Chinese Paintings – Modern

Second Sight: The Courageous Late Styles of Zhang Daqian and Claude Monet

By Jennifer Huang Bernstein

Z hang Daqian (1899 – 1983) developed his famous splashed ink technique fairly late in his career. By the end of the 1950s, Zhang had already established himself as a prolific traditionalist painter and a genius of many styles. Possessing an eagle eye and a nimble brush, he was a quick study in traditional painting, learning the techniques of Chinese masters by meticulous imitation. As a young artist, Zhang prided himself on his ability to copy masterworks down to the finest detail and nuance, which even earned him a reputation as one of the most gifted art forgers of the century. Zhang Daqian's art would trace its roots back to many sources. He would integrate all of these methods and reinvent his own original style.

Many scholars regard his innovations in splashed ink as a response to Abstract Expressionism or other developments of modern art that had been bubbling up during his residency overseas, but Zhang himself credited Tang dynasty painter Wang Mo as his main influence. It's worth mentioning that Zhang began experimenting with splashed ink at a time when he was struggling with diminished sight as result of cataracts in both eyes – a condition which no doubt contributed to this shift to a new and distinctive style.

“My sight is getting dimmer every day... I look forward with horror to utter darkness, and then an operation which may end in as great a failure as the last one.”
- Mary Cassatt, 24 May 1919

One can only imagine the existential dread of an artist confronted with failing vision. Like Zhang Daqian, Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926) had also faced deteriorating eyesight from cataracts. The last of many unsuccessful operations in 1919 meant the end of her painting career. For Cassatt, the advancing prospect of utter darkness would have a devastating psychological impact. Its progression would also manifest in stages of Cassatt's work as her style gradually lost its former precision and her colors settled into a limited range.

“Nothing takes it out of one like painting,” Cassatt wrote in 1913 to Louisine Havemeyer. “I have only to look around me to see that, to see Degas a mere wreck, and Renoir and Monet, too.” The ravages of older age had similarly taken its toll on other artists in Cassatt’s circles. By that time, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet were also impaired with deteriorating eyesight, Pierre-Auguste Renoir with rheumatoid arthritis.

Later in another letter to Havemeyer in September 1918, Cassatt wrote: “Rene went to see Monet and found him at work on large panels of water lilies. One would have to build a room especially for them I suppose. I must say his Nemphes pictures look to me like glorified wall paper.” Referring to one of the later Les Nymphéas paintings, Cassatt was distinctly unimpressed by Monet’s new painting style, which bordered on abstract.

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1916-19. Oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Monet (1840 – 1926) was already experiencing problems with his vision years before he was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, at the age of 72, in 1912. His condition altered the way he perceived light, creating significant implications for an artist so steeped in the representation of it. In the preceding decades, he had been devoted to painting in series – haystacks, poplar trees, Rouen Cathedral, Houses of Parliament and others – repeatedly exploring a single subject, keenly observing the environment during different hours of the day and in all seasons of the year, capturing the subtle shifts in light and weather. But day by day, season by season, advancing age would cloud Monet’s vision, a gauzy scrim descending before his eyes. He was deeply troubled by what this would mean for his art. Monet stopped painting for almost two years while he mourned the death of his second wife and his eldest son. His failing vision surely contributed to an impending sense of mortality.

By 1914, he reemerged from this hiatus with renewed vitality and continued to advance his style. In these later works, the shift was profound. He had already began to move toward an increasingly abstract treatment of space in his paintings of water lilies by focusing entirely on the water surface and thus reducing the illusion of depth and perspective. His paintings were often daubed in brown, yellow and red hues, unlike the wistful lavenders, blues and greens he once favored. Brushstrokes became bold and frenetic. The works expanded in size and monumentality. He returned time and again to his garden at Giverny, the pond of water lilies, Japanese-style footbridge and gentle willow trees – often painting these from memory.

Claude Monet. Left: The Water-Lily Pond 1899 c.1923-25 (oil on canvas), National Gallery, London. Right: The Japanese Bridge, c.1923-25 (oil on canvas), Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA, Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan.

Monet’s late works had been overlooked toward the end of his life and in the two decades following the artist’s death in 1926. Yet the paintings that Cassatt would so dismissively call “glorified wall paper” would certainly have been relegated to the dust heap of art history had it not been for the newfound appreciation from Abstract Expressionists. They saw Monet’s late stage as key transition between Impressionism and 20th-century modern art, and a precursor to abstract painting.

