September 7, 1998
Letters to The Editor
Orientations Magazine Ltd.
200 Lockhart Road 17th floor
The controversy over the attributions of Chinese
paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - as mentioned
in an article by Valerie Doran, "Art in Context: The New
Galleries for Later Chinese Art at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art," in your December, 1997 issue, a lengthy letter from
Richard Barnhart in the same issue, a "Commentary" in
your June, 1998 issue by Carl Nagin, and another letter from Richard
Barnhart in your September, 1998 issue - is both fascinating and
As the journalist who first wrote about the
Chinese painting attribution controversy at the Metropolitan Museum
as a reporter for The New York Times in 1976 and then in
The City Review, a Internet magazine (http://www.thecityreview.com)
on the World Wide Web of which I am the editor and publisher,
in a series of articles entitled "Chinagate" in 1997
and 1998, 1 am very familar with the story.
At issue in this controversy is the fragility
of art attributions and the responsibility of museums, art "experts"
and the press to accurately reflect informed opinion on objects
in the public domain involving public monies. Not surprisingly,
there can be a great deal at stake: egos, reputations, insurance
values, tax considerations, and acquisition funds.
Under the leadership of C. Douglas Dillon,
Thomas P. F. Hoving and Wen Fong, all graduates of Princeton University,
the Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired many paintings attributed
to important early Chinese artists from C. C. Wang, a collector
in New York. The first batch consisted of 25 paintings that the
museum claimed to be important Sung and Yuan dynasty paintings
that it bought in 1973 from C. C. Wang and the second batch consisted
of 11 paintings from the C. C. Wang collection given as a gift
to the museum in 1997 by Oscar L. Tang, a trustee of the museum
and a brother-in-law of Wen Fong.
In 1976, I interviewed at length 18 "experts"
in the field of Chinese paintings including Sherman Lee and Laurence
Sickman, museum directors who had been asked to "vet"
the acquisition, James Cahill, John Crawford, a major collector,
Shujiro Shimada, Max Loehr and others on the merits of the attributions.
Lee and Sickman had been joined by Richard Barnhart, a former
student of Wen Fong, in "vetting" the acquisition, and
Lee and Sickman indicated that the museum had been misleading
in stating that these three experts had been asked to judge each
of the 25 paintings from "A" to "D" and stating
that the lowest grade they had was "B." Lee and Sickman
maintained that they had scored the paintings based on Oswald
Siren's rating of "A," which meant probably by the artist
and of the dynasty, and "B," which meant not of the
same dynasty. The only paintings that the experts I interviewed
agreed upon were three that had been given "anonymous"
attributions by the museum. While not all the experts agreed with
each other, most were highly critical of much of the group and
many suggested that some might have been painting by Zhang Daqian.
The story that I wrote was scheduled to run
five full columns of text with several illustrations as the off-lead
of The New York Times on a Monday, but did not appear and
the editor working on the story suddenly was "on vacation"
that Monday. Several months later, a rewritten and much shorter
story appeared on the inside pages of The Times that left
out many of the details. I have reprinted the entire story as
well as the truncated one in The City Review, an Internet
magazine of which I am the editor and publisher. When The Times
ran a front-page story announcing the Tang gift in 1997 I ran
other stories, including one in which a major donor to the Chinese
painting department at the museum, Robert Ellsworth, cast doubt
on the authenticity of the "star" painting in the Tang
gift, "The Riverbank," attributed by the Museum to Dong
Yuan. Subsequently, Carl Nagin, who has studied Zhang Daqian and
followed the activities of C. C. Wang for many years, wrote a
brief article in The New Yorker magazine nothing that James
Cahill, one of the world' most respected scholars in the field,
had doubts about the attribution to Dong Yuan of "The Riverbank."
There are now 11 stories on this controversy in The City Review
(http:www.thecityreview.com) that provide a fairly complete history
of the controversy including one that reprints the Barnhart and
Nagin exchange in Orientations (Orientations Magazine carries
two long commentaries on controversial attribution of The Riverbank).
What is clear from any reading of the articles
in Orientations and The City Review is that the
Chinese painting "world" is divided between Wen Fong
and his former students, on the one hand, and most of the rest
of the field's established "experts." While some might
dismiss this controversy as a not unusual scholarly dispute, it
is not. Wen Fong is arguing that he and C. C. Wang are right and
that everyone else is wrong. This is not impossible, but highly
improbable. Moreover, it is particularly difficult because of
Zhang Daqian's unusual position as painter, collector, and self-professed
and proud forger and the fact that C. C. Wang obtained "The
Riverbank" from him.
It is rather remarkable that Barnhart, a co-author
with Cahill, of a recent major book on the history of Chinese
painting, would maintain that Cahill's comments on "The Riverbank"
were not well received at the Sackler 1991 conference and then
not rebut Nagin's challenge that Barnhart had distorted the facts
about the speech. Even more astounding was Barnhart's suggestion
that Nagin's "informants," such as Sherman Lee, should
be casually dismissed because they may have used a telephone.
Finally, Barnhart's statement that "every painting attributed
to Dong Yuan is itself a later copy of still-uncertain date and
provenance" would seem to imply that he does not accept "The
Riverbank" as an authentic work by Dong Yuan.
For most Chinese, painting is the highest expression
of their culture, but their notion of of this pinnacle of their
culture includes not only the "painting," but also the
calligraphy and poems/comments that are placed on the painting
by people other than the artist and the seals of collectors that
are also placed on the painting. To fully appreciate these three
elements, then, requires a knowledge of Chinese, to say nothing
of connoisseurship about the styles of a particular period, or
I, unfortunately, do not read Chinese, so I
cannot pretend to be an expert, but I have collected art for several
decades and debated attributions with many "experts"
in American 19th Century painting and Old Masters. An "expert"
should be able to convince a reasonably intelligent person of
his opinion with specific references to other works as well as
indisputable evidence, if any, such as photographs and provenance.
Occasionally, "scientific" analysis can be helpful,
but very often proof is difficult because some artists changed
styles and techniques and policies on signatures and even produced
non-masterpieces. Inconsistency is not definitive, and attributions
are very often very difficult. Fortunately, however, language
provides many ways to describe, with varying degrees of precision,
The problem with Wen Fong's attributions is
that they have been unqualified, and ambitious. Had he merely
said "attributed to," rather than "by," he,
and the museum, could have avoided most controversy.
The museum, however, has chosen not to reflect
scholarly opinion on the works on the question as is customary
in most serious catalogues.
Barnhart's flippant comments are shocking.
Carl Nagin and others have merely tried to reflect the concerns
of well-known, and quite respected, authorities that art history
is being casually "rewritten" under very unprofessional
Carter B. Horsley
Editor, The City Review