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The Old Master

Chang Dai-chien epitomized the classical Chinese ink-painting tradition, and then he transformed it for the modern age.

Chang Dai-chien, Divine Redwood Trees (Shenmu) in Taiwan, 1970

Chang Dai-chien, Divine Redwood Trees (Shenmu) in Taiwan, 1970, framed panel, ink and colors on paper, 148.9 x 209.2 cm.

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Chang Dai-chien (1899–1983) occupies a special place in the history of modern Chinese art. Critics, journalists, art historians, curators, and collectors all agree on his importance but have been at something of a loss as to what to make of him. That is at least partly due to the fact that Chang occupied so many roles, each of which contained within itself complexities and contradictions. As a painter, he was both a supreme master of traditional Chinese styles and a modernizing innovator. As a scholar, he was immersed in the old literati culture but also engaged in 20th-century archaeology. As a collector, Chang preserved historic works and made major contributions to their study, but he also used his knowledge and the old materials that he owned to engage in forgery, muddying the historical record and causing trouble for museum curators that persists to this day.

A larger-than-life personality, Chang (whose name is sometimes spelled Zhang Daqian, in the Pinyin system) created a lifestyle for himself that was both luxurious and helpful in promoting his image as a traditional Chinese master of art. He affected a long white beard and preferred Imperial-era Chinese robes to modern Western clothing. Inspired by nature from his earliest youth in Sichuan province, after he went into exile at the Communist Revolution in 1949 he surrounded himself with traditional Chinese-style gardens at his homes in Brazil, California, and Taiwan. He was a noted gastronome and a master of classical Chinese cooking. Called “the Picasso of China” by some journalists, Chang met Picasso in 1956 in France, where he was traveling on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the first ever of Chinese ink painting in a Western modern-art museum. The two art stars spoke, posed for a photograph together, and exchanged drawings. Continuing to paint prolifically in old age, Chang died world-famous, regarded as equal parts artist, eccentric, and sage.

An opportunity to appreciate Chang’s work in all (or perhaps it should be said, most) of its phases is available now, through April 26, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, an institution with a long history with the artist. “Chang Dai-chien: Painting From Heart to Hand,” mounted on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of Chang’s birth, presents a medium-sized selection of works including all those that Chang donated to the museum after his retrospective there in 1972, as well as others given by the museum’s founder, Avery Brundage, and some by members of Chang’s family. Chang lived in the Bay Area and in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., on the Monterrey Peninsula, during the mid- to late 1960s, a time of great creativity and stylistic change for him. During that time, he formed important relationships with art-world figures such as Chinese art expert James Cahill of U.C. Berkeley; René-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argencé, the curator of the AAMSF (then known as the Center of Asian Art and Culture) who organized the retrospective; and Carmel dealer Les Laky, whose gallery became Chang’s main commercial venue. Chang also connected with many important members of the Chinese diasporic art community, well-represented in Northern California at that time. The AAMSF’s present exhibition not only showcases Chang’s achievements but also pays tribute to the special role that California played in his career.

Chang built the whole edifice of his work on a firm foundation of Chinese art history. Coming from a cultured and privileged family, from an early age he immersed himself, as both academic student and practitioner, in the ancient tradition of ink painting, which centered on landscape. Reinforcement for these interests was close at hand. His mother was an artist who sometimes sold her paintings of animals and flowers. His first teacher was his older brother Chang Shan-tze, a well-known animal painter who bred exotic animals and birds to use as models. He then went to Shanghai to study calligraphy and painting—inextricably connected in the classical Chinese tradition—with two famous scholar-artists, Li Ruiqing and Zeng Xi, and spent two years in Kyoto, Japan, learning about textiles. In Japan he was also exposed to the ways in which European Impressionism and Art Deco were incorporated into Japanese art. Awareness of this syncretism may have influenced Chang’s inclusion, decades later, of elements of color abstraction into his landscape painting.

