Lord Palmerston, a British Foreign Minister of the 19th century, described Hong Kong as ‘a barren rock with hardly a house upon it.’ A little more than a century later, when the Government handed over the Shatin site to the University, his famous dictum was an apt description of the campus. However, while the University at the time lacked the many pleasant and highly utilitarian buildings that gradually came to be built, the serene and august air of cultural refinement had already begun to gather, thanks to an exceptionally fine team of experts, deeply immersed in the classics and the human letters, that were assembled at the University at the time. Many of these arbiters of good taste have since retired from active academic service, but we are very glad to observe that Professor James Watt, the founding director of the Art Museum (known as the Art Gallery until 1995), having developed an illustrious curatorial career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has now returned to the Chinese University as the first J.S. Lee Professor of Chinese Culture.
What do you see as your major areas of work?
This is a new chair and is jointly held by the Institute of Chinese Studies and the Fine Arts Department. I shall be mainly engaged in research and conduct seminars for postgraduate students. Where appropriate, I shall also advise on curatorial matters in the Art Museum. My first steps will be to meet students to ascertain their research interests, and to devise courses that complement their studies. It is generally known that research students tend to become over-specialized in their chosen fields of study, often at the expense of general knowledge about the historical and cultural backgrounds of their subjects, and the intellectual milieu prevalent at the time. As a remedy to this, I am planning to introduce courses that would cover the full gamut of arts and cultural history of specified eras in Chinese history.
In what practical ways may students be helped to develop the basic know-how in the appreciation of traditional Chinese art?
There are always efforts to create awareness among students. However, enhancing the popularity of Chinese art among students is not an easy task, for an interest in art forms takes time to cultivate, and the development of a willingness to experience the aesthetically pleasing requires effort. I am rather inclined to think that arts education should start at school, and that it should also have its place in the General Education programme at university level. We are rather short-handed at our Art Museum here and, for extension work to be seriously contemplated, the help of trained volunteers will be essential.
Let us say that no one is born with an interest or knowledge in Chinese art, or any art for that matter, but it is often the case that people will learn a great deal and proceed to learn more on their own as long as there is someone to initiate them, and when there is the chance to see the actual objects of art. In that sense, volunteer docents will be a great help.
You were instrumental in laying the foundation of the Art Museum. In what way has its holding earned its place of uniqueness among campus collections in the world?
When the Museum first opened in 1971, there was no collection to speak of, and the rich and varied exhibits we now see are the results of years of efforts sustained by the munificence of donors and friends, and the hard work of the staff. Since the Art Museum did not have much to start with, and the acquisition budget of the art gallery of a fledgling university would necessarily be small, strategic principles had to be laid down as the museum cautiously sought to build up its holdings. At that time the guiding principle was ‘to perform what others cannot through strategic acquisition, by collecting what others seldom do and yet not deviating from the mission of the museum.’
Working on the basis of this principle, the Art Gallery acquired a large quantity of valuable artifacts and objets d’art of Guangdong origin from the vast private collection of Prof. Jian Youwen (1896–1978), a well-known authority on the history of the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. It was a time when Guangdong paintings, calligraphy and decorative arts in general did not enjoy the same level of esteem and pursuit by collectors as they do today, and the Art Gallery was thus able to add this valuable hoard of great merit to its core collection. Another aspect of the Museum’s holdings that comes to be greatly admired is the considerable number of early rubbings of inscriptions on stone steles. Stone rubbings, though prized items for centuries, had not yet captured the fancy of large museums in the West at the time, and the Art Gallery was thus in a position to acquire, with the generous assistance of certain benefactors, Song Dynasty rubbings of the Lanting xu and the Xiyue Huashan miao bei, the latter being one of the four Song copies from the same stele currently extant in the world. Also worth special mention is the sizeable collection of ancient seals kept at the Art Museum. These were acquired during the Art Gallery’s very early days, when their collection, once again, had not yet earned the vogue that they would later enjoy.
Prior to returning to Hong Kong, you were with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for many years, retiring only last summer as chairman of the Department of Asian Art and now its Curator Emeritus. Can you tell us one or two most memorable aspects of your career with that Museum?
I was with the Metropolitan Museum for a quarter of a century, with work involved in the setting up of the Department of Asian Art which is now one of the largest of its kind in the West.
I think I would mention the acquisition of Yuan Dynasty silk textiles as one of the highlights of what I did at the Metropolitan Museum. The luxury silks produced in China and Central Asia during the time of the Mongol-Yuan empire are among the finest in world history. There had been little systematic study of them until the Metropolitan Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art started to collect textiles of the 13th to 14th centuries in the 1980s and exhibited their collections together in 1997–98. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue entitled When Silk was Gold, in which there are essays on tapestry, embroidery and the ‘cloth of gold’ of the Mongol-Yuan period.
What is your view regarding the place of art in Chinese culture?
It is impossible to define the place of art within a culture. However, there is nothing more representative of a culture than its art, and art is the most powerful medium through which the outlook and the spirit of a culture may be transmitted. Take a ceramic piece made in the Song Dynasty as an example—its form, texture and colour will tell you so much about the values, the ideals, and the aesthetics of the Song literati. The gradual transition from monochrome ceramics of the Song Dynasty to the blue and white wares of Yuan and Ming Dynasties also tell a lot about the social, economic, political and intellectual changes that took place in those eras.