W eimin Zhang’s brilliant and carefully researched feature-length documentary film represents a gift of invaluable scholarship. It gives the world intimate and unprecedented insight into the life of one of the very greatest artists of the 20th century, the international giant Chang Dai-chien (Zhang Daqian). Her important project spanned 12 years of filmmaking and is scaffolded by extensive travel to several continents, tracing the artist’s own peripatetic path across the globe more than a half century earlier.
Of Color and Ink was inspired by the beautiful film footage produced in 1967 by beloved and revered art historian Michael Sullivan, then teaching and curating at Stanford University. In conjunction with a retrospective exhibition of Chang Dai-chien’s work held at the Stanford Art Museum that Sullivan organised, Sullivan hired a local cinematographer to create a short educational film documenting the artist’s process. That film featured exquisite footage of the artist and his wife Hsu Wenpo walking among ancient cypress trees on California’s Monterey Peninsula, and then recorded the artist’s seemingly spontaneous creation of a related painting of a twisted cypress – demonstrating how Chang Dai-chien drew inspiration from specific landscapes. The footage was almost lost because of an impromptu conversation with the great photographer Ansel Adams who joined a celebratory dinner with Chang Dai-chien and Sullivan immediately after the filming. Adams alerted the cinematographer that the Chinese-speaking painter was widely renowned as the “Picasso of China.” As a result, the cinematographer suddenly imagined that the footage held great commercial value, and demanded an unreasonably exorbitant fee from Sullivan.
Three decades later, the artist’s grandson Wei Chang helped deliver the message that Sullivan could and would now pay that fee to the cinematographer from his own personal resources, and the original footage was subsequently donated to San Francisco State University. The raw footage was screened as a part of the university’s 1999 Chang Dai-chien centennial exhibition that showcased paintings from the artist’s California period. Then, Zhang helped transfer the original celluloid to a digital format that was subsequently edited by a university team; the completed 21-minute film premiered in 2013, entitled Chang Dai-chien in California. Sullivan had asked that the footage be kept “special” and not posted to the internet but it was regrettably pirated and an indicia-labeled rough cut can sometimes be found online although an authorised trailer is publicly available.
Sullivan’s historic 1967 footage helped inspire Zhang to embrace the almost impossible challenge of documenting Chang Dai-chien’s tangled international profile, and so the current film can be considered as part of Sullivan’s continuing legacy. But Zhang is herself an acclaimed filmmaker and award-winning documentary artist, whose experience enabled her to stitch together disparate fragments into a compelling whole. Her bilingual and bicultural background and generous spirit opened the door to many multilayered, unique opportunities that further strengthened the project. The current film represents perhaps the pinnacle of her own filmic achievement to date.
Zhang’s film focuses broadly on the period after Chang Dai-chien’s move from China in 1949, representing the very rich and full second half of Chang Dai-chien’s career. She secured access to previously unknown, visually spectacular archival footage of the artist’s sojourns in South America and Europe, including an extended sequence shot in Germany during 1964 that enables us to celebrate Chang Dai-chien’s 65th birthday aboard a riverboat with him, his family and friends. The film also provides provocative and valuable insight about why the artist’s stay in Argentina was relatively brief, and why he stepped away from a more active profile in France after mounting several historically significant exhibitions there – and even befriending Picasso.
During the course of her extensive travel and wide-ranging explorations, Zhang also discovered paintings that were previously unknown or otherwise unattributed. Some of the film’s insights are articulated by highly respected scholars, as well as former students and friends, but the most priceless interviews are with several of the artist’s children who have since passed away. We are so fortunate to hear their precious voices and memories and the world owes Zhang a debt of gratitude for making these timely and beautiful recordings.
At the end of her film, Zhang includes an archival interview with the artist himself. In it, Chang Dai-chien clearly reframes our understanding of his production within an international context. Although indisputably the most sophisticated Chinese artist of the 20th century, in these remarks Chang Dai-chien also articulately erases the traditional artistic polarity of East and West. He places his own work within a more global framework, that positions him as the 20th century’s preeminent contemporary literati artist, who crosses geopolitical borders in art as he did in his own life.
Chang Dai-chien’s art asks that both China and the West grapple with his global engagement and sophistication, while appreciating his steadfast deepest roots in Chinese thought and culture. That only half of Chang’s work, the years before his move to the West, is typically studied in China – and that his full achievement is wrongly relegated only to Chinese art history in the west, strongly suggests that he is deserving of still greater global recognition as among the world’s most important and powerfully relevant artists of the 20th century. Chang Dai-chien is a timeless, international giant as well as the key trailblazer for the decades of Chinese contemporary and conceptual artists that followed. Weimin Zhang’s new film is a critical reintroduction from that more complicated understanding of the genius of Chang Dai-chien.