Why This Chinese Artist Surpasses Van Gogh

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.

Zhang Daqian may not be a household name 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 reinvented modern art in his adopted American homeland, Zhang’s work has spanned traditions, from ink landscapes to abstraction. And while the ubiquitous “Picasso of the East” simile is stylistically misleading, it nonetheless speaks to his ability to transcend genres – and the exorbitant 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, fetching $47 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

It was just the latest in a series of major sales. The artist’s work fetched more than $354 million at auction in 2016, surpassing any other artist – dead or alive – in the world that year, according to an annual ranking produced by the Artprice database. Last year, it finished 6th on that same list, ahead of market heavyweights like Vincent van Gogh and Banksy.

In April, the 1947 painting “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” became Zhang Daqian’s most expensive work ever sold at auction. Credit: Sotheby’s

That may just be the tip of the iceberg, said San Francisco State University art professor Mark Johnson.

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

“There is no doubt that Zhang Daqian is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His work referred to world culture and, at the same time, was deeply rooted in classical Chinese culture,” Johnson said, calling it the “truly world’s first”. Chinese artist.”

between the worlds

Born in Sichuan, southwest China, at the turn of the 20th century, Zhang (whose name is also romanized as Chang Dai-chien) was a prodigious talent from an early age. Taught to paint by his mother, he 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 reproduce the great artists of the Ming and Qing dynasties (and later became a highly skilled forger).

He made a name for himself as an artist in the 1930s, before spending two years studying – and painstakingly copying – the colorful murals of the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang, Gansu province. This experience had a profound impact on his art. As well as honing her skills in figure painting, Zhang soon began using a wider range of opulent colors in her work, reigniting their popularity in Chinese art “almost single-handedly,” Johnson said.

“It fundamentally revolutionized the potential of classical Chinese painting, as it revealed that incredibly sumptuous, rich and sensual palette that had been eschewed for a drier or more scholarly look,” Johnson said.

A hanging scroll painted in ink titled

An ink-painted hanging scroll titled “The Drunken Dance” (1943), an earlier figurative work produced by Zhang while still living in China. Credit: Museum Associates / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

But while Zhang’s practice was rooted in 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 ancient culture, which Chairman Mao Zedong viewed as an obstacle to economic progress.

“(Zhang) was so grounded in a completely different understanding of Chinese culture, which was rooted in this great classical lineage,” 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 presented in the press as a great encounter between East and West. When Picasso asked Zhang to critique some of his Chinese-style works, the latter diplomatically suggested that the Spanish master did not have the right tools and then offered him a selection of Chinese brushes.

As well as opening him up to wider artistic influences, Zhang’s new life abroad heralded the most significant stylistic change of his career: a new abstract style called “pocai”, or splashed color.

This change was also, in part, the result of his impaired eyesight. Exacerbated by diabetes, Zhang’s declining vision prevented him from seeing fine details. Figurative shapes and defined brushwork have been replaced by swirls of color and deep ink blots. Mountains, trees and rivers were still present, but their shapes were only inspired, rendered in smooth lines and indistinct shapes as if a mist had descended on the view.

Zhang maintained that his approach was rooted in Chinese tradition. Usually seen in long robes and sporting a flowing white beard – even decades after moving to the United States – he attributed his new style to the ancient painter Wang Mo. But it was clear that Zhang was at least partly inspired by American abstract painters like Jackson. Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Take 1968’s “Mist at Dawn,” which sold nearly HK$215 million ($27 million) last year: while unmistakably based on traditional landscapes, the rich colors and textured forms clearly speak of contemporary Western aesthetics.

“You can’t deny the fact that he was there in America in the 1960s,” said Carmen Ip, head of the Chinese paintings department at Sotheby’s Asia, via video call. “So he must be inspired somehow by abstract expressionism. But for him, it was something that he could also relate to the history of Chinese painting.”

New generation of collectors

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

About two decades ago, China controlled just 1% of the global art market. Zhang only ranked 80th in the aforementioned Artprice ranking in 2002, generating less than $5 million at auction worldwide. Today, however, China is the world’s second-largest art market, after the United States, according to Art Basel and UBS’s 2022 Global Art Market Report.

According to Ip, who has overseen several sales of Zhang’s work, 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 last abstract works titled

One of Zhang’s last abstract works entitled “Mountain in Summer Clouds” (1970). Credit: Asian Arts Museum

“Museums in China have been collecting (Zhang’s paintings) quite actively in recent years,” Ip added. “But the majority of the market is in private hands.”

Sotheby’s declined to reveal who exactly bought “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” at April’s record-breaking auction, only confirming that it went to a private Asian buyer. But Ip said interest in the sale came mainly from Chinese collectors, both inside and outside the country.

What was surprising about the April sale, however, wasn’t just the price – which topped HK$370 million (or $47 million, more than five times the original estimate) – it was the type of paint that broke the record. According to Ip, historically it was Zhang’s later abstract works, rather than his more traditional paintings made in China, that attracted the biggest sums.

“The results also surprised us,” Ip said. “If you look at the prices that have reached the 200 million (Hong Kong dollar, or $25 million) level, it’s generally sensational work. So we weren’t really expecting that.”

Most sincere form of flattery

Yet in many ways “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” is typical of Zhang’s work. As the name suggests, the painting was a modern take on 12th-century artist Wang Ximeng’s masterpiece “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains.”

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

“He managed to elevate (the original); he challenged it…he transformed elements of the painting, which takes it to a whole new level,” Ip said.

by Zhang Daqian

“Recluse in the Summer Mountains” by Zhang Daqian exhibited at Sotheby’s auction house in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang gave the six-panel screen to her daughter as a wedding gift. Credit: Kin Cheung/AP

“He doesn’t just paint or imitate – he learns from those old artists or masters. He has a great memory and his brushwork is superb and skillful, so he is able to transform them.”

Zhang often paid direct homage to his influences in this way. But his classical training made him so good at copying that the replicas he produced and sold during his lifetime were often passed off as originals. Works of art once attributed to 17th century masters like Bada Shanren and Shitao have since been revealed to be his handiwork. According to Johnson, Zhang 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.

According to Johnson, Zhang was not there to deceive per se. He loved a challenge and often hid playful markings in his forgeries that hinted at deception.

“I was friends with several people who knew him personally,” Johnson said, “and they said he loved to pick up a pen or a brush and start drawing these masterpieces of classical Chinese art. which he remembered perfectly – the compositions and different types of brushstrokes.He loved the craft.

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

Top image caption: “Mist at Dawn” by Zhang Daqian (1968).

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