Z hang Daqian (1899-1983) painted his Landscape after Wang Ximeng when he was 48 years old and nearing the end of a prolonged period of intense scholarship and artistic productivity. Beginning in 1941 the artist and his entourage of students and monks had installed themselves in the Dunhuang caves of Northern China where they spent almost three years studying, restoring, and copying the cave’s precious trove of ancient Buddhist murals. When Zhang Daqian returned to Sichuan – where he had lived since the Japanese occupation of Beijing in 1937 – he stayed primarily at the venerable Zhaojue Temple near Chengdu. Sequestered from the war that had engulfed China, he painted numerous landscapes and Daoist figures in traditionalist styles.
Although he was extremely proficient in painting exact copies of ancient works Zhang Daqian also liked to interact with masters of the past by borrowing from their art and adding his own stylistic innovations.
Rarely Seen: Zhang Daqian's Intoxicating Golden Blue-green Landscape
“My way of painting mountains amidst clouds is different from that of Mi Fu, Mi Youren, Gao Kegong, or Fang Congyi…I forge my own path.”
In 1948 Zhang Daqian chose a Northern Song masterpiece by Wang Ximeng (1096–1119) as the inspiration for one of his attempts to update and personalise the imagery of an iconic antique scroll. By doing so Zhang Daqian was paying homage to Wang Ximeng and Song painting tradition by asserting himself as a living artist capable of extending a precious ancient artistic lineage.
The Legendary Status of Wang Ximeng's Masterpiece
Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains has assumed an almost mythic status in Chinese art history. With a span of close to 12 meters wide, this horizontal hand scroll is the only extant work of an artistic prodigy who painted his singular masterpiece at the age of eighteen, then died two year later at twenty. A protégé of the Emperor Huizong (1082-1135), Wang Ximeng worked in the shadow of the master Li Tang (1050-1130), the most highly ranked painter in the Emperor’s academy.
Like other Song paintings A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains should be seen not as depicting an actual landscape, but as a kind of internalized world that was improvised from memories. Painted on a single roll of silk and divided into six sections by bridges and water, the composition features rolling expanses of green and blue mountains rising from malachite-green rivers. It uses a system of three types of spatial treatments in its depiction of mountains: high distance (gaoyuan), deep distance (shenyuan) and level distance (pingyan). This approach allows an artist to include different viewpoints in a single composition by abandoning the idea of a single focal point. It also allows viewers to enter the composition in multiple locations from varied points of view: a Chinese innovation that facilitated the depiction of broad expanses.
A Comparison of Wang Ximeng and Zhang Daqian
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Wang Ximeng's painting is the harmonious interplay of blue and green mineral pigments derived from azurite (a form of copper) and malachite. Blue and green shanshui landscapes first appeared in the Sui Dynasty (581-619) and were advanced by the father and son Li Sixun (651-716) and Li Zhaodao (675-758) – known as “The Two Lis” – who added flecks of gold. Although none of their works survive today, their gold-blue-green landscapes (jinbi shanshui) would have been familiar to Wang Ximeng and his artistic peers.
In A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains rugged Jiangnan mountains are formed from irregular arcs of blue, green and ochre that rise from bands of golden mist toned by the scroll’s warmly coloured ground. Finely brushed details – bridges, trees, pavilions, boats and people – are visibly interspersed between and across the peaks: their delicacy contrasts with the masses of the mountains. A distant flock of birds and a lone contemplative scholar also are also visible.
Images that can be speculatively identified include the Long Bridge of Suzhou and the waterfalls of Mount Lu. In symbolic terms the scroll can be said to depict a kind of harmony that idealizes the ability of the Emperor to rule effectively. Already regarded as a masterpiece a century after it was created, a colophon of praise written in the late 13th century by the Yuan calligrapher Pu Guang, offered this opinion: “Among landscape works (this painting) has survived through many years. Surely, it is the sole moon among stars.”
Zhang Daqian had been experimenting with blue-green landscapes (qinglü shanshui) since the 1930s and had also been using mineral pigments in his copies of Dunhuang murals. His Landscape after Wang Ximeng mainly borrows from the ancient painting’s striking pigmentation while inventing a new vertical composition that seems to frame a distant vista of low mountains seen across the expanse of water patterned with thin gold waves.
The scroll has areas of ‘boneless’ (mogu) painting in the distant sky and mountains that provide a serene counterpoint to the bold and varied brushwork of the gnarled pines that frame a scholar’s pavilion in the foreground. Gracefully brushed figures – including scholars and a servant – add hints of humanity to the idealised scenery. These figures and their vibrant surroundings expand and dramatize the narrative possibilities of Wang Ximeng’s original scroll.
At the centre left of the scroll, a lone robed scholar stares across the waves towards a wooden bridge and hamlet set against a distant green peak. A boat with a single wind-filled sail enters the scholar’s field of vision from the right.
In the literati tradition, where artists often inserted personal meanings into their compositions, this solitary figure might stand for the artist himself. Landscape after Wang Ximeng was first displayed in public by the Shanghai Art Academy in May of 1948, along with 98 other works, in a well-attended four day exhibition of Zhang Daqian’s art that coincided with the artist’s 50th birthday. A number of the other works on view were also inspired by originals from Chinese masters including Dong Yuan, Juran, Liu Daoshi and Gao Keming. Zhang Daqian loved competing with and updating the works of artists he admired, and it was the only time he chose the masterpiece by Wang Ximeng. Marked in the catalog as “not for sale”, the scroll was later acquired by the noted collector Sun Zhifei whose family has owned it since. After the artist’s death in 1983 it was exhibited by Shanghai Museum and then briefly loaned to the National Art Museum in Beijing before being returned to its owners. Since then, it has never again been shown in public until now.
After Zhang Daqian left China in 1949, he travelled extensively before settling in Brazil where he built his “Garden of Eight Virtues.” He later re-settled in California and then spent the final years of his life in Taiwan where he painted a 32-foot-wide panoramic scroll titled Panorama of Mount Lu. Because of his damaged eyesight this final scroll lacks the fine detail Zhang was capable of when he painted the Landscape after Wang Ximeng, but it instead features blue and green mineral pigments applied in the broad washes characteristic of the artist’s late “splashed ink” style. This vast horizontal Panorama of Mount Lu makes it clear that the impact and influence of Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains stayed with Zhang Daqian until the end of his long life. His masterful Landscape after Wang Ximeng comes from a decisive moment many years before when the then middle-aged artist recognized that his life – and China – were about to change forever.