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Debate Over Attributions of Chinese Paintings

At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art

- First Questioned in The City Review

and then in The New Yorker -

Continue In Orientations


Major Asian Art Magazine Publishes Long Letters

Both Defending and Attacking Museum’s Position

- Sherman Lee, top expert, joins the critics

By Carter B. Horsley

The lead article in the December, 1997 issue of Orientations was devoted to three of 11 paintings recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from C. C. Wang in a gift from Oscar Tang. The article was written by Maxwell Hearn, the curator of the museum’s Chinese Paintings Department.

A second article, by Valerie C. Doran, entitled "Art in Context: The New Galleries for Later Chinese Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," described the museum’s Chinese Art collections and included photographs of many of the principal players in its history over the past quarter century or so: Douglas Dillon, Brooke Astor, Wen Fong, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Irving, and Oscar L. Tang.

Of more interest, however, was a lengthy letter published in the same issue by Richard Barnhart, another Chinese Painting scholar, attacked allegations in an article by Carl Nagin that had recently appeared in The New Yorker magazine that the "star" acquisition of the recent Tang gift, "The Riverbank," attributed to Dong Yuan (d. 962), might not be authentic. Barnhart was a pupil of Wen Fong, the Princeton University professor who has been a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and guided and recommended its many acquisitions in the field since the early 1970’s, including a group of 25 paintings from C. C. Wang in 1973 that the museum claimed were major masterpieces. Barnhart was then one of three "outside" experts brought in to "vet" that acquisition. The other two outside experts were Laurence Sickman and Sherman Lee, directors, respectively, of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Cleveland Art Museum, and ranking American scholars on Asian art.

Sickman and Lee revealed that the museum and its director, Thomas P. F. Hoving, had been deceptive in its comments on the outside experts' evaluation of the C. C. Wang paintings. They both maintained that they had graded the paintings only from A to B, in accordance with the standard established by art scholar Oswald Siren in attributing paintings to certain dynasties with A meaning probably of the specific dynasty and B meaning probably not of the specific dynasty. The museum and its director, however, indicated that the experts had been asked to grade the works from A, highest quality, to D, lowest quality, and boasted that the lowest grade was only B. In interviews with me, Barnhart upheld the museum’s position, but Sickman and Lee did not. Furthermore, a lengthy story by me interviewing 18 of the world’s top authorities in the subject (of which they were then probably no more than 23) indicated that the consensus opinion was that most of the works were wrongly attributed, in many cases by more than a century, and several of the authorities interviewed indicated that some were probably by Chang da-Chien (Zhang Daqian, in the now popular spelling), a legendary forger as well as connoisseur and collector and dealer, who was then still alive and a close friend of C. C. Wang. I wrote a very long story for The New York Times, but it was withheld at the last minute and instead of running as the off lead of the daily paper and five columns in length ran about two-thirds of a column on an inside page several months later, over my vehement protests over its rewriting and downplaying.

Barnhart is the John M. Schiff Professor of Art History at Yale University.

Under the heading "Commentary" Orientations ran the following article, entitled "The Spurious Controversy over The Riverbank" by Barnhart in its December, 1997 issue:

"The New Yorker magazine of 11 August this year carried a brief item concerning an announcement that had been made in May of a promised gift of eleven Chinese paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (reported on the front page of The New York Times, 19 May 1997). Carl Nagin, the reporter whose by-line accompanied the article, wrote that one of the most important of the eleven promised paintings, The Riverbank, attributed by signature to the 10th Century landscape master Dong Yuan, was a modern forgery by the great Chinese painter and forger Zhang Daqian. In support of this opinion, about which he himself clearly has no knowledge, Nagin quoted James Cahill, who does. Cahill had presented his view, that Zhang painted The Riverbank, at a scholarly symposium in Washington in 1991. In the too brief aftermath of that lecture, as time ran out, he was in effect booed off the stage by an outraged audience of curators and art historians that found his arguments completely arbitrary and unconvincing, and who were standing in lines that would have been heard for hours to refute him. Six years later, in full possession of Cahill’s view and finding nothing in it of any validity, the Metropolitan museum announced the acquisition of The Riverbank. Since Cahill’s view was well known to everyone, including the curatorial staff of the museum, and was of no interest to anyone but Cahill himself, it is difficult to understand why this non-event should have been considered to be a news story of any possible interest to the readership of The New Yorker – unless one assumes that the shock value of sheer rumour-mongering was the primary purpose of the item. A fact-checker at the magazine who called me twice to run over certain details of the non-story informed me that at least two other ‘scholars’ also believed The Riverbank to be a forgery, one of them a notorious dealer who is fond of repainting old Chinese pictures to ‘improve’ them. The only thing such opinions demonstrate is that those who espouse them can not distinguish any differences between a painting of the 10th Century and one of the 20th. Cahill wrote of The Riverbank in his Index of Early Chinese Painters and Paintings (1980, p. 48): ‘Important early work? Or modern fabrication?’ When an art historian thus reveals that his dating of old pictures has a built-in plus-or-minus variable of a thousand years he also uncovers for all to see the shifting bed of mud upon which understanding of early Chinese painting rests.

