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Interview with Sherman Lee: “Innovation, wherever it occurs, is ‘modern’, and people could be more modern in ancient times than we are now”

One of the great connoisseurs of our time, the curator of the current exhibition of Chinese art at the Guggenheim talks about Chinese art seen from within and without

In 1938, when Sherman Lee was only twenty, he had an inspired teacher at his university summer school who trained his students to identify Chinese ceramics by feeling the pieces under a blanket. It was the beginning of a long career in which Dr Lee has become famous as one of the greatest living connoisseurs, specifically, but not exclusively, in Chinese and Japanese art.

He was one of those to benefit from the extraordinary situations created by World War II. He was put in charge of the Arts and Monuments Division of the Supreme Allied Command in Japan whose task was to inspect and list the works of art in the country, record damage and help in their restoration. In this capacity he saw and handled thousands of works of art. He also helped influence the Japanese to show their greatest collection of national treasures to the public for the first time, the objects in the Shosoin, the repository of the treasures of the eighth-century Emperor Shomu, dedicated to the Great Buddha of Todaiji in Nara.

In 1958 Sherman Lee was made director of the Cleveland Museum of Art just after it had received a rich endowment. It was the ideal appointment for a museum in its vigorous, acquiring phase, and he enriched its holdings right across the board.

His History of Far Eastern art, now in its fifth edition, is the equivalent of Gombrich’s Story of art in that it is the distillation of great learning, written in such clear language that an intelligent sixteen year-old can be gripped by it. It is no surprise that Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim, turned to Sherman Lee when he needed someone with an overarching vision to curate the current exhibition, “5000 years of Chinese art” (until 3 June).

Sherman Lee, do you think that scholars in the West and in China and Taiwan agree on the same canon of excellence for Chinese art? And for Japanese art?

The last part of the question is much easier to answer. The Chinese have never paid much attention to Japanese art, and Western students, the serious ones, have learned directly from Japanese sources and authorities, so there is little discrepancy in standards between East and West.

With Chinese art the situation is very different, and there is no simple or single answer that covers all fields. In painting, the Chinese have long judged quality on the basis of brushwork alone, with much less attention paid to style, and they rely more on seals, inscriptions, and provenance when considering questions of authenticity. Historically, the Japanese have always preferred Song and Yuan paintings to those of the later dynasties, and their collections are thus much stronger in earlier painting. With a few exceptions, such as Frederic Hirth, Westerners began their study of Chinese painting from a Japanese point of view, resulting in a lack of understanding and appreciation of later Chinese painting.

This all began to change in the 1950s, when exhibitions such as the Ming-Qing show organised by Jean-Pierre Dubosc at the Wildenstein Galleries in 1949, and writings such as James Cahill’s dissertation on Wu Zhen, resulted in much clearer perception of the merits of literati painting. Western collections are now quite strong in later painting, in the kinds of paintings traditionally valued by Chinese collectors, and Japanese museums too have increased their holdings in this area, so there is a growing area of agreement on what constitutes excellence in painting. However, taste is certainly influenced by what one sees earliest, and whereas the more cerebral art of literati masters now finds a ready home in the West, the more intuitive art of the Song masters is still highly appreciated in Japan.

The situation with ceramics is somewhat similar, with the Chinese appreciating the highly finished porcelains of the later dynasties and the Japanese preferring the more spontaneous stonewares of the pre-Yuan period. Western collectors focused initially on stonewares, as can be seen in the Hoyt collection now in Boston, but later, with the efforts of John Pope, Jean-Pierre Dubosc, and Jean Lee during the late 1940s and 50s, we came to value the later porcelains. Here too Japanese taste remains independent, and the roughly finished, overglazed enamelled porcelains of the late Ming are still more popular there than anywhere else in the world.

The Chinese have not been interested in sculpture until very recent years, most notably in Taiwan, while sculpture has always been valued both in Japan and in the West. The Japanese were particularly interested in the early Chinese styles that influenced their own tradition of sculpture, but beyond that they have demonstrated a consistent taste for the softer styles, just as Westerners have formed great collections of works carved in harder materials that preserve a stronger line. Wood sculpture of the Song and later dynasties was never collected in Japan, whereas in European collections such works could be easily understood by analogy to baroque art. Each region, in other words, developed standards that were influenced by what was available and how that related to the general cultural context.

With the world a much smaller place than it was in 1940, are we beginning to see these cultures from inside, or is that still an illusion?

We now understand Chinese art much more from a Chinese point of view, which itself has changed somewhat under the influence of Western aesthetic and art-historical theories. There is now much greater interchange between all cultures, with curators and scholars travelling regularly to see and study works around the world. The current exhibition at the Guggenheim demonstrates almost the full range of Chinese taste and was drawn completely from Chinese sources, yet there is nothing that will not elicit immediate response from the contemporary Western or Japanese audience.

