by Michael Gallis
Over 50 years ago Jung Ying Tsao instilled in me a passion for collecting, studying and understanding art. He taught me to realize that collecting art was not about the accumulation of objects or paintings nor any of the hollow attributes of prestige associated with those who collect art, but the means of acquiring a visual library from which to draw inspiration, knowledge and a deeper understanding of life. He taught me that only through study could the real value of art be realized and further that the value of study was not the accumulation of facts but a deeper understanding of the meanings embedded consciously and unconsciously by the artist. These have been among the most valuable lessons I have learned from any teacher over the course of my 70 years of life. I found that these lessons pertain not only to art, but every field of human endeavor, and in the end they have provided me with a path towards a deeper and more profound understanding of my own life and the lives of the people around me.
As a young man in my twenties, having grown up in San Francisco, and at the time studying architecture at a university in Los Angeles, I had been given an offer to work for a year in London. Among my compatriots in the office in London was a young Chinese architect from Hong Kong, Ip-sze Wong. As design students we were always immersed in discussions about design and art. We often went off together on the weekends to see new buildings constructed according to the latest design trends or to the museums of London to see shows of art. Already fascinated with Chinese art, mainly ancient bronzes due to their unusual shapes and surface designs, Ip mentioned to me that a well-known London gallery, the Grosvenor, was holding an exhibition of the most famous contemporary Chinese painter, Qi Baishi. As I had no interest in Chinese painting, I had little interest to go, but upon his insistence that this was the Picasso of China and regarded in China as highly as Picasso in the West, I finally gave in to his badgering. After circulating through the show a third time, I finally announced to Ip that I didn’t see even one painting that I was interested in, not one, and furthermore couldn’t for the life of me understand why this artist was so highly regarded as I couldn’t find even one thing, and I did think of myself, even at that early age, as something of a connoisseur. While I did find it somewhat confusing that I would find someone so highly regarded in China as beyond my powers of esthetic recognition, I chose to dismiss the accolades given to the artist rather than try to penetrate further the art itself.
Called back to San Francisco for my sister’s wedding, I decided to work in my father’s office in San Francisco, he being the former associate of Erick Mendelsohn, and although not a great designer himself, a man who deeply appreciated art and design, never jealous of the talents of others. The first floor corridor of the parking garage that led from the elevators to the street where his office was located, was lined with display cases, each with items from local shops in downtown San Francisco. Incredulously, I looked into one of the display windows, and saw hanging there a small painting of gourds. It later turned out to be a print by the artist Qi Baishi. The fact that I could recognize the work of an individual Chinese painter surprised even me. Later that day I realized that his style was so distinctive that it was immediately recognizable, no small accomplishment, I thought to myself. I began to look at it each day as we passed, for unlike the paintings in the London exhibit that were all in ink with no color, this painting was in color, a bright yellow, contrasted against deep blacks. Finally I decided to call the shop whose name appeared in the display case. A voice with a strong Chinese accent answered and informed me that the painting did not belong to the shop but to a friend who wanted to hang the painting and he thought it would look good in his case. He gave me the name and number of Jung Ying Tsao.
“Collecting art [is] . . . the means of acquiring a visual library from which to draw inspiration, knowledge and a deeper understanding of life.”
When I called a man answered with an accent so strong that I couldn’t understand even one word he said. After trying to explain that I was curious about Qi Baishi – he did recognize my poor pronunciation of Qi Baishi – a brief silence ensued and a woman came on the phone speaking perfect English. After questioning me about why I was calling and hearing my brief explanation, she gave me the address of a small apartment off Presidio Street in San Francisco. A few days later I arrived at their apartment and began what was to become a lifelong friendship.
I was greeted initially by Jung Ying, but after we both realized that I didn’t speak Chinese nor he English well enough for us to communicate his wife Elna was called in to be translator. In a large ceramic vessel near the sofa in their house was a handful of scrolls. After some discussion of how I first came to see the work of Qi Baishi and the work I saw in the display cabinet he began to unroll a few scrolls by Qi Baishi, first of shrimps, then chicks. He discussed each work and with each explanation I became more engrossed in learning about this artist and his work. Jung Ying’s passion for painting and especially Qi Baishi was infectious. I had just begun to realize Jung Ying was a different kind of man, a man who I could learn things from, when I arrived one evening and found that someone had broken into his apartment while he and his wife were out. I was shocked, but he didn’t appear phased and was pleased that although they took some jewelry and other items they had left the paintings. He had a sense of simple acceptance that I hadn’t seen in any others that I had met to that time.
Over the course of the next several years, even after he moved to Berkeley near the University, I would drive to his house and stay till late in the night, often till 3 or 4 in the morning, discussing art till our eyes grew red and tired and we couldn’t see anymore. At first we studied the work of Qi Baishi. Understanding the works of Qi Baishi, created during the civil wars and foreign invasions by a man who had with stood the ravages and devastation of war and triumphed in the celebration of the simplest things of life – insects, flowers, shrimps and little chicks – was far more difficult that the professional courses I was taking in the university. Qi Baishi’s art was real; it captured the beauty of simplicity in the midst of the complicated conflagration that swept China for a hundred years from the Opium Wars to the triumph of Mao in 1948. The experiences of that period were known to me by the experiences of my father who, growing up in North China, had been a personal witness to the times and conveyed them to me as a child.
