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Met's “Riverbank” row rages over attribution debate

Experts prepare to fight it out at the Metropolitan as the painting bought from artist-collector C.C. Wang goes on display

Among Chinese artists, the copying of Old Masters has been prized, not scorned. At the same time, the market for Chinese paintings has been filled with forgeries.

Disputes over attribution have inevitably followed. The latest one to flare is a decades-long argument that centres on “Riverbank,” one of the Metropolitan Museum’s most prized recent acquisitions. The museum obtained the work from the artist-collector C. C. Wang in 1997 with funds provided by a trustee, the financier Oscar Tang, who has promised the 221x109 cm silk hanging scroll to the Met. Curators attribute the painting to the tenth-century master, Dong Yuan. Other call it a forgery by the twentieth-century artist-collector-forger Zhang Daqian, from whom Mr Wang bought it in 1956.

On one side of the dispute is the Met’s Department of Asian Art, which purchased “Riverbank” and other works from the collection of C.C. Wang and consider “Riverbank” to be the finest Chinese painting in the museum—one of three of the finest monumental landscape paintings in existence. The other two (whose attributions have also been questioned) are in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and were considered too rare and valuable to travel to New York as part of the “Splendors of Imperial China” exhibition that toured the US four years ago.

Met curators are not insisting that the painting is by Dong Yuan himself, but they argue that, stylistically, it comes from the tenth century, when Dong Yuan worked. To bolster that claim, they have placed “Dense forests and layered peaks,” a painting by Zhang Daqian, which had formerly been attributed to Juran, a tenth-century follower of Dong Yuan, alongside “Riverbank”.

Sceptics argue that “Riverbank” is a twentieth-century forgery because it is flawed stylistically. According the James Cahill, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, “Riverbank” suffers from “fuzzy brushwork, structural incoherence, and unreadability.” Among those who take Professor Cahill’s position is Sherman Lee, former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and a specialist in Chinese art.

“It is precisely this brushwork that defines the tenth-century modelling technique,” counters Wen C. Fong, Consultative Chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Met. The painting’s detractors also find the work guilty by association. Wang purchased “Riverbank” from Zhang Daqian in 1956, and anything that came from Zhang Daqian’s collection could be a forgery, some experts say. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts bought such a work in 1957, and have downgraded it from a tenth-century painting to a modern copy on its wall labels.

“The Met acquired the painting knowing full well that certain, primarily Western, scholars had doubts about the painting’s authenticity and that they suspected that it was actually a forgery by one of its previous owners, Zhang Daqian. In the 50s and early 60s , when the collector John Crawford [another Met benefactor] was acquiring paintings from Zhang Daqian, he was able to do so because no museum curator in the US dared buy anything from Zhang Daqian, because they were so petrified of this man’s abilities and reputation as a forger,” said Met curator Maxwell K. Hearn, who noted that circumstances have now changed somewhat. “In fact, one of the people who criticised “Riverbank” actually wrote a review of the 1962 Morgan Library show of Crawford’s paintings and calligraphies, casting doubt on the calligraphies, which are now regarded as national treasures.”

The Met is confident enough in its tenth-century attribution that Mr Hearn can now even express his esteem for Zhang Daqian’s connoisseurship. “It took someone like a C.C. Wang or a Zhang Daqian, who knew their importance and who was as passionate as a collector, to acquire them,” Mr Hearn noted.

As for his opponents, “they've maintained this prejudice, this blind spot, in spite of all our efforts to demonstrate this, by putting a forgery by Zhang Daqian in the gallery next to ‘Riverbank.’”, Mr Hearn said. “It's such a blatant contrast. You can’t help but observe that Zhang Daqian’s is a caricature of the earlier idiom of representing mountains, details and figures. Everything is exaggerated. Everything is overblown.”

The same nay-sayers tend to approach Chinese art through works in Japanese collections, which lack monumental landscape paintings, Mr Hearn said. “There’s much less experience among Japanese scholars dealing with certain categories of Chinese art. They happen to be the categories that C.C. Wang’s collection is strongest in—the pinnacle of traditional Chinese taste, that has always held brushwork as the ne plus ultra of how you judge a work of art.” Critics have misjudged Chinese works by over-valuing subject matter and representational verisimilitude,” Mr Hearn argues.

In recent years, the respected dealer Howard Rogers of the gallery Kaikodo America Inc. has rallied, at least in part, to the Met’s side. Writing in the Kaikodo of Autumn 1999, Mr Rogers held that the painting may not be the work Dong Yuan himself, “but its stylistic relationship with other early paintings argue compellingly in any case for its early date of execution.” Carbon-testing the work might put that part of the dispute to rest, but it is out of the question, says Mr Hearn, since such an examination would require excising so large a sample section of the silk scroll that it would “desecrate” the work.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Riverbank” row rages over attribution debate'