You refer to Ming and Qing porcelains as “Swiss-watch” ceramics and say you prefer Cizhou wares. Why?

Mechanical perfection is a measure of craft, not art, whereas in the Cizhou wares the hand of maker is felt, and the process of creation is manifest. These free-style wares can be very complex in technique, but technical refinement is not the point. Working in various decorative modes, and remaining within a standard repertoire of forms—mainly utilitarian bowls, jars, pillows, bottles, and ewers—the Cizhou potters were very creative, developing a rich style that continues to excite the eye and imagination.

Is the younger generation of Japanese less interested in Chinese art and turning to collecting in other areas?

No. I think there is still a great interest in Chinese culture in Japan, and this is shown in the large numbers of exhibitions from China that find large and enthusiastic audiences there. What is happening, however, is that the younger generation is travelling more and therefore seeing more, so taste is broadening due to increasing knowledge and exposure to other aesthetic approaches. There is thus increased collecting of Western Old Masters and Modern painting but so too do some Japanese now buy Qing Porcelains and modern Chinese paintings.

What have been the greatest changes in the field since you first published your History of Far Eastern art?

The greatest single change has come from the more precise ideas and factual information based on Chinese archaeological excavations conducted from the 1950s onward. In comparison to when I wrote the first edition, we now have a much greater field of vision as well as more detailed knowledge of specific areas. For ceramics and sculpture especially we are much more aware of regional styles and of the complex interplay among them over time.

Are there any great discoveries still to come out of Chinese archaeology?

During my first visit to Xi’an, in 1973, I was shown the entrance to the tomb of Tang Taizong; this immensely important tomb still has not been opened because of financial constraints and perhaps also because of uncertainty over how best to preserve what is there. And of course the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi has yet to be opened. Literary sources do not even mention the spectacular honour guard of 7,000 soldiers that astonished everyone but they do describe such wonders as a relief map of the world, with rivers in mercury. We thus can look forward with absolute certainty to additional discoveries of great moment to Chinese art history.

What would you hope for in Chinese museums?

The new museums in Xi’an and Shanghai are very sophisticated and up to a very high standard. This augurs very well for the museums yet to be renovated or built in various provincial centres. As the pieces in these collections are gradually conserved and studied, it is greatly to be hoped that funds will be available to publish them, for this would work to the advantage of students throughout the world.

Are the Chinese doing enough to protect their archaeological heritage?

By and large they are doing as well as can be expected, but there are, of course, big areas where improvement could be made. Most important is the fact that the real masterpieces, the works that appear in the special archaeological exhibitions each year, are far superior to what is generally available on the market, suggesting that the high points of the cultural heritage will remain on view in China itself.

What kind of contemporary art produced in China do you admire in particular?

I especially like the wood-block prints produced during the 1970s. The paintings done jointly by teams of artists are also interesting. There is much run-of-the-mill material being produced but some works are very good.

What have you collected personally?

The best of what I have bought personally has gone to various museums, such as a Cizhou pillow to the Seattle Art Museum, a sketch by Holbein and a preliminary drawing for a known painting by St Aubin, an eighteenth-century French artist, to Cleveland, and a fragment of a head of Akhnaten to the Metropolitan Museum, which already had two fragments from the same sculpture. Among the odds and ends I still have are a Cambodian figure, a thirteenth-century wood Crucifixion from France, a painting by the nineteenth-century Qian Hui’an, an early Bouguereau, several paintings by the late Edo period Japanese painter Doi Goga, and a landscape by the Scottish painter Robert Freebairn, painted in 1807 for a Royal Academy Exhibition. Nothing consistent enough to call a collection but all a joy to live with and a constant reminder of the fascinating range of forms in which beauty and significance can be found.

How can someone learn to look at art?

First by reading the History of Far Eastern art! The main thing is to look at a lot of art—in museums, exhibitions, at auctions, everywhere possible—constantly comparing what one is looking at with what one has seen before. Study every stroke, every cut, every line or wash, specifically appreciating and articulating the nature of the artist’s style and qualities. Pay particular attention to “early” phases wherever they occur in time: the Old Kingdom in Egypt; archaic Greek art; Romanesque sculpture; Italian painting of the Trecento in Tuscany; the early works of Corot, and the comparable periods of innovation in China and Japan. Innovation, whenever it occurs, is “modern”, and people could be more modern in ancient times than we are now. Remember that no one is born with taste, and everyone can learn by looking. There is great fun in all this, a process summed up nicely by Guglielmo Ferrero: “What makes good judgement? Experience. What makes experience? Bad judgement.”