I n 1956, there was an extraordinary meeting of artists. The setting was the home of Pablo Picasso in Cannes, and it was there that he met the Chinese artist Zhang Daqian. Picasso was the Western world’s most famous artist. And while Daqian was then living in exile from his native China, he had achieved a similar celebrity. Their fame and reputations have endured – in 2016, they were the two best-selling artists at auction, with Zhang comfortably first.
Like the Spaniard, Zhang’s life story is the stuff of legend. Born in 1899, as a child he was taught to paint flowers by his mother. He claimed that he’d been captured by bandits as a teenager and learned poetry from their looted books. Whatever the truth, he had a wide-ranging education: he trained in textile weaving and dyeing in Kyoto, and in Shanghai he studied with the painters Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing, learning directly from the works of great 17th-century masters such as Shitao and Bada Shanren. Later he journeyed into the 5th-century Dunhuang Buddhist caves, which he painstakingly copied and catalogued.
Zhang’s proficiency in copying was such that he was a master forger. Two works in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – one originally attributed to the 10th-century artist Guan Tong, the other thought to be by an unknown 6th-century artist – were, in fact, Zhang fakes. He was also a collector: a Dong Qichang scene he once owned is now in the Boston museum.
Zhang’s works showing subtle evolutions of these schools are present in collections like that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But it is his splashed ink paintings, which he developed from the mid-1960s, that are his most original works. In pieces such as On Route Switzerland-Austria, 1966, and Snowclad Summits at Dusk, 1969, Zhang would apply washes of colour in multiple layers and then work images of poetic landscapes into the compositions.
“Zhang Daqian was able to transform his traditional roots to create his unique abstract style,” says Carmen Ip, head of the Fine Chinese Paintings at Sotheby’s. “Expressive and dramatic in appearance, these signature works make him undoubtedly one of the most important Chinese artists of the 20th century.”
Works by Zhang Daqian at Sotheby's
The origins of this technique lie partly in his life in exile from China after the communist revolution in 1949, when he travelled to Hong Kong and India before living in Argentina, Brazil and the US. He died in 1983 in Taipei. His exposure to Western Modernism, and particularly to Abstract Expressionism, undoubtedly influenced him, but, true to his roots, he also said that his abstract washes derived from the free techniques of the Chinese masters. For Zhang, forging a modern language always meant turning to the past, as well as absorbing the present.