London 1935/36 Exhibition: " Early" Paintings from China


London 1935/36 Exhibition: “Early” Paintings from China

Prefatory Note: This will be an attempt to assess in greater detail the “early” (pre-Sung and Sung) Chinese paintings among the loans sent by the Chinese government to the London 1935-36 exhibition. (I mean, of course, the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, London, British Museum, 1935-36.) My argument, communicated to several colleagues but never published, has been that the “early” paintings among that selection are so overwhelmingly “bad” choices, and the really early surviving works by major masters among them so few, that we have to conclude that this “bad” selection was deliberate: the Chinese selection committee, either on instruction from higher up or on their own initiative, deliberately avoided sending more than a few of their “national treasure” works to London, probably (I speculate) believing either that it would be too dangerous to send these most valuable pieces overseas, or that the foreigners wouldn’t really know the difference anyway—or both. I knew two people who were members of this selection committee, C. C. Wang and Xu Bangda, but failed to remember to ask them this question while they were still able to respond. (Wang died; Xu was unable to communicate clearly, as reported by a friend who, at my request, tried putting this question to him on a visit to him in Beijing late in his life. See, on my website, R&R no. 67, “Ask Old People Things While They Still Can Answer.”)

To the initial response of some colleagues with whom I’ve raised this matter, that the committee must have made honest mistakes, not yet having determined what the real early masterworks were, I sent the following paragraphs (May, 2010):

“In Berkeley I also did something I could only do there, about the 1935 -36 London exhibition problem. I’m never going to reach the point of writing a learned article about this, but I will post another thing about it on my website eventually, and correspond with interested people.

. “What I did in Berkeley is look into my copy—falling apart—of the important old book that in my Index of Early Ch Ptrs & Ptgs (see Biblio p. 392) is called Nanking Exhib. cat., the illustrated catalog of a government-sponsored exhibition held in Nanjing in 1937, just the year after London. My thought was: if the Chinese committee that chose the paintings to go to London had really chosen all those bad paintings as honest mistaken judgments, then the selection for their own exhibition in Nanjing the year later should be correspondingly weak. What I found was pretty much what I suspected, the opposite of that: all the great early paintings from the Palace Museum collection that didn’t go to London did to to Nanjing for this one: “Ching Hao” Mt. K’uang-lu (#8), Chao Kan scroll (#14), Fan K’uan ((#16), Li T’ang 1124 (#18), Ts’ui Po 1061 (#1061), Kuo Hsi 1072 (#25), Wu Yuan-chih “Red Cliff” (#28), the great Hsia Kuei “Pure and Remote View” scroll (#34), and so forth. Lots of major Yuan ptgs, although the Huang Kung-wang Fu-ch’un scroll is somehow absent. And lots of fine & famous Ming-Ch’ing ptgs; good selection of Shitao and Bada, etc. Famous albums of Sung ptgs. In other words, a selection at least as good as our Chinese Art Treasures show of 1960, which introduced these treasures to US audiences. They knew exactly what they were doing. The preface to the catalog mentions the BM exhibition, and the Chinese government sending things to it, but says nothing about the selection? Someone else should read this, who reads Chinese better, to get the implications. They may be saying that the committee held off on sending the great works to London to save them for Nanjing. But even so, the London selection could have been a lot better, if they honestly meant to send "national treasures" as they claimed to be doing. Anyway, my point, I think, is made. I still don’t have the Chinese catalog of what they sent to London—it’s being shipped—so what I write about that is from memory. But as I wrote before, I think that just about the only “good” early painting that went to London is the Ma Yuan “Banquet by Lantern Light,” which they included because at that time it was believed in China to be the bad one.”

Now (July 2010) I have my purchased copy of the Chinese catalog of painting and calligraphy loans and can proceed with a more detailed analysis.

(Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Government Exhibits for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London, Shanghai, 1936, 4 vols.; volume on painting and calligraphy.)

First of all, of the recognized masterworks of early painting listed above, eight of them, from the “Ching Hao” Mt. K’uang-lu (not all that masterly, really, as shown in my lecture series, in which I show details from it and see it to be an impressive composition executed by a routine hand—a copy?) to the “great Hsia Kuei scroll,” how many went to London? Answer: none. Zero, zilch, naught. The “Anon. Sung”  Banquet by Lantern Light went (no. 58) but only because it was then believed to be the copy, and the one ascribed to Ma Yuan the original. We now know that it’s the reverse. So, what did London get in “pre-Sung” and “Sung” paintings? Enough to send studies of early Ch. painting in wrong directions for a whole generation: (using their numbers)