"On the other side of the issue is the grotesque over-inflation of value and historical significance that museums now find it necessary to employ when presenting their collections to the public. As reported on the front page of The New York Times, the Metropolitan’s promised gift was announced with such hyperbole that even this writer, one of the few art historians who has written at length and admiringly about The Riverbank, had to cringe in disbelief and discomfort. I can understand why reporters wish to dig up controversy, even – or perhaps especially – when they possess no knowledge of their own with which to assess the validity of their material. But why do great museums find it necessary to promote their wares like hucksters selling quack nostrums? The Riverbank is a beautiful old landscape painting, one of several important works attributed to Dong Yuan, and has interesting points of association with other works of the 10th and early 11th Centuries, the period to which it can be dated. But as reported in The Times, it had now become ‘the largest and earliest’ of the three rarest and most important early monumental landscape paintings in the world,’ joined to Fan Kuan’s Travelers by Streams and Mountains and Guo Xi’s Early Spring as one of the ‘Three Great Monuments of Early Chinese Landscape Painting’. Here we see the same odd self-serving promotional process by which the Manchus gave us ‘The Six Great Masters of Qing Painting’ (none of whom counts among the great masters of Chinese paintings) to provide a safe canon for their newly-acquired colony, and Don Qichang promoted ‘The Four Great Masters of Ming Painting’ (all oddly living in the little city of Suzhou at around the same time) so that he could take his rightful place as their successor and superior, and as the natural culmination of Ming painting. This is art history in the making, as reported in The New York Times. But it is an art history as completely spurious as Cahill’s. The Riverbank is neither ‘the largest and earliest’ of the three rarest and most important early monumental landscape paintings in the world’, nor a modern forgery of Zhang Daqian or anyone else. Like all of the thirty or forty paintings attributed with substantial reason to the landscape masters of the 10th and 11th centuries, it is a rare and nearly unique work, not quite securely documented or attributed, and only approximately dateable, yet testimony to one of the most brilliant eras in the history of art – the century between 925 and 1025, when the art of landscape painting was created in China. The relatively few paintings that have survived from this era must nowadays also survive not only journalistic sensation-seekers and eccentric art historians, who can and so say anything they wish, but institutional self-promotional campaigns that beggar the tobacco industry. Great paintings do not need to be flacked before the public like a brand of cigarettes.

"The Metropolitan museum is planning an international gathering of scholars to examine their promised gift in yet another public forum, and no doubt Cahill will once again present his view. By then, whatever shock value may once have been, it will have come now to resemble a miserable, tattered banner, run up the flagpole once again, to be shot full of more holes and ripped apart until, flapping madly and uselessly, it slowly disappears before our eyes. I only hope The New Yorker and The New York Times report that story. But of course they won’t, since there will be neither sensationalism nor a need for institutional or financial hyperbole in that inevitable outcome to any rational examination of The Riverbank. It is certainly not ‘the Mona Lisa’ of Chinese painting, despite the obvious authority of The New York Times for making such a claim, but it is one of the treasures of world art – and a painting that helps us to understand how the art of landscape painting was invented in China a thousand years ago."

In its June, 1998 issue, Orientations, which does not publish issues in July and August, ran an even lengthier "Letter to the Editor" by Carl Nagin of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, responding to Barnhart’s "commentary."

