pieces of National Treasure or Important Cultural Property level. He had somewhere learned that I had some standing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Freer Gallery in D.C., and elsewhere among U.S. museums and collectors, and he wanted me, at some financial benefit to myself, to represent him in selling these paintings in the U.S.—with the provision that the buyers would keep their ownership secret for eight years, so that he, Moriya, would not get in trouble for exporting them. Attractive as he made his proposition—and the pleasures of others of Tokyo’s delights were added to make it even more so—I had the good sense to turn him down. That was the end of our association; I never, to my knowledge, saw him again.

Some years later, however, I encountered his name again. It was when the “Sano Kenzan” scandal was breaking. A group of ceramic pieces appeared that were said to have been discovered at Sano, a town north of Tokyo, where the great potter Ogata Kenzan had spent some time; they were being promoted as hitherto-unknown works of his from his “Sano period.” They were strikingly original in design and coloring, and exhibited some correspondences to a preserved illustrated set of notes Kenzan had made during his stay in Sano, correspondences that helped to convince some people of their genuineness. The famous English potter Bernard Leach was one of those persuaded by them and became an advocate of their authenticity, much to the detriment of his reputation as an artisan-scholar. In the end they were revealed to have been the creations of a little-known living Osaka potter. And a key figure in the whole affair, who was at least part-owner of them, was promoting them, and stood to make a lot of money from their sale, was—yes, my old friend What’s-his name, maybe Moriya. Seeing his name in an early account of the discovery aroused my suspicions, as did images of the pieces themselves, too unlike true works of Kenzan’s time to be acceptable as his. The Osaka potter had a moment of fame, and the “Sano Kenzan” pots were on the market  for a time, perhaps still are, in their true identity. But the whole episode has taken its place as one of the notable artistic frauds of recent times.

E. Formula art: Abraham Kaplan Telling the Story of His Friend Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald.

During my years as a grad student in Ann Arbor I audited a course in aesthetics given by the philosopher Abraham Kaplan, who taught at UCLA for many years but also sometimes at the University of Michigan. He used John Dewey’s book Art As Experience as a main text, and argued for a method he called contextual: instead of analyzing the art object, one attempts to define and analyze the experience it arouses, and the circumstances that surround and affect that experience. I was largely persuaded and deeply affected by his lectures and by the reading I did.

One of his lectures was on what is called formula art, in which the maker follows a pre-existing formula in creating the work. We ordinarily think of this as leading to over-familiar or dull or otherwise bad art; in arguing that that wasn’t its necessary outcome, Kaplan cited the case of his Los Angeles friend the writer Kenneth Millar (1915-1983). Millar was an author of thrillers, having only modest success under his own name; his wife Margaret Millar was also a noted thriller-writer. He determined, as Kaplan told the story, to satisfy the feelings of frustration felt by the many enthusiasts for Raymond Chandler’s private-eye novels, frustration that Chandler had written so few, by writing more of them. Under the pseudonym John Ross Macdonald, later shortened to Ross Macdonald—taken on partly to avoid competing with his wife, partly to signal the new direction—he began to produce Chandler imitations, with a detective named Lew Archer replacing Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Before writing the first of them, he made a careful and systematic analysis of Chandler’s novels to determine their constant patterns—plot structure, openings and resolutions, language and tropes such as the acute descriptive metaphors, devices for building suspense and holding interest, the way of making the solution to the mystery depend on things that had happened in the past and were now uncovered. (That’s my own summary of a Chandler formula, not Kaplan’s.) And he followed this careful formula in writing his series of novels. Were they denounced as “formula art”? Not a bit of it—they were wildly successful, both as best-sellers and critically—one critic called them "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." So much for originality, and the avoidance of formula art!

F. Movie-making from the "Chinese Art Treasures" Exhibition

When the great “Chinese Art Treasures” exhibition from the National Palace Museum in Taiwan was shown at the National Gallery in D.C., the Freer Gallery and National Gallery photographers worked together to make big sets of original slides (using a camera with a multiple-exposure shutter and large rolls of 35mm Ektachrome film) from the objects in the show, especially the paintings, and these were sold at cost to museums and educational institutions all over—they revolutionized the teaching of Chinese art history. But our plan was also to shoot enough film footage of the objects to make a fine educational film from them. Unfortunately for our purpose, the National Gallery had a fixed policy of giving such a job to the lowest bidder, not to the most qualified. H. C. (Wan’go) Weng, himself a major collector (through having inherited the collection of his distant ancestor Weng Tonghe) and a maker of fine films of this kind, wanted very much to get the job; but instead, in accordance with this misguided policy, it went to a firm with no experience in art –film making—their previous production had been a commercial film on dentistry. I would see them photographing in the galleries at times when these were not open to the public, but neither I nor any other knowledgeable person was consulted about the making of the film. I remember arriving one morning to find them shooting the end section of the great Huang Gongwang “Fuchun Mountains” scroll of 1347-50. As everyone familiar with this famous work knows, Huang carried it around with him for three years, working on it sporadically, until the intended recipient, afraid he would never get it, demanded that he finish it. Huang, perhaps while inebriated, dashed off a rather hastily-  and sloppily-drawn ending, with a few dian-dots that appear to be almost randomly applied. (See my Hills Beyond a River pp. 111-13 for a fuller account.) I went up to the person supervising the photographing and asked him why they were shooting that section. Because, he said, their electric-cord connection would reach only that far. Their work came to nothing—the finished film was never made, or never accepted and distributed by the National Gallery, and a great opportunity was lost. I used to use this story to illustrate a simple maxim: don’t choose the cheapest!

Final note: in the previous Reminiscence, No. 82, I wrote about the CDs produced by singer-musician Bill Crofut and his associates, advising parents strongly to buy two of them, “Child’s Song: Songs and Poems” and “Dance On a Moonbeam,” to play for their children. I mentioned a third, “Lullabies and Dances,” made with the singer Juianne Baird, only in passing, writing that it had not been such a success with my children as the other two. That much is true; but listening to it again, more carefully (not through a car radio), made me acutely aware of how badly I had undervalued it. As musical performance, and especially as exemplifying Crofut’s belief that when performed the right way on the right combination of voices and instruments, the distinction between folk music and classical music can pretty much be made to disappear, it is almost transcendentally lovely, to the point where one wonders how this group of mortals, the two of them and the members of the Crofut Consort, coming together in 1989 to record at the Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York, can have attained such unearthly heights. Buy it and listen to it, in a quiet time. (Several of the recorded performances on it are repeated in Dance On a Moonbeam.)

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