Why Chinese artist Zhang Daqian is superior to Van Gogh

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s bulletin Meanwhile in China, an update three times a week that explores what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it affects the world. register TIMES.

Zhang Daqian may not be known in the West, but in China – and in the global art market in general – he is on par with Warhol and Monet.

A master of classical Chinese painting who later rethought modern art in his accepted American homeland, Zhang’s work spans traditions from ink landscapes to abstraction. And while the all-encompassing comparison to Picasso of the East is misleading stylistically, it still speaks to his ability to transcend the genre – and the sky-high prices of his paintings now.

In April, almost 40 years after his death, Zhang’s 1947 painting Landscape After Wang Ximeng became his most expensive work ever sold at auction for $ 47 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

It was just the latest in a series of big sales. The artist’s work generated more than $ 354 million in auction in 2016, surpassing any other artist – dead or alive – in the world in the same year, according to an annual ranking compiled from the Artprice database. Last year he finished 6th on the same list, ahead of market heavyweights like Vincent van Gogh and Banksy.
In April, the picture from 1947 "Landscape after Wang Simeng" became Zhang Daqiang's most expensive work ever sold at auction.

In April, the 1947 painting Landscape after Wang Xieng became Zhang Daqiang’s most expensive work ever sold at auction. credit: Sotheby’s

That could only be the tip of the iceberg, said Mark Johnson, a professor of art at San Francisco State University.

“There has been a rapid escalation in value as his genius is more widely recognized,” said Johnson, co-curator of 2019. exhibition about Zhang’s work at the Museum of Asian Art in San Francisco, in a telephone interview. “I think prices will double soon,” he added, adding that Zhang’s “ignorance” of Western museums and collectors kept prices “relatively low.”

“There is no doubt that Zhang Daqian is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His work is about global culture and at the same time is deeply embedded in Chinese classical culture, “Johnson said, calling him” the first truly global Chinese artist. “

Between worlds

Born in Sichuan, southwestern China in the early 20th century, Zhang (whose name is also Romanized as Chang Dai-chien) was an incredible talent from an early age. Learned to paint from his mother, he claims to have been captured by bandits as a teenager and studied poetry using their looted books.

After studying textile dyeing and weaving in Japan, he studied with famous calligraphers and artists Zeng Xi and Li Ruqing in Shanghai. Copying classical Chinese masterpieces was essential to his education, and Zhang learned to skillfully reproduce the great artists of the Ming and Qing dynasties (and later became a highly skilled forger).

Chinese artist Zhang Daqian pictured in front of the Grosvenor Gallery in London on August 10, 1965.

Chinese artist Zhang Daqian pictured in front of the Grosvenor Gallery in London on August 10, 1965. credit: Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Getty Images

He made a name for himself as an artist in the 1930s before spending two years studying – and diligently copying – colorful Buddhist cave murals in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. This experience has a profound influence on his art. In addition to honing his skills in figurative painting, Zhang soon began using a wider range of rich colors in his work, reviving their popularity in Chinese art “practically with one hand,” Johnson said.

“It basically revolutionized the potential of classical Chinese painting because it revealed this incredibly gorgeous, rich and sensual palette that was avoided for a drier or more scientific look,” Johnson said.

Hanging ink scroll with title "The drunken dance" (1943), an earlier figurative work completed by Zhang while still living in China.

A hanging, ink-painted scroll entitled The Drunk Dance (1943), an earlier figurative work completed by Zhang while still living in China. credit: Museum Associates of Los Angeles County Museum of Art

But while Zhang’s practice is based on Chinese tradition, the rise of communism in 1949 pitted him against his homeland. In particular, Johnson said, the artist did not feel well about the new government’s disregard for ancient culture, which President Mao Zedong saw as an obstacle to economic progress.

“(Zhang) was so embedded in a completely different kind of understanding of Chinese culture that is rooted in this great classical line,” Johnson said. “And the communist revolution valued a very different kind of art.”

Zhang, like many other artists, left China in the early 1950s, living in Argentina and Brazil, before settling in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. In 1956, he met and exchanged paintings with Picasso in Paris, a moment announced in the press as a great meeting between East and West. When Picasso asked Zhang to criticize some of his Chinese-style artwork, the latter diplomatically suggested that the Spanish master did not have the right tools and later gave him a selection of Chinese brushes.

In addition to opening him up to wider artistic influences, Zhang’s new life abroad heralded the most important stylistic change in his career: a new, abstract style called “pocai” or scattered color.