The following is the complete "letter" as published in Orientations:

"In his commentary in the December 1997 issue of Orientations – ‘The Spurious Controversy over The Riverbank’ – Richard Barnhart makes several misrepresentations. First, he claims that in my brief article in The New Yorker (‘At the Museums’, 11 August 1997) I wrote that The Riverbank, attributed by curators at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as a 10th century landscape painted by Dong Yuan, was a modern forgery by Zhang Daqian. What I actually reported was that James Cahill, a widely respected senior scholar in the field, believes it probably is Zhang’s handiwork. Elsewhere in the same issue, your auction report suggests that my article may have ‘increased the wariness of some already cautious buyers’ at Sotheby’s September sale of ‘The C. C. Wang Family Collection of Important Chinese Painting’. Give Sotheby’s clients some credit! Perhaps they took their cues from the scrolls, and not The New Yorker.

"My article was written as a cautionary response to a front page story in The New York Times reporting (or should I say promoting) the Met’s acquisition of The Riverbank with a puffery worthy of P. T. Barnum. When Met curators, its press releases and former owner C. C. Wang hyped it as ‘one of the most important landscape paintings in the world’, likening Dong Yuan to DaVinci and Giotto and transforming the scroll into, in C. C. Wang’s words, ‘the Mona Lisa of Chinese Painting,’ the Met’s pearl began to smell fishy. Even on the hoary, slippery slopes of Chinese painting connoisseurship, such breathless encomia ought to raise an eyebrow or two. Barnhart’s commentary decries the ‘grotesque over-inflation of value and historical significance’ purveyed by the Met and the Times (whose publisher is Chairman of the museum’s Board of Trustees). But here Barnhart, who has staked much of his scholarly reputation on this scroll’s attribution, protests too much; in his own 1983 publication Along the Border of Heaven (quoted in the Times), he writes that ‘its importance to the history of art can scarcely be overstated.’

"Whatever the real margin for error, no other Chinese painting in recent memory has appeared on the front page of the Times, and as a reporter who has spilled some ink writing about Zhang and the field’s wars of attribution, I thought it best for the public to know that there is more than one way to look at a Chinese landscape, even the priciest, and that not all the votes are in on the scroll’s authenticity. Why else has the Met convened a symposium for 1999 to vet some of The Riverbank’s darker, more obscure passages? Heavily restored, it made its way to the Met via Zhang and then C. C. Wang from the mounting shop of Kokado Meguro, dressed in old silk and transformed, like Zhuangzi in his famous butterfly dream, for scholars to ask: is this Zhang dreaming he is Dong Yuan? Or a Dong Yuan reborn as a giant Zhang? Cahill, who has spent forty years tracking Zhang’s fakes, met with similar resistance when he challenged the British Museum’s purchase of Dense Forests and Layered Peaks, a work attributed to Juran, a follower of Dong Yuan, and which was touted in the press by scholars like Michael Sullivan as a Northern Sung masterpiece. Cahill was correct: the scroll was one of many pastiches that Zhang created in the 1940’s and early 1950’s of works from the Dong-Ju School. Is history repeating itself at the Met?

"Barnhart’s second misrepresentation is more serious: he tries to marginalize Cahill by stating that he was ‘in effect booed off the stage by an outraged audience of curators and art historians’ at the 1991 Sackler symposium on Zhang Daqian, where Cahill made public his doubts about The Riverbank. I attended this symposium and can attest that nothing of the sort occurred there. Cahill’s paper was an amusingly candid narrative of his long detective work unmasking Zhang’s forgeries, east and west. His talk was convincing, warmly received and utterly devoid of personal animus.

"Barnhart was a student of Wen Fong (who serves as Consultative Chairman of the Asian Art Department at the Met and whose brother-in-law intends to donate The Riverbank to the museum), and it is their views that turn out to be in the minority. In subsequent investigations, I have found that many scholars and museum directors agree with Cahill. These include Hironobu Kohara, a prominent art historian at Nara University. In 1977, Kohara edited the Bunjinga Suihen series on Chinese literati painting, which published Barnhart’s attribution of The Riverbank in the volume devoted to Dong Yuan and Juran. Yet, Kohara published a companion essay to that volume expressing doubts about the scroll. More recently, he has written that ‘the technique is only possible to be done by Zhang’, and cites stylistic anomalies in the shading of huge mountains and rendering of motifs that echo other Zhang forgeries he names. Another senior scholar who concurs, Harrie Vanderstappen, recently commended Cahill for speaking out about a painting that is ‘obviously a modern pastiche.’

