Zhang Daqian may not be a household name in the West, but in China – and the global art market in general – he is on a par with the likes of Warhol and Monet.
A master of classical Chinese painting who later rediscovered modern art in his adopted American homeland, Zhang’s work spanned traditions from ink landscapes to abstraction. And while the ubiquitous “Picasso of the East” comparison is stylistically misleading, it nonetheless speaks of his ability to transcend genre—and the sky-high prices his paintings now command.
In April, nearly 40 years after his death, Zhang’s 1947 painting “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” became his most expensive work ever sold at auction. It grossed $47 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.
In April, the 1947 painting “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” became the most expensive Zhang Daqian artwork ever sold at auction. Credit: Sotheby’s
This may just be the tip of the iceberg, said San Francisco State University art professor Mark Johnson.
“Zhang Daqian is undoubtedly one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His work referenced global culture while at the same time being deeply rooted in Chinese classical culture,” said Johnson, calling him the “first truly global Chinese artist.”
Born in Sichuan, southwest China, in the early 20th century, Zhang (whose name is also romanized as Chang Dai-chien) was a prodigious talent from an early age. He was taught to paint by his mother and claimed that as a teenager he was captured by bandits and studied poetry using their looted books.
After studying textile dyeing and weaving in Japan, he trained with the famous calligraphers and painters Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing in Shanghai. Copying classical Chinese masterpieces was fundamental to his education, and Zhang learned to skillfully imitate the great artists of the Ming and Qing dynasties (and later became a highly skilled forger).
He made his name as an artist in the 1930s, before spending two years studying and painstakingly copying the colorful Buddhist cave paintings at Dunhuang, Gansu Province. This experience had a major influence on his art. In addition to honing his figurative painting skills, Zhang soon began using a wider range of luscious colors in his work, reviving their popularity in Chinese art “virtually single-handedly,” Johnson said.
“It actually revolutionized the potential of classical Chinese painting, as it revealed this incredibly luscious, rich and sensual palette eschewed for a drier or more scientific look,” Johnson said.
A hanging ink-painted scroll entitled “The Drunken Dance” (1943), an earlier figurative work Zhang completed while still living in China. Credit: Museum Associates/Los Angeles County Museum of Art
But while Zhang’s practice was based on Chinese tradition, the rise of communism in 1949 put him at odds with his homeland. In particular, Johnson said, the painter was uncomfortable with the new government’s disdain for the old culture, which Chairman Mao Zedong saw as an obstacle to economic progress.
“(Zhang) was so embedded in a very different kind of understanding of Chinese culture that was rooted in this great classical lineage,” Johnson said. “And the communist revolution valued a very different kind of art.”
Zhang, like many artists, left China in the early 1950s and lived in Argentina and Brazil before settling in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. In 1956, he met and exchanged famous paintings with Picasso in Paris, a moment heralded in the press as a great meeting between East and West. When Picasso asked Zhang to critique some of his Chinese-style artworks, the latter diplomatically suggested that the Spanish master lacked the proper tools and later gifted him a selection of Chinese brushes.
Zhang’s new life abroad not only opened him up to wider artistic influences, but also ushered in the most significant stylistic shift in his career: a new, abstract style called “pocai,” or splash color.
This shift was also partly due to his deteriorating eyesight. Made worse by diabetes, Zhang’s declining eyesight made it difficult for him to see fine details. Figurative shapes and defined brushwork were replaced by swirls of color and deep inkblots. Mountains, trees and rivers were still present, but their shapes were only suggested, rendered in soft lines and indistinct shapes as if a mist had settled over the vista.
“You can’t deny that he was there, in America, in the ’60s,” said Carmen Ip, head of the fine Chinese paintings department at Sotheby’s Asia, via video call. “So he must have been inspired in some way by abstract expressionism. But for him, it was something that he could also relate to Chinese painting history.”
New generation of collectors
Zhang’s ability to bridge East and West helps explain the popularity of his work, which is held at institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But the rapid rise in market value over the past decade has coincided with an explosion in Chinese purchasing power.
According to Ip, who oversaw several sales of Zhang’s work, demand for his paintings is largely driven by Chinese buyers who now have a more “mature” collecting behavior. “They understand the quality of the work,” she says.
One of Zhang’s later abstract works entitled “Mountain in Summer Clouds” (1970). Credit: Asian Art Museum
“Museums in China have been quite actively collecting (Zhang’s paintings) in recent years,” Ip added. “But most of the market is privately owned.”
Sotheby’s declined to reveal who exactly bought “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” at April’s record auction, confirming only that it went to an Asian private buyer. But Ip said the interest in the sale came mainly from Chinese collectors, both inside and outside the country.
What was surprising about the April sale, though, wasn’t just the price tag — which was over 370 million Hong Kong dollars (or $47 million, more than five times the original estimate) — it was the type of painting that broke the record. Historically, according to Ip, it is Zhang’s later abstract works, rather than his more traditional paintings made in China, that have attracted the largest sums.
“The results also came as a surprise to us,” said Ip. “If you look at the prices that have hit the 200 million (Hong Kong dollar or $25 million) level, they’re usually smashing works. So we never really expected this.”
Sincere form of flattery
Yet ‘Landscape after Wang Ximeng’ is in many ways typical of Zhang’s oeuvre. As the name implies, the painting was a modern take on 12th-century artist Wang Ximeng’s masterpiece “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains.”
By faithfully recreating the elements of the original, Zhang demonstrated his mastery of the Chinese canon. But by adding golden pigment spots, he gave the work a rich new quality.
“He was able to elevate (the original); he challenged it … he transformed elements of the painting, taking it to a whole new level,” said Ip.
Zhang Daqian’s “Recluse in the Summer Mountains” on display at Sotheby’s auction house in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang gave the six-panel screen to his daughter as a wedding gift. Credit: Kin Cheung/AP
“He doesn’t just paint or imitate – he learns from these old artists or masters. He has a great memory and his brushwork is fantastic and skilled, so he is able to transform them.”
Zhang often paid direct tribute to his influences in this way. But his classical training made him so adept at copying that the replicas he produced and sold during his lifetime were often mistaken for originals. Artworks once attributed to 17th-century masters such as Bada Shanren and Shitao have since been revealed as his handicrafts. According to Johnson, Zhang even attended an exhibition of Shitao’s paintings in the 1960s, but revealed at the opening symposium that he had painted some of the art on display.
Zhang wasn’t necessarily out to mislead, Johnson argued. He enjoyed the challenge and often hid playful inscriptions in his forgeries that hinted at the deception.
“I was a friend of several people who knew him personally,” Johnson said, “and they said he loved to pick up a pen or a brush and sketch these masterpieces of classical Chinese art that he felt perfectly. remembered — the compositions and different kinds of brushstrokes. He loved the trade.”
“So is it nefarious?” Johnson asked about Zhang’s forgeries. “Or is it part of this super-advanced identity game?”
Top image caption: Zhang Daqian’s “Mist at Dawn” (1968).