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A Tribute to James Cahill

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Larger than Life—A Tribute to Professor James Cahill
James Cahill Memorial, Berkeley Art Museum, May 10, 2014

We’ve all spent the last months trying to find words to celebrate the life of James Cahill, our sensei, colleague, friend and paterfamilias, a man who was—still is—larger than life. There have been many wonderful formal tributes to him in the press and we have Howard Rogers’ warmhearted biography in your program today, with many more to come in scholarly journals, all testifying to his unrivalled career as a writer and art historian. He received all the highest accolades the field has to offer: the College Art Association’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2007 and the Charles Lang Freer Medal in 2010. Jim was one of only two art historians to be invited to deliver Berkeley’s annual Faculty Research lecture, which he did in 1982. His more-than two-dozen books and catalogs, countless articles and other, more ephemeral writing testify to his unceasing engagement with scholarship. He was a brilliant, original and tireless art historian and, hand-in-hand with this, he was also a great teacher, blessed with exceptional charisma, eloquence and ease and, no small thing, with a beautiful resonant voice. He provided his students with the actual stuff needed to study Chinese art—real paintings from his exceptional collection that have mostly come to rest here at the Berkeley Art Museum, where they are still are and will always be a part of active study and learning. Jim’s formal awards confirm his commitment to teaching: he received Berkeley’s highest honor, the Distinguished Teaching Award, in 1985, and the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art History award in 1995.

Behind these accolades, though, lies a more granular history and the more personal tributes that have been posted on his website, jamescahill.info and on the memorial site launched by the Institute of East Asian Studies all stress this—Jim’s role as a teacher, which blossomed into a major enterprise here at Berkeley that spanned more than 30 years. He had an indelible impact on all his students, molding us as professionals and as human beings. He was an intensely humane person with a huge appetite for life and he conveyed all this delight in the world of things and ideas in the ways he chose to teach, showing us, among other virtues, the importance of working with art hands-on, of knowing it in its material essence, as well as the value of endurance and the concept of a normative 80-hour work week.

Those of us who had the privilege of studying with him know he was committed to the idea that no knowledge should be hoarded, that scholarship and art could only grow and flourish in sharing. Jim continued to share his insights with the newest generation of art historians right until his last months, giving them his notes (often in large boxes) and engaging them in the deposition of his papers and books to the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian and to the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. But he also discussed his research-in-progress and latest exhibition ideas with a large group that included my own students and budding art historians from across the country some of whom, among them Michael Hatch of Princeton, Joyce Tsai of Columbia, and Molly Everett from our own department here at Berkeley, came eventually to live with and care for him as he grew weaker. Through all this, he continued to hold forth, first in his kitchen on Josephine Street, then in his wheelchair and finally from his bed—the mind was still clear and, as he told me and many others, his heart was full. The newest generation of art historians from all over the country who had a chance to meet and talk with him over these past couple of years, led by Berkeley’s own Will Ma, have joined together to produce a commemorative hand scroll reproducing one of Jim’s favorite paintings, Wu Zhen’s Fishermen (Freer Gallery, Washington, DC), which they invite all of you to inscribe during the reception. Jim’s own view of teaching and learning was, as he put it, based on Confucian principles that honor the transmission and preservation of knowledge, one generation to the next. His legacy is safe, I think.

Jim’s desire to pass on to the future everything he had learned and experienced led to his truly revolutionary foray into the virtual world of online teaching through his lecture series, “A Pure and Remote View,” and his non-stop blogging on jamescahill.info. Jim was unafraid of technology—he led the project to photograph the holdings of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan in the 1950s and he was a brilliant photographer in his own right who created a massive visual archive, which he continued to digitize up to his last moments and deploy in his lectures. He was unafraid of the podcast. Even in his last public appearance, at a symposium at the Institute of East Asian Studies for the gorgeous Beauty Revealed show at BAM (Fall 2013), done with our own Julia White and Fongfong Chen, he was excited to share a computer reconstruction of the famous Lingering Garden in Suzhou—look what computers can do! he told us.

Jim had a holistic view of life in which everything one did and saw came together in a singular, layered way. And so he shared his non-art historical life with us too, both in person and online, reminiscing about his boyhood in Fort Bragg, his love of the Marin coast, where he took us to hike and meditate, his sense of moral outrage when our government went off the skids, his deep pride in his children and their amazing accomplishments, the trips he made around the world, the great (and sometimes frightening) food he’d eaten, the spirits he’d imbibed, the people he knew, loved and couldn’t stand, the films he’d seen, the music and operas he relished. His love of life was, I don’t have to tell any of you, extremely contagious.

This was all folded into the decades-long, unwavering commitment to teaching that first took on material dimensions when he returned to his alma mater Berkeley in 1963 from the Freer Gallery. He insisted as part of the deal that he be assigned not one but two offices, the first to serve as his workspace, the second to be used to house his significant library of scholarly materials and as an art seminar room for his students, 419A Doe Library. It was here that Jim’s graduate students all gathered to study, work on joint archiving projects and where we listened to him pounding away for hours at a time on his Underwood through the inexplicable porthole that connected our study space with his office. We learned fast that this was the sound of scholarly productivity—constant writing, non-stop! His face would pop up in this opening periodically, asking for a book to be passed through, or photos from the huge archive that was also stored there, diligently mounted and catalogued by us, or, just as often, to pass on the latest gossip.