This change is also partly the result of impaired vision. Exacerbated by diabetes, Zhang’s deteriorating vision made it difficult for him to see the fine details. Figurative shapes and defined brushes were replaced with color swirls and saturated ink stains. Mountains, trees, and rivers were still present, but their shapes were only hinted at, conveyed in gentle lines and vague shapes, as if a mist had descended over the view.

Zhang claims that his approach is rooted in Chinese tradition. He is usually seen in long clothes and with a white beard – even decades after moving to the United States – he attributes his new style to the ancient artist Wang Mo. But it was clear that Zhang was at least partly inspired by American abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Take 1968. “Fog at dawn“Which sold for nearly 215 million Hong Kong dollars ($ 27 million) last year: Although unmistakably based on traditional landscapes, the rich colors and textured shapes clearly speak to modern Western aesthetics.

“You can’t deny the fact that he was there, in America, in the ’60s,” Carmen Yip, head of fine arts at Sotheby’s Asia, said in a video interview. “So he has to be somehow inspired by abstract expressionism. But for him, it was something he could do with the history of Chinese painting.”

A new generation of collectors

Zhang’s ability to connect East and West helps explain the popularity of his work, which is stored in institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But the sharp rise in market value over the past decade has coincided with an explosion in China’s purchasing power.

About two decades ago, China controlled only 1% of the world art market. Jan. placed only in 80th place in the aforementioned Artprice rankings in 2002, generating less than $ 5 million in global auction. However, China is now the second largest art market in the world after the United States, according to the Art Basel and UBS ‘2022 report on the world art market.

According to Yip, who has observed several sales of Zhang’s works, the demand for his paintings is largely driven by Chinese buyers, who now have “more mature” collecting habits. “They understand the quality of the work,” she said.

One of Zhang's later abstract works, entitled "Mountain in summer clouds" (1970).

One of Zhang’s later abstract works, entitled The Mountain in the Summer Clouds (1970). credit: Museum of Asian Art

“Museums in China have been collecting (Zhang’s paintings) quite actively over the last few years,” Yip added. “But most of the market belongs to private hands.”

Sotheby’s declined to say who exactly bought “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” at a record auction in April, only confirming that it had gone to a private buyer in Asia. But Yip said interest in the sale came mostly from Chinese collectors, both in the country and abroad.

What was surprising about the April sale, however, was not just the price – which exceeded Hong Kong $ 370 million (or $ 47 million, more than five times the original estimate) – it was the kind of picture that broke the record. According to Yip, historically, Zhang’s later abstract works, rather than his more traditional paintings made in China, attracted the most money.

“The results came as a surprise to us,” Yip said. “If you look at prices that reach 200 million (Hong Kong dollars or $ 25 million), they are usually immediate. So we never expected that. “

The most sincere form of flattery

Still, in many ways Landscape after Wang Ximeng is typical of Zhang’s work. As the name suggests, the painting is a contemporary look at 12th-century masterpiece artist Wang Ximeng’s “Thousand Li Rivers and Mountains.”

By faithfully recreating elements of the original, Zhang demonstrated his mastery of the Chinese canon. But by adding gold pigment spots, it gave the work a new rich quality.

“He managed to raise (the original); he challenged it … it transformed elements of the picture, which elevates it to a whole new level, ”Yip said.

of Jan Daqian "Hermit in the summer mountains" exhibited at Sotheby's auction house in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang presented the screen with six panels to his daughter as a wedding gift.

Zhang Daqian’s “Prisoner in the Summer Mountains” on display at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang presented the screen with six panels to his daughter as a wedding gift. credit: Kin Cheung / AP

“He doesn’t just paint or imitate – he learns from these ancient artists or masters. He has a great memory and his work with the brush is superb and skillful, so he is able to transform them.

Jan often pays direct homage to his influence in this way. But his classical training made him so skilled at copying that the copies he produced and sold during his lifetime were often considered originals. It has since been revealed that works of art attributed to 17th-century masters such as Bada Shanren and Shitao are his work. According to Johnson, Jan even attended an exhibition of Shitao’s paintings in the 1960s, only to reveal at the opening symposium that he had painted some of the art on display.

Zhang was not, Johnson said, cheating on his own. He enjoyed the challenge and often hid playful inscriptions in his forgeries that hinted at deception.

“I was friends with a few people who knew him personally,” Johnson said. types of strokes. He loved the craft. “

“So it’s mean?” Johnson asked about Zhang’s forgeries. “Or is it part of this super-complex identity game?”

Inscription on the image at the top: “Dawn Mist” (1968) by Zhang Daqian.

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