"While the distinguished Beijing Palace connoisseur Xu Bangda and the calligraphy expert Qi Gong both believe that The Riverbank may be an old painting, neither accepts it as a 10th century work by Dong Yuan or the masterpiece touted by the Met. Finally, there is Sherman E. Lee, former director of The Cleveland Museum of Art, and co-author with Wen Fong of Streams and Mountains Without End, the first serious effort to apply Western art-historical methodology to the attribution of Chinese painting. Lee, who recently made two visits to the Met to study the painting, agrees with Cahill that The Riverbank is ‘muddled, devoid of coherent structure and consistently confused’, and thinks the Met ‘made a big mistake… If I were quizzed by defenders of the piece,’ he added, ‘I would ultimately say that any idiot can see that this is a fake, and if you can’t see it, I can’t help you.’

"Last October, Chinese Art News published articles by experts (including two former students of Wen Fong) challenging Cahill’s contention that the Met’s scroll may be a Zhang forgery. But, as Cahill notes, apart from the Met curators and a few Princeton alumni, no living independent authority has yet come forth who accepts The Riverbank as a canonical early painting, much less a genuine Dong Yuan. That five prominent scholars take issue with Barnhart and the Met’s reading of the scroll (as do many others who would not go on record) should put to rest any notion that this controversy is spurious. To accept the scroll as an authentic Dong Yuan would necessitate in Cahill’s words ‘an entire re-writing of the history of early Chinese painting.’

"I do not doubt the sincerity of Barnhart’s view or that he argues it with integrity. But his attack on Cahill, with whom he has authored several publications, is unworthy of a serious scholar, raising more questions than it addresses by dint of its mean-spirited tone and factual misrepresentations. This is an authentic controversy because it goes to the core of yet unresolved issues in the stylistic evolution of early Chinese landscape painting. The differences and breadth of opinion expressed by senior scholars should be addressed with more critical objectivity than Barnhart displays. By personalizing the dispute, he arouses suspicions that something more than pure scholarship may be at stake for him."

Barnhart’s "commentary" article was fascinatingly not only for its vituperative and vitriolic attack on Cahill, perhaps the most widely respected American scholar in the field, several of whose books on the subject of Chinese Art are on sale at the museum’s bookstore, and who was a co-author with Barnhart of "Three Thousand Years of Chinese Art," published by the Yale University Press in 1997 and containing two reproductions, in one of Barnhart's essays, of Dong Yuan paintings but not The Riverbank, but also for its unequivocal criticism of both The New York Times and the museum for the grandiose comparisons of The Riverbank with famous masterpieces.

Nagin’s "letter" in response to Barnhart’s article is devastating in its new revelations of more dissenting opinions on the controversial painting, especially in its quotes from Sherman Lee. The City Review, which had written a story that cast doubts on the authenticity of The Riverbank prior to Nagin’s fine article in The New Yorker, had attempted to interview Lee on the subject, but he had been unavailable at the time. Nagin’s interview with Lee is very important, especially since Lee had recently studied the painting.

In the summer of 1998, furthermore, it was interested to note that the painting was not on view at the Metropolitan, perhaps because it was deemed too fragile to be on permanent exhibit, although some critics might have cynically observed that its controversy was too intense to permit public scrutiny. Also, not clear now is whether the painting is attributed without reservation or is now "attributed to Dong Yuan," which is a lesser attribution and one that is much easier to defend under the circumstances, although presumably it would have major implications for insurance valuations, to say nothing of "gift" evaluations for the Internal Revenue Service.

In his Orientations article, Mr. Hearn wrote the following about The Riverbank:

"Although darkened with age, The Riverbank - the tallest of all surviving early Chinese landscape paintings - marks the majestic inception of the monumental landscape tradition....With its absence of contour lines and use of subtle ink washes to describe the distinctive rounded hills and earthen slopes of southeastern China, The Riverbank epitomizes the southern regional style initiated by Dong Yuan. The painting's use of alternating dark and light tonal modulations to describe earthen surfaces, a transitional phase in the development of texture stroke conventions to model forms, precedes the type of distinct 'hemp-fibre' texture strokes codified in the eleventh century as the brush idiom of Dong Yuan and, particularly, his early interpreter Juran. The painting's depiction of a rustic hermitage in the mountains likewise helped to establish as a lasting thematic ideal the archetype of a scholar-hermit living in elegant reclusion.

