E xecuted in 1967, Autumn Mountains in Twilight represents the apotheosis of Chang Dai-chien’s (Zhang Daqian) perhaps second revolutionary contribution to the history of Chinese and global art. It is an almost hypnotic work in dazzling colour that draws its inspiration from both ancient and contemporaneous sources.
The pinnacle of Chang Dai-chien’s splashed-colour painting - Autumn Mountains in Twilight
Everyone was deeply honoured when the Kao Ling-mei family generously lent this spectacular “splashed ink and colour” sunset to a 1999 San Francisco State University exhibition that celebrated the centennial of the artist’s birth, showcasing work from his California decade; the painting’s first and only display in the West. The artist’s widow Hsu Wenpo, seven of his children and many grandchildren joined a celebration that attracted extensive media and television coverage, launched with an opening event in City Hall by the Mayor. Renowned scholars Ba Tong, James Cahill, C’hin Hsiao-yi, Feng You-heng, Mayching Kao, Michael Sullivan and artist C.C. Wang, most of whom knew the artist personally, contributed colophons or essays to the catalogue and participated in a related symposium at the de Young Museum. Dr Kao’s insightful catalogue colophon probed the early roots of Chang’s colourful, boneless approach that she traced back to the 1930s, although the mid- and late-1960s saw its fullest and most avant-garde expression. The artist himself claimed he drew inspiration for his semi-abstract p’o-mo p’o-si style from specific ancient Chinese ink painting precedents, effectively sidelining any criticism that he was emulating Abstract Expressionism that was then widespread in the West. Chang’s argument was typically that the Chinese had been there first; he would even argue that Impressionism had emerged in the Yuan.
Chang’s perhaps first revolutionary contribution was the reintroduction of brilliant colour to Chinese paintings 20 years earlier, in the 1940s. His 1944 Musical Performance is among the most outstanding examples from the period he spent immersed in the study of ancient Dunhuang, Mogao, and Yulin grotto murals. Through works like this, Chang reenergised Chinese painting by reprioritising the importance of colour and gongbi meticulousness that had flourished in the Tang but then fallen out of favour. Here, pillars and portals crop the symphonic composition of swirling design, mirrored by the alluringly expert fingers of the seven women musicians. Perhaps comparable to Picasso and Stravinsky who invented a “Neo-classical” style in Europe after the First World War, a war which Picasso avoided by travelling to Italy to admire ancient murals there, so, too, Chang revitalised an almost forgotten tradition during the the Sino-Japanese war to create timeless and magnificent beauty.
Chang’s Autumn Mountains in Twilight’s title and composition strongly link the painting to the ancient and revered Five Dynasties cloudy mountain masterpiece attributed to Guan Tong, Autumn Mountain at Twilight, c. 925 CE, in the collection of Taipei’s National Palace Museum. But Chang’s painting’s specific topography of sheer cliffs also summons the distinctive Yosemite peaks of Half Dome and El Capitan – a location that held a highly personal significance for the artist. Chang’s son Paul Chang told this writer that his father’s brother, the artist Zhang Shanzi/Chang Shan-tse (1882-1940), had visited Yosemite during his own late-1930s trip to California to raise funds for war relief, 30 years before Chang Dai-chien retraced that path in 1967. Chang Dai-chien kept a photo of his brother at Yosemite displayed at his own home until it was eventually lost in a fire. Autumn Mountains in Twilight can also be appreciated as a veneration of his beloved brother Zhang Shanzi.
Autumn Mountains in Twilight was created in September shortly after Chang Dai-chien returned to his rural estate of Mogi das Cruzes in Brazil after a busy stay in California. During that summer, the artist’s work was featured in a retrospective at the Stanford Art Museum organised by Michael Sullivan that attracted such a huge crowd including many old friends from China that the docents were said to have become afraid and fled. There was also an exciting documentary film project that Sullivan initiated, a gallery exhibition at Carmel’s Laky Gallery, and many provocative discussions about potential future projects. Yosemite scenery also evokes the work of Chang’s new acquaintance in Carmel, Ansel Adams. Although the painting’s title evokes the end of day and the end of the season of growth, the colour of the work burns with intensity – suggesting a vigorous rebirth instead of a prelude to rest and hibernation. In this painting, the colours of dusk span the full palette of red/orange to blue/green, among the strongest colourism in all of Chang’s art. While the references to Guan Tong and ancient sources of splashed ink and colour underscore how Chang’s core is firmly scaffolded by Chinese aesthetics, the work clearly signals how Chang’s innovative international Chinese painting style embraced contemporaneous international experiences. Just as Chang explored imagery of the Swiss Alps to create some of his most abstract art, he now tackled the peaks of Yosemite, among America’s most recognisable mountains, to signal his impending move to a new home. By simultaneously living in and between various cultures with multiple studios, he manifested the state of “global China”. Chang should be acknowledged as the pivotal figure who set the stage for the waves of Chinese contemporary and conceptual artists that followed – and as the seminal artist who reminded the world at least twice in his career that some of the most important Chinese paintings are colourful.
Some of the best-known paintings from the second half of Chang’s oeuvre are epic in scale, works like the Giant Lotuses (1961), 10,000 Miles of the Yangtze River (1968) and The Panorama of Mount Lu (1983). But Autumn Mountains in Twilight makes an equally unforgettable impact with the immediacy of its blazing liquid sky and richly dreamy atmosphere that revivifies the ancient tradition of cloudy mountain painting.
It is without question among the most powerful paintings of the past century.
Whoever acquires the painting takes on a heavy responsibility to preserve and share this exceptional masterpiece.