In the early 1930s, Chang and his brother lived together in Suzhou, in a famous garden establishment with artistic and scholarly friends. At this stage, Chang’s art consisted mainly of finely detailed ink landscapes and floral paintings under the influence of the great Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) artists Shitao and Zhu Da. Several of these works are on view in the AAMSF exhibition. Scholar Admiring Rock (1928) epitomizes the phenomenon of literati admiring and collecting unusual and grotesque rock formations, while The Hermitage (1930) depicts the sort of rural yet comfortable seclusion that traditional scholar-officials craved, quite similar to the lifestyle that Chang would soon enjoy in Suzhou. These ink paintings combine imagery with text—inscriptions of classical poetry and notes by the artist as to the circumstances of composition—in line with the Chinese concept of the “three perfections,” painting, poetry, and calligraphy.

In 1936, Chang moved to Beijing to advance his career. There he became good friends with the painter Puru, a member of the former Qing Imperial family who gave Chang access to important works in his family’s collection. In 1940 Chang’s older brother died, and the following year Chang underwent an experience that would broaden his perspective on Chinese art and transform his work. This was an expedition to the Buddhist cave-temples at Dunhuang, an archaeological site at which an earlier tradition of painting (dating from the 4th–14th centuries) was literally enshrined. Chang and his associates labored for several years to document and reproduce the wall paintings in the Mogao and Yulin caves at Dunhuang, a task that had not only artistic but patriotic aspects, given that China at the time was a theater of World War II and that its cultural heritage was under threat.

Chang internalized what he learned from these Buddhist murals and created paintings of his own that are much more colorful than the subdued ink landscapes and that focus on the figure in a very vital way. The Drunken Dance (1943), a depiction of an exuberantly intoxicated Tibetan woman in a colorful fur-trimmed robe and fur hat, shows the strong influence that Dunghua painting had on Chang’s approach, as does, in a different way, Black Horse After Liu Yongnian of the Song (1945). While Chang had learned animal painting from his brother and this particular painting is based on a Song-dynasty ink painting, the muscular energy of the horse and the sky-blue color of the ground on which it stands owe a good deal to Dunhuang. Like many of Chang’s paintings, this one shows the extent to which he was able to creatively blend elements from disparate periods of classical Chinese art.

When the Communists under Mao Zedong took over in 1949, Chang, along with many other artists who were deeply invested in elite Chinese traditions that the new regime opposed, felt the need to go into exile. After stops in India, France, and Argentina, he settled in Brazil in 1954, on the estate of Mogi das Cruzes, about an hour from São Paulo. While many exiled artists have preserved their home landscapes in memory, Chang went one step further, constructing a vast garden with a lake and five pavilions in order to replicate, as far as possible, the Chinese landscape he loved. In addition to deriving solace from this created landscape, he used it as source material for paintings such as the series Various Scenes from the Pa Te Yuan Garden (1965) and the ink painting Five Pavilion Lake (1968).

During the 1950s, as abstract painting became dominant in the West, Chang started thinking seriously about allowing abstraction into his own painting. In this, he was encouraged by the example of other Asian or Asian-American artists who were combining Eastern and modernist Western aesthetics, such as Zao Wou-ki, Chen Chi-kwan, Isamu Noguchi, and Ruth Asawa. Typically, Chang’s approach was to find justification for what he was embarking on by looking to the Chinese past. His new technique involved applying copious washes of blue, green, or black ink over the fine lines of a landscape composition. In his writings on the subject, he cited two styles of painting from the Tang dynasty, pomo (splashed ink) and pocai (splashed color)—although none of these paintings still existed to be viewed. Chang had to be deriving his inspiration, if that is indeed where he got it, from written descriptions in the corpus of classical Chinese art writings.