"While Palace Banquet (Qiqiao Tu) [hanging scroll at the Metropolitan acquired from C. C. Wang as 10th or 11th Century unknown academy painter associated with the Southern Tang Dynasty], with its complex architectural setting, epitomizes the human world, The Riverbank depicts human activities in a vast landscape defined by extensive watercourses and towering peaks. The composition is dominated by a massive mountain that rises up and back from the foreground river and tree-lined shore in a succession of thrusting promontories and deeply eroded ridges. Juxtaposed with this monumental mountain is a narrow paassage that connects the foreground with a broad river valley in the deep distance. A waterfall that gushes like a fountain out of the mountain flank in a series of elegant cascades further emphasizes the importance of water in the artist's conception of 'landscape', or shanshui (literally, 'mountains-waters').

"In spite of the natural grandeur of this image, human activity is still the principal focus. The scale of the figures is quite large, especially when compared to their minute size in eleventh century landscapes. Indeed, The Riverbank's unusual height may reflect the artist's desire to give the mountain a proper monumentality while retaining a human scale comparable to that found in figure paintings of the period. In spite of its newly gained stature, therefore, landscape still functioned as a framework for human action, enhancing the narrative by guiding the viewer's movement though the picture space.

"As with Palace Banquet, the narrative unfolds most logically from back to front. Having peered deep into the distance, we can now make our way back toward the foreground. This foreward movement is initiated by the winding river that flows out of the top right of the composition and passes by two simple thatched dwellings before disappeaing behind a ridge of the main mountain. The two dwellings stand at the junction point of the river and a pathway that leads into the foregound though an opening in the mountains. In the gathering gloom, three travellers scurry through this narrow defile, sustaining our forward progression until it is arrested by a broad stream and an elegant hermitage, whose geomantically optimal siting, nestled between the mountain slope and the river, emphasizes its harmonious integration with the natural world.

"The sense of calm that pervades this scene is threatened, however, by an approaching storm. Geese have taken flight, trees are bent by the wind and travellers hurrying through the mountains wear thatch cloaks and hats as protection from the rain, as do a man carrying a plough and a boy riding a water buffalo at the lower right. The man and boy have just arrived at the villa's gate after a day in the rice paddies - a clear indication of both the season (spring) and the time of day (early evening). The inviting hermitage promises shelter from the tempest....Three of its sides are protected by the projecting arms of the mountain, while the fourth is enclosed by a wattle palisade. Within this rustic compound, a central hall, two side halls and one wing of a front hall encircle a courtyard that is completed by a woven bamboo fence. Through the open doorway of the right-hand hall, a woman is visible preparing the evening meal. Another servant carries a tray of food along he central hall's covered porch. Behind the kitchen area are the servants' quarters, separated fom the main household by a yard where a bucket, a board and a rolling pin have been set out on a large flat rock. On the balcony of the two-storey tower behind the central hall, a woman comforts a child who appears frightened by the rising storm.

"Our visual jouney through the picture space culminates at the hermitage's most distinctive structure, an imposing pavilion projecting over the river on stilts, where the master of the household sits in an elegant yoke-back chair. His scholarly status is underscored by his tall hat, the writing table upon which he leans and the calligraphy screen at the back of the pavilion. Joined by his wife and two children and protected by a bamboo blind, the gentleman serenely faces the storm - a vivid metaphor for the political chaos sweeping across the land at the time. This quintessential image of the gentleman-recluse shows man in harmony with the natural realm, having severed his ties to the world of affairs.

