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Masterworks of Chinese Painting

In Pursuit of Mists and Clouds

March 13, 2002 - May 16, 2002

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Unknown; tradition of Miu Fu (15th century); Fish and Water Plants; 15th century; Hanging scroll: ink and color on paper; 27 x 14 1/4 inches; Collection the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, purchase made possible through a gift from an anonymous donor; 2002.1.5

"It is like clouds and mists passing before my eyes, or the songs of birds striking my ears. How could I help but derive joy from my contact with these things? But when they are gone, I think no more about them. In this way, these two things (painting and calligraphy) are a constant pleasure to me, but not an affliction."

—Su Tung-p'o, eleventh-century statesman, poet, and connoisseur, on collecting. Translation by James Cahill.


Collecting art is a personal pursuit that requires understanding, knowledge, access, money, and some good luck. It is an occupation driven by numerous factors, among them a desire to learn, a quest for the hidden treasure, an enjoyment of the "game." The end product, a collection, may be considered an asset or an affliction. depending on the viewpoint of the collector and the importance of the collection. The exhibition Masterworks of Chinese Painting explores such a pursuit, in which the principal collector, James Cahill, approached the activity with passion and yet understood that the final result would be as "clouds and mists" were to Su Tung-p'o, pleasurable but passing.

Professor Cahill began collecting Chinese paintings in 1955 while on a Fulbright fellowship in Japan, where he was completing his dissertation on fourteenth-century (Yüan) painting. It was there that a noted Japanese scholar bestowed on him the name Ching Yüan Chai, which roughly translates as "Studio of One Who Is Looking Intently at the Yüan Dynasty." Throughout his long teaching career James Cahill used these collections as a means of gaining a better personal understanding of art, as an opportunity to explore areas of connoisseurship, and as a tool for teaching others these same disciplines. For Cahill, collecting meaningfully enriched the scope and depth of his comprehension of the intricacies of Chinese painting and culture. Cahill has remarked, "collecting has deepened my understanding of Chinese painting ... forcing me to make judgments of quality and authenticity."

The Ching Yüan Chai and Cahill family collections consist of works from the Sung, Yüan, Ming, and Ch'ing dynasties, including major figure paintings and a selection of bird and flower subjects. The greatest strength, however, is landscape paintings. Considered the highest category of painting in China, the landscape embodies the ideals of the Confucian scholar. This is the area of Chinese art in which we find the most daring experiments, the greatest developments, and the most intense art historical scrutiny.

Over the years the collection has served the students well. In his teaching Professor Cahill used the Ching Yüan Chai collection as a primary resource; he has often said that the paintings themselves are the best teachers. Many of the students he has mentored have gone on to distinguished careers of their own and have in turn taught and laid groundwork for succeeding generations of scholars.

The collection has allowed for student participation in all facets of connoisseurship, from learning to unroll a handscroll to successfully debating authenticity. In many cases the collection generated significant new scholarship, with Cahill and his students alternately leading the way. Seminars developed in response to new acquisitions, and many a term paper, master's thesis, and even a few doctoral dissertations were the result of working with this remarkable collection.

Professor Cahill's emphasis on seeing the whole picture in a painting, not only reading the importance of the brushwork, puts him in contrast to some connoisseurs of Chinese painting. His own education in the arts was much influenced by personal contact with actual works of art, as opposed to the usual means of classroom study, using slides of paintings. Students, too, benefit from first-hand exposure to paintings, learning how to appreciate and understand a work of art with all the senses, not simply the intellect.

Julia M. White
Guest Curator and Curator of Asian Art, Honolulu Academy of Arts

Masterworks of Chinese Painting: In Pursuit of Mists and Clouds is organized and circulated by the Berkeley Art Museum and is guest curated by Julia M. White, Curator of Asian Art at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The exhibition is made possible by Dorothy Dunlap Cahill, Hsingyuan Tsao and James Cahill, Nicholas Cahill, and Sarah Cahill, and by an anonymous donor. Major support is provided by United Commercial Bank, the Shenson Foundation, and Jane R. Lurie.

Additional generous support is provided by The Richard J. Bertero Family; April and Glenn Bucksbaum; Judy and Paul Cortese; Maryellen and Frank Herringer; Antonia Hotung and Bruno Hicks; Shirley, Philomena, and Phillip King; Doris and Theodore Lee; Eddie and Amy Orton; Camille and Edward Penhoet; Linda Rawlings and Gordon Astles; Sharon and Barclay Simpson; and Nadine Tang and Bruce Smith.