As our conversations continued Jung Ying’s English improved and he opened up more and more of the collection he had put together, including pieces he had acquired from his father and grandfather. Slowly I began to purchase paintings from Jung Ying, first two by Qi Baishi and then one by the Ming master Qiu Ying. The latter being a very expensive painting, at least for a college student using the savings from his summer work to buy it, I decided to show it to a famous professor at UC Berkeley who had published many books on paintings. Jung Ying encouraged me to seek out others to learn from; he felt that learning from only one teacher was not a good thing as the point was to form one’s own opinion, not to slavishly copy your teacher. After showing it to the professor, he declared it to be a total fake, explaining to me that Chinese paintings were often fakes and that one needed a great deal of study to tell the difference. When I asked him to point out how he could tell this was a fake, I was not totally satisfied with his answer, and even less so when he informed me after further questioning that he was an expert and I was not. He went on to say that “if I showed that painting to 20 other experts, 19 would agree with him.” (As a side note I should mention that over the course of the next 25 years I did show it to 19 other experts and none agreed with him.)
“Jung Ying’s passion for painting and especially Qi Baishi was infectious.”
Receiving the news from this well-known scholar, I brought the painting back to Jung Ying and informed him of the opinion I received. He offered to return my money and take the painting back, but I desisted saying I would like to keep it longer to study it. He then told me that he should have never sold me the painting, as I was not ready. I asked him what he meant. He said that I need to know myself if it were real or not, and not depend on the opinion of others. He said discussing art with others is fine as long as you have your own knowledge and do not depend on others, but are rather seeking to deepen your understanding through your conversations with others. It sounded fine, a very good piece of advice, but I thought to myself, he must be crazy, I’ll never be able to acquire the knowledge to tell the real paintings from the fake.
As we continued our conversations on art, I remember a profound lesson that I later conveyed to every class I taught at the University where I was teaching. After unrolling a painting I hadn’t seen before Jung Ying asked me what I thought about it. I answered, “I don’t like it.” He then repeated the question and I repeated the answer. Again a third time, he repeated the question and I the answer. He then looked at me and said, “I didn’t ask you if you liked it, I asked you what you thought about it.” Confused I again answered that I didn’t like it. He then went on to say that like and dislike are reflections of my personal taste, and not a reflection of the quality of the art. Asking me what I thought about the painting was to inquire about my thoughts on the quality of the painting. Is it a great painting or not? Could I tell if it is a great painting? “Clearly you can tell if you like it,” he went on to say. “It is possible to like a low quality painting and to dislike a high quality painting,” but “you need to distinguish between your taste and the real quality of the art. Is Michelangelo a great artist or is this just a matter of opinion? If he is a great artist, then what makes him so? Can you tell the difference between the quality of a work and your taste?” Essentially he asked me, and I paraphrase, “Are you going to go through life just deciding if you like or dislike things or are you going to be able to know what things are?” The air went out of the balloon; how could I have overlooked such a simple yet key factor? Is art a matter of opinion or is there something I am not seeing? Of course there is, I said to myself, but how to find it? How to tell the difference? I realized that after those years of study, I had missed the most important point. How was it possible that I had no way of knowing if a painting was a great painting or not? What I liked had blinded me to asking a much deeper question, what makes a work of art great? What should I look for? Thus began an entirely new phase in the study of paintings, more broadly art and most importantly my understanding of life.
“What I liked had blinded me to asking a much deeper question, what makes a work of art great?”
And he taught me about the temporary nature of life and art. After I purchased the Qiu Ying, he said to me in the most serious way as I held the painting in my hand, “You don’t own the painting.” I asked him “Why, hadn’t I paid you for it?” He again replied with a question, “How old is that painting?” I responded, “About 400 years.” “How many owners has it had over the centuries?” he inquired. “I don’t know, but many, many,” I said. “You know why you have that in your hand?” he went on; “No” was my response. “Because each of the previous owners over the last 400 years has taken good care of it. You don’t own it, you are only the latest caretaker. What you purchased from me was not the painting, but the ability to have it near you, to look at it when you want, to learn from it. You don’t own it, it is not yours; it belongs to history. You are only borrowing it for a while.” Pride evaporated as with growing humility, I realized that life is not about owning or possessing things, but how to respect things, to learn from them, as they are there to illuminate the path of your life. And in truth we take nothing with us, but leave everything behind, as had the previous owners of the painting I now held in my hand.
Years later, I realized that in those early years I was given a gift by Jung Ying, a special gift that has lasted a lifetime. It was not an object or thing, it was a way of thinking, a way of appreciating art and life. It was a gift of love. For in those early years, understanding art and life in my study with Jung Ying was not like a college course with a defined class outline and periodic tests. It was rather a self-study class without tests, but with self-measures of understanding driven by the desire to learn rather than the need to pass. When I was asked to give a lecture on painting at the museum, I began by saying “it took me 20 years to get to the beginning.” But having gotten to the beginning I realized that painting was not about the picture, but the myriad of lines, each the action of the painter, shaped and crafted to express a thought, a feeling, an understanding. Painting was a language, a visual language not different from mathematics or alphabets or characters, capable of communicating the deeper meaning of life and the universe. Having reached the beginning I could begin to read the language, to share in the passion and the qualities that make a painting great. In that I realized that Jung Ying had started me on a path, a path that had affected every part of my life. It was not simply about Chinese painting, nor about art, it was about the understanding of life itself.
“Having reached the beginning I could begin to read the language,
to share in the passion and the qualities that make a painting great.”