1. a “Li Chao-tao” Loyang Tower picture, much later;

2. The wrong “Emperor Ming-huang’s Journey” picture, called Travelers in Spring Mountains (Loehr reproduces both in his book);

3. An “Anon. T’ang” Snow LS, really much later;

4. An album of fan=shaped leaves  with facing inscriptions called “T’iao Kwan-yin,  Five Dynasties”—not so early, no association with him;

5. One real masterpiece: Deer in an Autumn Forest, now recognized  as a Liao work, not so highlyvalued then;

6. Anon. 5 Dyn.: “Fisherman on Snowy Day,” much reproduced afterwords, favorite with non-specialists, but surely post-Sung;

7. “Tung Yuan,” the Lungshan Chiao Min picture; good Yuan-dynasty work, much discussed  later for its subject, much  reproduced—how often we gazed at it;

8. Awful fake Chû-jan, not earlier than Ming;

9. “Fan K’uan, “Sittng Alone By a Stream,” later Sung school work, not bad, not The Fan K’uan;

10. “Yen Wen-kuei,” “Three Immortals in a Cave,” strange Ming picture;

11. “Chao Ch’ang” flower picture, “Sui-ch’ao t’u” = New Year’s, Ming decorative work;

12. “Chao Ch’ang” Peonies: ditto (give the foreigners some pretty flower pictures!)

13.”Ts’ui Po” Goose, Yuan or early Ming, ditto;

14., (Sung calligraphy=-for someone else to judge, not me);

15. “Kuo Hsi” Spring snow on Mountain Pass, with insc. dtd. 1072. Yuan work? Much discussed, believed in, e.g. by Loehr.

16. “Kuo Hsi” Landscape (with tall cliff). Ming picture.

17. “Kuo Hsi” Recluse in Mountain Village, Ming Che-school, by Li Tsai? (How could this great artist be represented by three such mediocre works?)

18. “Mi Fei” (Fu), “Pine Trees and Mountains in Spring.” This was in Chinese Art Treasures (not one of my choices); no opinion on real date..

19.”Emperor Hui Tsung” White Goose & Red Polygonums.. Yuan-Ming copy?

20. “Hui-tsung” Evening Scene by Lake handscroll, on paper, broad style; I’ve never known what to do with these, don’t especially like them.

21. More Sung calligraphy: no opinion.

22. “Li Ti” Buffalo and Herdboys Returning. This was in Chinese Art Treasures; I ended up taking it to be a good court copy.

23. “Li T’ang” Milch Cow with eErdboy. Early Ming copy?

24. “Chao Po-chô” Spring Mountains. Ming, close to Ch’iu Ying.

25. Su Han-ch’en, Children At Play. This was in Chinese Art Treasures; fine work, quite likely as attributed.

27. Su Han-ch’en, “A Pedlar of Toys.” Good Ming work.

28. Ma Ho-chih, Willowy Stream in Spring. Fine early work, could be.

29. “Ma Ho-chih,” Busy Idler: man sitting under tree twisting thread. Ming work.

30. “Liu Sung-nien,” Women Weaving. Ming work.

31. “Liu Sung-nien,” Five Scholars of T’ang, Fine; Southern Sung Academy?

32.  “Lin Ch’un” Ten Magpies Singing. Ming work.

33. Chu Hsi calligraphy, with portrait of him at beginning.

34. “Yen Tz’u-p’ing” “Four Pleasures.” Style of Yuan Chiang! Ridiculous as Sung painting.

35. “Li Sung” Arhat. Probably Yuan painting.

36. “Ma Yuan” Gazing At the Moon.” Ming work, by Chung Li, whose signature and seal are still on it!

37. “Ma Yuan,” Solitary Fisherman Sleeping in Boat. Ming work.

38. “Hsia Kuei” Willow Bank on West Lake. Ming work.

39. “Hsia Kuei,” 10,000 Li of Yangtze, Long, long handscroll. Ming Zhe-school work. (I read somewhere that the BM people, or somebody, particularly requested this; doesn’t excuse Chinese committee for sending it.)

40. “Ma Lin” Three Quail Under Tree in Snow. Ming picture.

41. “Lu Tsung-kuei” Birds Welcoming the Spring. Ming work.

42. Album: Li=tai hua;-fu chi-=ts’e. This has several good paintings in it, bird-and-flower pictures, a picture of T’ao Yuan-ming Drunk; but also a “Li Ch’eng” painted by Wang Hui, early Ch’ing. Ch’ien-lung Emperor loved it.