We were part of a grand global enterprise! The more so when Jim managed to raise funds from the Kress Foundation for two student-created exhibitions, The Restless Landscape and Shadows of Mount Huang, that were held right here at the then-University Art Museum. Off we set with our fearless sensei in the lead to look at paintings in collections Back East. Here’s what Jim had to say about our art-gathering foray for The Restless Landscape, when at Princeton in 1971, Jim’s team of women came face-to-face with Wen Fong’s men. Seeing the potential in the plot—he loved to see life as a musical—he wrote:

I had a vision of a Gilbert and Sullivan-like scene in which Wen’s group would sing of “visual and structural principles” in lusty baritone and tenor voices, and mine would respond, as sopranos and contraltos, with the doctrines they had learned from me, after which they would all join in perfect harmony, as the French and Italian musical modes are joined in a piece by Couperin, and fall into each other’s arms, reconciling these two schools of Chinese painting studies. I’m sorry to say that nothing of the kind happened. I learned only later that East Coast people were referring to us, because of the Berkeleyan leftward leanings of some of my students, as “Cahill and his Red Detachment of Women.”

Through all this—the seminars with five-plus carousels of slides, the day-long museum sessions working hands-on with real masterworks, the sales of fenben sketches to benefit the museum, the lectures he delivered while lying on a cot on stage in Dwinelle Hall, in excruciating pain from a back spasm, pointer waving bravely in the air as he showed us what Xia Gui could do—Jim taught us how to look at painting, how to write about it, how to bring it into public view and how to carry the tradition forward with confidence.

Jim took strong positions but he also let us watch him change his mind. We were privileged to witness his intellectual epiphanies when he engaged in an impassioned correspondence with Richard Barnhart and argued fearlessly—I can’t imagine how he managed it—with our department’s Northern Renaissance specialist, the truly formidable Svetlana Alpers, who asked him pointedly what he would do when all questions of authenticity were settled. We see where that led—to The Compelling Image, The Painter’s Practice, The Lyric Journey, Pictures for Use and Pleasure, and so much more. His intellectual transformations, his embrace of the whole past world in which paintings lived, opened the door for the rest of us to study women’s art, modern, contemporary and popular art, Buddhist art, the economics of painting and so much more.

Yet none of these exchanges did more for Jim’s thinking than his first trip to China in 1973, the last years of Mao Zedong. When he got the call from our State Department’s Committee on Scholarly Relations with the PRC to join a group of “archaeologists” who had been invited to China, just post-Kissinger and Nixon, he leapt at the chance. He detailed this trip meticulously in letters he wrote home and which his family—typically generous—shared with his students. In his letters, which we 419A acolytes gathered into an alternative Little Red Book, the immensity of it all is absolutely apparent and his reactions vivid. He is staggered by the paintings remaining in the Beijing Gugong, evading a trip to Zhoukoudian and Peking Man to return over and over again to take notes, shoot photos, and fret about his fading flash and limited film supply—there isn’t enough time to take it all in as he’s shuffled off to yet another banquet. He records his astonishment upon unexpectedly finding the Qingming shanghe tu undergoing remounting in the conservation studios—nothing could ever be better. He delights in meeting the artist Cheng Shifa, who would become a dear friend. He even relishes watching an operation on a thyroid tumor done with acupuncture and no anesthesia. He bemoans the loudspeakers blasting agitprop and the tourist shops filled with garish things, yet manages to find small treasures to take home anyway, all to give away. In one paragraph, he confronts the growing revelations of the trip head-on. After a viewing of a dozen or so paintings at the Nanjing Museum, he writes: “When asked how many paintings they have altogether, they said, ‘Forty or fifty thousand.’ They repeated this incredible number several times. This is very discouraging to someone trying to compile the “Annotated Lists of Chinese Paintings”—makes one’s work seem so tentative and trivial.”

I was thinking that this last line should be set into a Gilbert and Sullivanesque cadence—“tentative and trivial”—with the next line being “while viewing all the paintings in the palace most imperial.” But then I recalled that Jim’s great friend and colleague Professor David Keightley (History) had come up with something much, much better for the occasion of a party here at BAM abut 20 years ago celebrating Jim’s career. David sang in his sonorous baritone, with Sarah Cahill accompanying on the piano: “He is the very model of a Chinese painting specialist . / A score of books on art he’s penned, the titles make a splendid list……” The very model indeed, never to be improved upon.

I’ve been moving gradually into the present tense, because I know that for all of us it’s difficult to accept that Jim is not here in the front row for yet another celebration of his life (“We have to stop meeting like this,” he said), dozing with that great white-maned head tipped back but ready to pop up with the perfect comment the minute the lights come on. Alas, he is gone from this life but his voice will never be stilled.

Addendum: The Berkeley Art Museum plans to honor Professor James Cahill in its new location on Oxford and Center Streets (due to open in 2016) with a Center for the Study of Asian Art, a space specifically dedicated to providing Berkeley students with access to the extraordinary collection of Asian works of art in the museum’s rich collection. Stay tuned for Kickstarter opportunities to contribute!

–Patricia Berger

TAGS: Chinese art, Graduate, James Cahill, Patricia Berger, Undergraduate

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