A Brush with Greatness - Richard Fabian wasn't keen. But a compulsory seminar at Yale left him to a lifetime's immersion in Chinese art - even meeting one of its imperial exponents. He talks to Kenneth Baker.

Letting go of the Qi Gong really pains me," said Richard Fabian. And no wonder: the story behind this particular painting is incomparable.
"Qi Gong was a member of the Manchu imperial family. For peculiar political reasons, the Communist government lionised him instead of punishing him for being royalty. His calligraphies, which are really elegant, appear on the outside of many buildings in Beijing."
By chance, a friend of Fabian's then living in Beijing happened to know Qi Gong, who was then more than 80 years old, and brought Fabian to meet him.

"I brought him a copy of the catalogue for the exhibition of my collection at the Asian Art Museum and that got him interested," Fabian said. "When he saw what the book contained, he said, 'Oh, I have something by this painter and by that painter', so he brought them out. Of course, they were better than mine."

During the encounter, Fabian experienced something that until then he had only read about: what it was like to meet a member of the imperial family.

"He began... to speak... terribly... slowly... because... a member... of... the... high aristocracy... has... all... the... time... in... the world... for you. And probably has no idea whatever what your time might be worth to you."

As it happened, Fabian had just bought a painting that was supposed to be Qi Gong's, and showed it to him. "And he said, 'You know, this was made 60 years ago, and it's the last landscape I ever painted. After this, I did nothing but calligraphy.' Then he brought out the seals he had used on it six decades before and authenticated it with them. Then he started reading the colophons he had written on it 60 years earlier in his amazing handwriting and discovered he had left out a character. So he added the missing character and put a seal on that too."

Above: Jin Cheng (1878-1926), Landscapes after old masters, 1905. One leaf from an album of 12 leaves. Estimate: HK$500,000-700,000 ($65,000 - 90,000)

We are chatting at Fabian's home in one of San Francisco's smartest neighbourhoods: a multi-storey house brimming with Asian paintings, sculpture and antiques. Highlights of his extraordinary Chinese painting collection are to be offered by Bonhams in Hong Kong in October, and it is clear that it is a wrench parting with the works.

It all started in the 1960s, when Fabian was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese language and history at Yale, from which he would emerge summa cum laude. Grudgingly, Fabian enrolled in a seminar on Chinese painting to satisfy a degree requirement.

Professor Nelson Wu, Fabian's first mentor in the field, required his seminar students to observe, comment on and rank dozens of Chinese paintings, available mostly in reproduction rather than eyes-on, throughout the course. Like most of his fellow students, Fabian found that the priorities of his judgments of the art shifted unpredictably across months' intensive looking.

"We all found the same thing happened, with the exception of one painting," Fabian recalled. "It's called Travellers among Mountains and Streams, by the Northern Song painter Fan Kuan. It's probably the most-famous landscape in all of Chinese art, and we all fell for it. It was number one in September and number one again in June, when all the others on our lists switched."

"Professor Wu seemed to instruct us very little," Fabian said. But he showed his students that connoisseurship was rooted more deeply in scrutiny and enjoyment than in historical fact and interpretation. As Fabian wrote in a 2007 catalogue, "My own collection is rich with proof that pleasure can race ahead of understanding."

Above: Cheng Zhang (1869-1938), Damo, 1932. Ink and colour on paper. Estimate: HK$100,000 - 150,000 ($13,000 - 20,000)

A second epiphany followed as Fabian, still at Yale, drove through Connecticut to visit his family, then living in Texas. "It's through forest and there are branches overhead all the way," he said of the road. "As I lay back in the limo and looked up, I said 'My God, Chinese artists paint branches the way they are. If you push them, they spring back into shape. They really are like that. Nobody else does that. Other people paint them the way they're supposed to look.'"