So, to state the question asked above in another way: Were there any paintings in the group from China that were reliable works by any Sung or pre-Sung artist? Answer: maybe one, no. 25, the Su Han-ch’en “Children At Play,” not signed but plausibly by him.  No others, not one.

Nos. 43-62: these are Anon. Sung paintings, including a number of fine and genuinely early ones. The selection committee was much more generous in sending anonymous early paintings than they were with “signed” or attributed ones. As noted before, no. 58, the “Anon. Sung” Banquet By Lantern-light is the work now recognized as the genuine Ma Yuan painting of this subject; it was sent because at that time the “Ma Yuan” version was mistaken as the original.

Nos. 63-103, Yuan paintings: Here, too, the selection was much better, and includes quite a few fine and genuine works. Sending the “wrong” Huang Kung-wang Fu-ch’un scroll (no. 70), the one with Ch’ien-lung inscriptions covering most of the bare spaces, may have been an honest mistake--there was still some disagreement at this time about which was the genuine work.

All-over conclusions: The Chinese government’s selection committee, either acting on their own judgment or on instructions from above, avoided sending any of the recognized masterworks by Sung and earlier artists to the London 1935 - 36 exhibition. This decision, and the subsequent reproduction and citation in writings on Chinese painting of the “wrong” paintings that were sent instead, seriously set back studies in the West for several decades, until the 1961 Chinese Art Treasures exhibition brought the good ones to the U.S., allowed extensive slide-making and photographing, and totally transformed our field of study.  Those of us who studied the subject, formally or just by reading, during the 1940s-50s had to use books by Siren, Cohn, Loehr and others in which the "wrong" paintings were reproduced and discussed, along with the “good” ones, as by Sung artists. Arthur Waley and others who criticized the Chinese selection at the time of the London exhibition were right in doing so; John C. Ferguson and others who maintained that the Chinese datings must be respected because their level of connoisseurship was superior were wrong. It is time for the record to be set straight on this crucial episode in the history of Chinese painting studies.

Added Note: Re-reading the essay by John C. Ferguson (“Reflections on the London Exhibition of Chinese Art,” in T’ien Hsia Monthly II/5, May 1936, 433 -442), I am reminded that his criticism was directed at the British writers of the exhibition catalog and labels for suggesting datings that differed from those given in the Chinese catalog. His long penultimate paragraph (pp. 441-2) provides examples of changed dates for the paintings, and makes clear—no surprise—that the British authorities were not themselves on very solid ground in this area (in contrast to others such as ceramics and bronzes, in which they had themselves engaged in high-level collecting and scholarship). They wrote, for example, of no. 995, the “Children At Play” attributed to Su Han-ch’en—the one Sung-attributed painting in the whole Chinese government selection, as suggested above, that has a good chance of being by the artist to whom it is attributed—they wrote of it as “unsigned but probably Ming.” But this British weakness on dating and attribution of paintings does not, I think, excuse the deliberate choices of “bad” paintings by the Chinese committee, which did know better, as is shown (see above) by the selection made for the Nanjing exhibition in the following year, and by abundant other evidence.

Another added note: Arthur Waley, bless him, wrote in his review of the exhibition (Time and Tide for November 30, 1935): “Despite the admirable way in which the objects are displayed, it must be confessed that this exhibition is something of a disappointment. . . The pictures, indeed, come near to being a fiasco.”

Reading about exhibition organizers who alter the datings of paintings sent from China reminds me of my own experience in 1961 when conservative Chinese authorities in Taipei, after reading our text for the painting section of the Chinese Art Treasures catalog in which we proposed datings later than the traditional attributions for some of the paintings, demanded that we return to the traditional datings—if we did not, they warned, the exhibition would not go forward. How I responded to this demand in a way that could have caused a crisis, and how the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. (and my friend) George Yeh saved the day with a compromise, is told in the opening pages of my essay “The Place of the National Palace Museum in My Scholarly Career,” on my website as CLP (Cahill Lectures and Papers) no. 117 (2005). The crucial difference, I hasten to point out, is that the revised datings we used in the catalog were not foreign opinions opposed to or “correcting” Chinese, but opinions shared by the real authorities both Chinese and foreign: the selection of paintings for this exhibition, and the re-datings of some of them offered in the catalog, were heavily based on my own experience of looking at these paintings with Chinese specialists such as C. C. Wang and Li Lin-ts’an, and were in line with the views of other really knowledgeable authorities such as the Palace Museum’s Director Chuang Yen. The demand that traditional attributions (based on those made in the Qianlong Emperor’s catalog) be retained was made rather by powerful conservative political figures on the Palace Museum’s governing committee, notably Wang Shih-chieh. This, too, is spelled out in my essay.

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