James Francis Cahill (Chinese: 高居翰; pinyin: Gāo Jūhàn (1926 – 2014) was an art historian, curator, collector, and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He was one of the world’s top authorities on Chinese art. Gazing into the Past is a one-hour portrait film of Cahill and the art he studied and interpreted for generations of students and scholars.
Cahill changed the way the world looked at Chinese and Japanese painting. The interviews with former students, colleagues, curators, and friends provide rich opportunities to focus on the art itself, which was Cahill’s main goal throughout his career. The parallel approach will create an impression of a man and his life, and a clear understanding of how the study of Asian art developed during the second half of the 20th century.
Fluent in both Japanese and Chinese, Cahill was a brilliant scholar, an articulate and dynamic lecturer and teacher, and a writer without peer in his field. Spanning a period of over sixty years, his lectures, articles, and books defined new parameters for his field of study, influencing generations of students at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught from 1965 to 1994, as well as students, scholars, and collectors throughout the world, especially in China, where all of his books have been translated into Chinese and where he lectured for some years in both Beijing and Hangzhou.
As a teacher Cahill was notable for his exceptional generosity, sharing with students and other researchers the fruits of his own years of study; as a scholar, he tackled issues and groups of artists ranging from the birth of literati painting (in his dissertation), to fantastic and eccentric artists of the early 17th century, to the influence of Chinese painting on Japanese artists of the 18th and 19th century, and to paintings of women during the 17th to 19th centuries. A good number of these topics, and his research on them, formed the basis for exhibitions of paintings that explored the issues and provided at least provisional answers to the questions that Cahill had posed for the very first time. The College Art Association awarded him its Lifetime Distinguished Teaching of Art History award in 1995, and at its 2004 annual meeting devoted a Distinguished Scholar session to him, with papers by colleagues and former students. In 2007 the College Art Association presented him with its Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art.
In 1973 he was a member of the Chinese Archaeology Delegation, the first group of art historians to visit China from the U.S., and in 1977 he returned to China as chairman of the Chinese Old Painting Delegation, which was given unprecedented access to painting collections there. In the years after that he visited China frequently, lecturing at art academies and universities, organizing and participating in symposia, seeing exhibitions and collections, doing research.
His first major book, Chinese Painting (Skira, 1960) is still widely read and has been reprinted many times. He was also joint author of The Freer Chinese Bronzes, vol. I, 1967. He undertook a five-volume series on later Chinese paintings, of which three volumes were published: Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty (1976); Parting At the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty (1978); and The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty (1982). His encyclopedic knowledge and near-photographic memory made possible his Index of Early Chinese Painters and Paintings (1980, reprinted 2003, a monumental compilation of all known works. Translations of his books have been published in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, as well as several European languages.
During the 1978-79 academic year he was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, delivering a series of lectures titled “The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in 17th Century Chinese Painting.” These were published in 1982 as a book with the same title, which in the following year was awarded the College Art Association’s Morey Prize for the best art history book of 1982. His Franklin D. Murphy lectures at the University of Kansas were published in 1988 as Three Alternative Histories of Chinese Painting, and his Bampton Lectures given at Columbia University appeared in 1994 as The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China. His Reischauer Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1993 were published in 1996 as The Lyric Journey: Poetic Painting in China and Japan, and a fifth lecture series, the Getty Lectures, were presented at the University of Southern California in 1994 as “The Flower and the Mirror: Representations of Women in Late Chinese Painting.” They remain unpublished, but another book that grew out of them: Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, was published in January, 2011. A number of his books and articles have attained an especially wide readership in Chinese translation in China and Taiwan.
In 2010 the Smithsonian Institution awarded him the Charles Lang Freer Medal for his lifetime contributions to the history of Asian and Near Eastern art. His major late-life project was a series of video-recorded lectures titled A Pure and Remote View: Visualizing Early Chinese Landscape Painting and Gazing into the Past, a collaboration with the Institute for East Asian Studies, available on this website for free viewing. Before his death he recorded another group of video lectures which will be made available in coming months.