A Mellon Fellowship took Fabian to Cambridge University, where he earned an M.A. in modern European history. While in England, he also prepared for the Episcopalian priesthood and, after being ordained in 1970, returned to Yale as a chaplain. There he took up calligraphy. "I discovered", he said, "that because of connections Yale had, I could buy Chinese calligraphy. I couldn't afford to buy paintings, but calligraphy's always been cheaper in the United States. And I took up
calligraphy – with a ballpoint pen, not with a brush – and I became good at it."

Above: Jin Cheng (1878-1926), Landscapes after old masters, 1905. Estimate: HK$500,000 - 700,000 ($65,000 - 90,000)

Eventually, Fabian said, he recognised that what "distinguishes Chinese painting from the Yuan Dynasty onwards is that everything is based on calligraphy", a skill that requires "many years of practice for very little reward... What makes calligraphy work is that it's completely athletic. In calligraphy, what you're looking at is body movement. The closest analogy I can think of is a swimmer who has really smooth strokes." The modern era in China saw a decline in the importance of calligraphy, despite the fact that every literate Chinese learns to write, but Fabian has seen it starting to be prized again, making him "much more sanguine now about the future of Chinese painting than I was".

After six years at Yale and a digression into buying Ming furniture, which he has since sold, Fabian moved to San Francisco where, he recalled, "I ran into an art dealer who was an old friend from Taiwan of Nelson Wu. His name was Tsao Jung Ying. He took me under his wing. A former painter himself, he loved having a student who listened to him. He was a very astute observer, especially of paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries", the long aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion, a devastating civil war that shook China to its roots.
"During that time," Fabian explained, "Chinese painting had a revival somewhat parallel to that of the French Impressionists... One outcome was that Shanghai became a refuge for retired officials and commercial interests and so forth, and suddenly there was a lot of money and a whole lot of artists reinventing classical Chinese art. The Japanese loved the stuff, but nobody else did. Jung Ying set out with me to build a collection modelled on one exhibition from three Japanese museums. After spending 30 years meeting him for lunch, and about once a month buying a painting – how I paid for lunch, I don't know – I had not only one painting by every artist in the three-volume catalogue
of that exhibition, but one by each artist at his peak. And then I had also a few older paintings that I'd learned to appreciate from Nelson Wu. I'm lucky to have about 20 truly classical paintings that I love. Most of them are 19th- and 20th-century paintings collected at a time when nobody wanted them here. In Japan, yes; not here."

Serving as Founding Rector of St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco largely defined Fabian's public profile until 2000, when his collection was presented in the exhibition Between the Thunder and the Rain: Chinese Painting from the Opium War through the Cultural Revolution, 1840-1979 at the prestigious Asian Art Museum.

Meanwhile, another mentor had entered Fabian's collecting life: William Wu (no relation to Nelson), Professor of Chinese Painting at Mills College, in Oakland, and a lecturer at the Asian Art Museum."He was the best lecturer on Chinese painting I've ever heard," Fabian said. "I went to China with him five times, I think, and everywhere we went I bought work. This is when you could buy an important piece by an important painter from some museum's bookstore for a few hundred dollars. Because the Cultural Revolution had severed connections with the past, these works had come on the market recently, but you really couldn't know who'd owned them, it was so politically dangerous to own old things."

Thinking of the 37 lots that Bonhams will offer in October brings Fabian's thoughts back to those pictures he would rather not sell. "Well, I'm crazy about Qi Baishi, that would be one of them," he said. "I'm very fond of Wang Zhen. I'd keep any painting if I could by Li Keran, Xu Gu, Fu Baoshi... the Ren Xiong is really rare. That's a marvellous painting. It's not highly calligraphic but the vision in it of what art is comes from before the Yuan Dynasty. It breathes the beauty of Song court painting."

Kenneth Baker is San Francisco correspondent for The Art Newspaper.
Sale: Classical and Modern Chinese Paintings from the Rev. Richard Fabian Collection
Hong Kong
Wednesday 9 October at 2pm
Enquiries: Bruce MacLaren +1 917 206 1677 [email protected]


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