"Like Palace Banquet, The Riverbank leads the viewer on a journey of discovery that chronicles the season, the time of day, and the numerous attributes and activities that define the lives of the figures portrayed. Both artists' obvious delight in describing everyday life though a rich accumulation of material detail parallels the increasing concreteness and social awareness found in popular fiction and poetry of the time. Their method of constructing a narrative through the use of a complex setting and a multiplicity for specific details culminates in the early twelfth century with such works as Zhang Zeduan's Going Up the River on the Qingming Festival (Palace Museum, Beijing; Zhongguo Lidai Huihua: Gugong Bowuyuan Canghua Ji, Beijing, 1981, vol. 2, pp. 60-83), but it is already a salient feature of such tenth century works as Zhao Gan's (act. c. 961-75) Along the River during winter's First Snow (National Palace Museum, Taipei; John Hay, '"Along the river during Winter's First Snow": A Tenth-Century Handscroll and Early Chinese Narrative', in Burlington Magazine, May 1972, 114, no 830, pp. 294-303) and Wei Xian's Lofty Scholar (Palace Museum, Beijing; Zhongguo Lidai Huihua: Gugong Bowuyuan Canghua Ji, Beijing, 1978, vol. 1, pp. 94-95)."

Hearn's meticulous description of the painting in his article does not address its attribution directly, but the article by Valerie Doran, a contributing editor of Orientations, does.

"The Met's tendency to generate controversy continues with a debate in scholarly circles about the authenticity of The Riverbank. In the course of the interview, C. C. Wang mentioned that hehad an on-going disagreement about The Riverbank with 'a certain American professor.' In August, a brief and somewhat sensationalized article in The New Yorker publicized the identity of the dissenting professor - the noted art historian and Chinese painting specialist James Cahill, who believes that the painting is a twentieth century forgery by that recurring and wily old spectre, Zhang Daqian. The article states that 'James Cahill's doubts about "The Riverbank" were first expressed in 1980, when, in his "Index of Early Chinese Painters and Painting," he asked "Important early work? or modern fabrication?" Discussing the scroll recently, Cahill said, "There are all kinds of inconsistencies."...The guessing game about "The Riverbank" and the tangle of interest and influence surrounding C. C. Wang's collection are likely to continue.'

"Maxwell Hearn is free of any such qualms over the authenticity of The Riverbank as, reportedly, are a number of other noted specialists, such as Fu Shen and K. s. Wong, as well as Richard Barnhart," Doran continued in her article. "Hearn describes the painting as 'the defining point' between Tang and Song art, and compares it terms of relative importance to works by Giotto or Leonardo da Vinci," Doran wrote.

In her article, Doran quotes Wen Fong as stating that "Connoisseurship can narrowly be defined as the art of authentication, but more broadly can be said to mean taste, preference or even a reading of history." "Our approach has been shaped by an unspoken consensus that is the result of a whole generation of debate and pursuit of understanding of scholars both East and West with different interests and perspectives, and with greater accessiblity to the rich repositories of art in China and Taiwan. My generation of scholars - the post World War II generation - has contributed a lot to the field in terms of scholarship in general. this group includes immigrant Chinese scholars such as Wai-Kam Ho and Chu-tsing Li, as well as Western scholars who felt that it was important to discover what the Chinese themselges valued and so learned to speak the chinsee langugage and deeloped a greater awareness of what Chinese considered t be a great pictorial tradiiton. The Cleveland Museum of Art and [the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in] Kansas City made an enormous contribution several years back with their exhibition 'Eighty Dynasties of Chinese Painting' [1980], a real tour de fource that shoudl be mentioned in the historiography of Chinese art exhibitions," Fong told Doran.

"Douglas Dillon showed the full measure of his support for Fong's effort to build the Chinese painting collection on this newly introduced standard of connoisseurship when, in 1973, he funded a major purchase of 25 Song and Yuan (1279-1368) period paintings from the C. C. Wang Family Collection, inlcuding important works by Qu Ding (act. c. 1023-50), Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) and Ni Zan (1301-74)," Doran wrote, adding that subsequently the museum acquired a major gift of Chinese paintings from John M. Crawford Jr. "Among Crawford's most important and also most controversial purchases were a number of major early works from the collectionof the emigré artist and connoisseur Zhang Daquian (1899-1983) - also a noted copyist. Because of doubts at the time (on the part of Sherman Lee among others) concerning the authenticity of some of the works in Zhang's hands, there were far fewer takers in the West than the quality of the art warranted. Crawford was thus able to purchase priceless works from Zhang in the face of limited competition and formed an outstanding collection," Doran wrote.

