B orn in 1899 during the Qing dynasty, Zhang Daqian lived to be recognised as the most prestigious Chinese painter of the 20th century, often called “the Picasso of the East.” His talent was encouraged from an early age; the upheavals in China throughout his life impacted his ideas and development. In many ways, he is the forefather of today’s contemporary Asian artists who find themselves in flux, moving between locations and reflecting various cultures, all of which could be called their own. I see him as the progenitor of developments in abstractions such as those of Zao Wou-Ki or the films of Ang Lee, which create an international impact that goes beyond geographic boundaries.
50 Years New in Asia: Enlightenment in the Pink Lotuses of Zhang Daqian
Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen was created in 1973 when Zhang Daqian was already an established painter. It embodies a lifetime of artistic practice with its seamless amalgamation of styles and approaches. With its alluring luster and its recreation of a scene of blooming lotus flowers, this painting – running across panels – is one of the great works of modern Chinese art from a creator who had reached a pinnacle of creativity and productivity, completing some 500 works a year at his peak.
As was usual for this artist at this stage in his career, Zhang applied ink and colour to a wet surface, instigating the veneer of spontaneity in a seemingly random manner. He then added details with the delicate drawing of the lotus flowers.
The lotus, of course, is an ancient symbol in Buddhist works and later Chinese painting. It is a sublime symbol of renewal and hope, ever reminding that the beautiful flower emerges from plants rooted in a muddy pond. Zhang painted the lotus throughout his career, here appropriating the drawings of original masters while departing these origins. There is a brilliant tug between what we can see with our eyes and what must be imagined, a frisson of abundant energy. The flowers are framed by strokes of ink representing stems and leaves surrounding their delicate beauty. Evoking a watery pond is the spray of malachite and azurite pigments, a striking punctuation mark in an otherwise nearly monochromatic composition. This artwork is anything but subdued, given its stunning background of gold, a homage to Japanese screen work, another art history that this artist embraced whole-heartedly. Keep looking and you will find many art histories caught in this painter’s brushwork.
Something as sublime as his depiction of a lotus flower is therefore not quite as simple as it looks. Often described as “a bridge between East and West”, the reliance on vague shapes and forms seems as spontaneous as the color fields of Morris Louis or the pours of Helen Frankenthaler who (we know from art history) absolutely controlled their special effects. Likewise, Zhang’s use of wet-on-wet may look free-flowing but is pre-envisioned and anticipated by a master. While his “splash” paintings have often been attributed to the artist’s encounter with abstraction in Europe and the United States (where he moved in 1949), splash has been an element of ink painting in China for over 1200 years. Zhang himself insisted that his hallmark technique which he first employed in 1956, was derived from the “broken-ink” techniques of random splashing and soaking used by artists of the Tang dynasty. Zhang’s discovery of this technique was not merely an incorporation of western abstraction but also a nostalgic embrace of his own culture.
Adding to its depth of meaning, every aspect of this work reflects Zhang’s biography as it parallels the history of modern China.
The gold screen, for example, reflects Zhang’s “finds” as he travelled to Japan as a young man working in his family’s textile business. The use of blue and green mineral colors, a striking punctuation to the painting, was first discovered by the artist when he spent two years studying the Buddhist murals at the caves of Dunhuang during the Sino-Japanese War. After leaving China in 1949, Zhang Daqian travelled throughout the world including India, Argentina, Brazil, California, Taiwan and Europe, absorbing world culture of the mid-century. During this time, he was the subject of many shows and developed an international network of collectors and supporters. By the 1950s, he was gaining recognition worldwide. 1956 is a hallmark year for Zhang when he met Pablo Picasso as an equal. The two men could not be more different as painters, yet both were amazingly ambidextrous, imitating and combining styles from different sources to add to the power of their work.
The true revelation, however, is that as the artist grew older, he had a critical disruption of his eyesight with cataracts in both eyes. Once a master appropriator, Zhang could no longer master the hyper-realistic technique of Chinese traditional painters. His use of wet-on-wet brush painting eliminated this need for specificity and prolonged his ability to create. Rather than facing a diminishing future, his power as a painter only grew from the adversity. It is widely accepted that the work from later in his life when his infirmity set in are among the most important and powerful of his career.
The stunning beauty of Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen – compared by many to Monet’s Waterlilies – threatens to overshadow its meaning and significance. The work is a meditation on the artist’s personal journey throughout the world and as a witness to history. It foreshadowed Chinese artists’ relationship with western art history as we witness the blossoming of that relationship in contemporary times. Zhang Daqian was one of the first Chinese artists to have a following in the West. To this day, he leads the records in auctions in this category. More importantly, his entire career can be captured in the one work, elevating its importance in modern art and its significance for a follower of Zhang’s amazing creativity.