In any case, although green and blue are traditional colors in Chinese landscape painting, the overall effect of Chang’s splash paintings from the late ’50s and ’60s is strikingly original, a melding of late Impressionism (Monet’s waterlily paintings were a favorite of Chang’s), Abstract Expressionism, and Chinese ink painting. Splash Waterfall (1968) and Divine Redwood Trees (1970) epitomize Chang’s marriage of color abstraction with landscape. In Spring Clouds (1965), executed on gold paper, the colored ink washes, which include white, take the painting to a place just this side of pure abstraction, like the very late Turner. The artist could do the same in black only, as in Mountains in Summer Clouds (1970), in which pools of ink spread outwards without concern for any idea of linear substructure. Most of Chang’s abstractions leave out the calligraphy, as if the artist had penetrated to a zone of silence, but this one has an explanatory inscription: “I suddenly got inspired at midnight, startling my wife and children from their dreams. The ink container overturned and ink ran out of control, but a celestial mountain rapidly emerged from the summer clouds.”

Chang’s good friend James Cahill, the Berkeley scholar of Chinese art who died in 2014, remarked that Chang “insists always that he is adhering to Chinese tradition even when he is making radical moves.” In so doing, Chang emphasized the influence of Asian art on modernism and was even willing to situate movements such as Cubism within a traditional Chinese context. In 1961 he wrote, “Both Matisse and Picasso confess that they have changed their modes of expression under the influence of Chinese paintings….Chinese painting has often been pooh-poohed by unappreciative critics for its want of perspective. In reality, Chinese painting is not innocent of the visual aspect of dimension in space; only, the Chinese point of view may shift from one direction to another, as the painters of some modern schools show, instead of from one fixed point.”

Chang’s abstractionist works have proved enduringly popular and now lead his market; in April 2016 Peach Blossom Spring (1982), a late splash painting, set the artist’s record when it sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for the equivalent of $34.7 million. Some critics, though, have expressed discomfort at the fact that there was another, hidden influence at work in the creation of this hybrid style—Chang’s declining eyesight due to diabetes. It is true that in the ’50s, as the artist began to notice this ill effect, he was looking for ways to keep his painting strong without needing to do as much fine detail work. However, it is equally true that Chang’s vision improved in later years after medical treatment, and more importantly, that the works are truly great no matter what their genesis.

As for the question of Chang’s forgeries, it has been dealt with at length in specialist publications as well as in the mass media. A catalogue essay for the AAMSF exhibition, written by Mark Dean Johnson, minimizes it, saying that the artist “is wrongly accused of being a lifelong nefarious ‘master forger’ because he created and sold a few works that he represented as the work of historical artists. (He did so shortly after he left China to support himself and his family at a time of dire financial need.)” The source cited for this is the artist’s son, the late Paul Chang, who attributed the claims of extensive forgery to “sensationalist American media.”

Cahill, who was a close friend of the artist but willing to acknowledge his roguish side, claimed that Chang’s forgeries were vast in number and had found their way into many important museum collections. In 2007–08, the MFA Boston mounted an exhibition titled “Zhang Daqian: Painter, Collector, Forger” that included a painting acquired by the museum in 1957 as a 10th-century work and later reattributed as “one of Zhang’s most ambitious forgeries.” In the publicity material for the show, the MFA wrote, “As a forger, Zhang so mastered the art of deception that his fakes were purchased unwittingly by nearly every major art museum in the United States—the MFA included. Indeed, the first question asked by experts when a work is considered suspect is: ‘Could this be by Zhang Daqian?’” On the other hand, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has stood by the attribution of one of its prize classical Chinese paintings, Riverbank, which it calls “one of the most important Chinese paintings in existence,” as a genuine 10th-century work of the Monumental Landscape school, in the face of Cahill’s persistent contention that it was by Chang.

Whatever the case may be, Chang was no Van Meegeren—the works he made under his own name are undoubtedly great, both as examples of creativity within the old Chinese tradition and as innovative experiments in fusing that tradition with modernist abstraction. And as for his fakes, which do exist regardless of their number, they have the intriguing quality—also diametrically opposed to Van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers and so many other fakes—that even when unmasked they do not instantly lose their luster as works of art.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: February 2020

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