It was a radical reinvention, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Monet accessed details from memory and innate imagination to compensate for his failing sight. When the eyes can only detect faded colors and muted lines, what else would it mean but the end of an artist’s career? For Zhang Daqian, the onset of diabetes and, later, cataracts would diminish the ability to discern fine detail – a skill which he previously elevated to preternatural heights and which also enabled him to master so many painting styles. In both cases, the looming prospect of virtual blindness made it necessary for Monet and Zhang to liberate themselves from the fine lines, nuances of color and light, and all of the keenly observed details that had so enriched the art of their early careers. Both artists in their later careers focused on atmosphere and color rather than the depictions of specific scenes. As their perceptions of the external world became more abstract, the artists would draw from within their own extensive experience and memory as catalysts for reinvention.

Zhang Daqian, Mountain Dwelling Shrouded in the Mist, splashed ink and colour on paper, framed, 1967

Zhang began to experiment with splashed ink and color on paper in 1956 while he was in Europe, and developed this style to its height in 1965 when he was living in Brazil, continuing even after he moved to California. This was a brilliant a response to Abstract Expressionism, scholars say. Others see in this style the influence of Japanese masters of ink and wash painting from the Muromachi period. Zhang maintained that his main inspiration was the po mo (潑墨) technique of Tang dynasty artists. All of the above are likely true, given Zhang’s long residency outside China and his encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Chinese painting as well as developments in modern Western art. He would have known the parallels across cultures. Plus, his new style also had the added benefit of minimizing the need for precise details in his paintings.

Zhang Daqian. RIGHT: VERDANT MOUNTAINS IN SICHUAN, INK AND COLOUR ON PAPER, FRAMED, 1948. LEFT: LANDSCAPE IN SPLASHED INK, SPLASHED INK ON PAPER, FRAMED, 1965.

The technique of splashing ink first employed by Tang-dynasty artists, such as Wang Mo and Gu Kuang, is akin to 20th century gestural abstract painting in the sense that color or ink was applied in a seemingly haphazard manner, splashed and absorbed into silk or rice paper. The interplay of watery ink on paper created something suggestive of clouds and mountains, a Daoist’s landscape liberated from overt or premeditated design. This manner of painting was far from the accepted norm of landscape painting even during Zhang Daqian’s time. But at a moment when Zhang was losing his eyesight, living in Europe amid the innovations and practices of Western modern art movements, this ancient and eccentric po mo technique must have occurred to the Chinese artist as an epiphany.

The process was revolutionary and marked a profound departure for Zhang, whose earlier pursuit of “artistic perfection,” as he put it, demanded meticulous articulation of techniques from old masters. And yet it must have presented a newfound freedom to yield control to the spontaneous flow of water and ink. He would observe the interplay of layered ink and bold mineral colors absorbed into paper, and when satisfied with the result would then embellish the emerging shapes with contours and details, thus transforming the patches of color into a powerful landscape.

"Rhythmic vitality is essential to landscape painting and its absence will exclude the picture from the true connoisseur’s appreciation. It is not enough merely to distinguish between the principal and the subordinate parts, the express and the implied, the foreground and the background, and the near and the distant. The secret lies in the inspired dynamic application of the brush, pigment and water."
- ZHANG DAQIAN

Although Monet’s late works and Zhang Daqian’s splash ink landscapes marked a move toward the abstract, they are still recognizably of the natural world. Neither artist set out to create abstract paintings but were forced to pare back their art to the very essence in order to overcome the challenges presented by deteriorating eyesight. In many ways, these works appear all the more powerful without the minute details. Unable to take in the external environment, Monet and Zhang both drew upon that deep well – of experience, memory, innate artistry, imagination and the subconscious – and elevated their art.

Left: Zhang Daqian, Lotus, splashed ink and colour on gold paper, two panel screen, 1973. Right: Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916–1919. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1983, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Zhang Daqian's splash ink paintings as well as works throughout his storied career are on view at Zhang Daqian: The Master, a large-scale solo exhibition at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery. On Saturday, 9 November, a specialist from the Fine Chinese Paintings Department will lead a guided tour starting at 2 pm. The talk will be conducted in English and is open to the public.

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