In an interview with me, Crawford indicated that he did not agree with the attribution of many of the 25 paintings that the museum purchased in 1973 from C. C. Wang, and Doran does not discuss whether or not Crawford had declined to buy works from Zhang that C. C. Wang acquired.

The issues in this case are far more important than whether a particular painting, such as The Riverbank, is a masterpiece, or just a heavily restored, dark old painting, or even a forgery. What is at stake is the responsibility of a public institution to tell, to the best of its ability, what it knows about its possessions in the interests of scholarship and the integrity of its dealings. What also is at stake is the responsibility of the press; in this case, The New York Times, to be as accurate as possible.

The New York Times has not fully reported on the controversy after its front-page article, nor made known that Wen Fong has arranged for a gallery to be named after his sister at the museum through the generosity of his brother-in-law, Oscar L. Tang, and that the museum under Fong’s "consultation" has ignored widespread criticism of his attempts to rewrite the history of Chinese painting.

Wen Fong talks of "consensus," but does he mean to include all views of acknowledged experts, or only those of his protégés, and what defines an "expert" and can there be instances when one expert is right and all the others not? When one talks of connoisseurship one is not talking about popularity, but refined reflexion based on decades of experience in examining closely and repeatedly an enormous amount of art and then being able to clearly articulate one's opinions and judgments with a significant degree of explanation, sufficient to convince other knowledgeable, but not necessarily expert people.

Given the enormous prestige and power of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its avowed intent, stated in its voluminous press release on the 1973 C. C. Wang acquisition, to be open, it behooves the institution, which receives public support, to avoid conflicts of interest and to forego egos in the search of academic integrity.

In the September, 1998 issue of Orientations, another "Letter to the Editor," appeared (p. 101), which was a response from Barnhart to the Kagin letter. The full text is as follows:

"It is interesting to observe the changes that have occurred in Carl Nagin's reporting on the so-called controversy about The Riverbank attributed to Dong Yuan over the last year. First he wished us to think that it might be a modern forgery by Zhang Daqian, quoting as his authority James Cahill. But now, however, judging from his letter to the editor in your June 1998 issue (p. 82), the question has become whether the painting is a 'canonical early painting'. If there are any 'canonical early Chinese paintings dating to the 10th and early 11th Century centuries, I would be curious to know from Mr[.] Nagin both what he things they are, and which and how many retired art historians, curators and former museum directors he has polled to arrive at this opinion, since he apparently believes that connoisseurship is a democratic polling practice, and that art history features a 'canon' formed by those paintings his personally selected referees approve. What Mr[.] Nagin seems not to know is how few paintings there are today with any claim to being of such early execution, and how uncertain the question of their authorship is in every case. He does not seem to know that every painting attributed to Dong Yuan is itself a later copy of still-uncertain date and provenance, or that there is not one attributed painting from the entire period of the 10th and 11th centuries the 'authenticity' of which has not been privately or publicly doubted by some reputable art historian. In other words, on the evidence of his letter, Mr Nagin knows nothing whatever abut the practice of art history. He is unaware that the authenticity of virtually every Chinese painting in existence, including those attributed to living artists, would be disputed by someone, somewhere, if one were to call a large enough sampling on the phone. This fact, if explored at length, might be of interest as an essay or article, but would have no more to do with the historical character of The Riverbank than with any other painting one might choose at random.

"According to his letter, my commentary in the December 1997 issue of this magazine (p. 86) has aroused in Nagin the belief that 'something more than pure scholarship may be at stake' for me, and I would be interested in knowing what he thinks that 'something' might be: money, power, greed, the greasing of palms, the Mafia? I wonder too what he thinks 'pure' scholarship is, and when he last saw an example of it. I suspect it would turn out to be scholarship as 'pure' as his own. In any case, there is no 'canon' of early Chinese landscape painting. He should know this as soon as possible. There is not a single early painting extant that has not been extensively repaired, repainted, retouched, remounted and modified in many ways by the passage of time. Not one painting attributed to the early period does not present serious problems of exact dating, attribution, analysis of condition and overall assessment. And there is no chance of knowing anything at all about any of this by calling up a group of 'experts' on the phone. On the other hand, to identify The Riverbank with the known forgeries of Zhang Daqian is simply irresponsible, whether the identification is made by Nagin himself or one of his expert informants. Whoever painted The Riverbank, it was certainly not Zhang Daqian, whose forgeries are perfectly plain to see. The one scholar cited by Nagin who should know that is James Cahill, and he has apparently backed away from such an assertion in his most recent writing (now preferring to describe it as 'a modern pastiche.'

"If it turns out that my scholarly reputation is staked upon The Riverbank's attribution, as Nagin believes, I would be quite happy to have that be the case. But I doubt it. The distinguished scholars he cites as holding other opinions sound to me like the same flight of ducks that quack every time a reporter picks up the phone and calls to ask them about anything at all, let alone the 'authenticity' of a given Chinese painting. I am happy to observe that phone polls will never have anything to do with the study of art history. If Nagin continues to think they will, then his own interest in connoisseurship, forgeries, the life and art of Zhang Daqian and the practice of Chinese painting will surely be less fruitful than some of my colleagues think it might be. He would be better off trying to learn something himself about forgieries, attributions, the practice of art history, connoisseurship, the study of seals and documentation and the physical effects of time on works of art, and devoting less effort to framing a spurious discourse on spuriousness for the popular press. When he completes this course of study, I hope he will encourage precisely the 'entire re-writing of the history of early Chinese painting' he claims in his innocence to deplore the very idea of. Art and scholars being such as they are, an entire re-writing of art history is needed frequently and repeatedly. But not, I hope, in the form of gossip in the pages of The New Yorker or self-promotional news items in The New York Times, and not by phone, please. I'm in the middle of dinner."

Barnhart's letter is quite extraordinary.

First, he does not refute Carl Nagin's challenge of what reception James Cahill received with his remarks on The Riverbank at the 1991 Sackler Conference and one must therefore assume that Barnhart's remarks were a gross misrepresentation.

Secondly, Barnhart does not address Nagin's quotes from Sherman Lee. Cahill and Lee have been among the nation's foremost scholars on Chinese paintings for decades and Lee should not be casually dismissed by Barnhart as an "informant."

Thirdly, Barnhart's cute attempt to cute dismiss the journalistic, to say nothing of scholarly, use of the telephone is an insult to anyone's intelligence. Indeed, if one only relied on published works, one might be very much behind the proverbial eight-ball. It is true that interviews in person are usually, if not always, more productive, for first encounters with a "source," or "informant," nonetheless, they are not less valid. As any good reporter knows, an interviewee is likely to be much more guarded on the phone than in person. Furthermore, art historians, connoisseurs and scholars generally do not make light of their opinions. They tend not be casual and to regard their subject as important. For Barnhart to suggest that anyone who converses on a phone with a journalist is probably a duck/quack is to dismiss not only modern technology, but, far more importantly, serious efforts to obtain knowledge, to understand how reliable and meaningful it might be and to be able to communicate it, hopefully, with clarity, not ambiguity, and honesty. (When I interviewed 18 top Chinese painting experts for my original "Chinagate" story, all but one was in person and at great length and with two sets of catalogues for convenient reference.)

Fourthly, Barnhart's comment that "every painting attributed to Dong Yuan is itself a later copy of still-uncertain date and provenance" goes to the very heart of the matter and makes one wonder just what scholarly technique he, or his "informants," use in attributing the museum's painting entitled The Riverbank. (9/12/98)

Letter send by The City Review to, but not published in, Orientations Magazine


The City Review article on Chinagate


The City Review article on original, uncut Chinagate story in The New York Times


The City Review article containing the truncated story that appeared in The New York Times


The City Review article on Chinagate Revisited, the new acquisitions

The City Review article on major Chinese Art donor threatening to withdraw many paintings from the Metropolitan and questioning extravagant claims about The Riverbank

The City Review article on art attributions

The City Review article on Chinese Painting Sales at Sotheby’s, Fall, 1997

The City Review article on Carl Nagin’s article in The New Yorker

The City Review article on coverage of its Chinagate series in Page Six of The New York Post

The City Review article on second coverage in four days by Page Six of The New York Post of its Chinagate series

Metropolitan Museum Shows C. C. Wang Collection in 1999 and concedes there are scholarly disputes over "Along the Riverbank"

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