Born in 1899 in China’s Sichuan province, Zhang Daqian would become one of the most significant and prolific Chinese artists of the 20th century. He revered the ancient Chinese tradition of depicting mountains and clouds, particularly appreciating the skill of 11th-century artist Mi Fu and his son Mi Youren, as well as Gao Kegong (1248-1310) and Fang Congyi (c. 1301-1378).
In the 1950s Zhang began to move beyond traditional Chinese landscapes, experimenting with the splashed-ink technique that can be traced back more than a millennium to the Tang dynasty-era artist Wang Qia.
Zhang Daqian painted Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds in 1965. According to Ben Kong, International Specialist Head of Chinese Paintings at Christie’s in Hong Kong, this was ‘a time of great change for him personally’. In 1949, the political situation in China had led Zhang to leave the country. He subsequently travelled extensively and lived in Argentina, Brazil and California, eventually settling in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1978.
The time abroad exposed the artist to a much wider range of artistic styles than were available in China, and the experience of new cultures and geographies was no doubt a great source of inspiration. Zhang’s work in splashed ink became increasingly free and expressive; in the early 1960s he began to add splashes of colour to his paintings.
For Kong and others who study Zhang’s work, the influence of Western Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist artists on his painting is clear. Yet if Zhang was vocal in his admiration for Picasso, he refused to acknowledge the impact of his Western artistic contemporaries on his work. For Zhang, explains Kong, ‘his positioning as a Chinese artist was paramount’.
Also central to the increasing abstractness of his style was an eye condition that deteriorated in the late 1950s, diminishing his ability to paint in the meticulous, precise manner in which he had previously worked. According to Kong, this ‘accelerated his move towards splashed-ink paintings’.
In Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds, Zhang inscribes his claim to creative independence directly onto the canvas. ‘My way of painting mountains amidst clouds is different from that of Mi Fu, Mi Youren, Gao Kegong, or Fang Congyi,’ Zhang writes, adding, ‘I forge my own path’. The declaration at once highlights the artist’s conscious engagement with China’s artistic traditions, and his break from it.
Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds represents a stylistic shift for Zhang. In the majority of his splashed-ink paintings, explains Kong, the artist ‘used colour to create playfulness and depth’. Here, however, ‘there’s much more restraint; he uses mostly ink. Colour is used more as embellishment, rather than becoming the central focus of the work.’
In essence, the specialist continues, ‘he’s created layers of depth using just one tone’. But despite the build-up of ink, the painting does not feel heavy. ‘That’s what makes this piece special,’ Kong observes. ‘When you stand in front of it, you experience a sense of grandeur, but also a lightness in execution. That’s what really calls to me.
‘Splashed ink existed as far back as the Tang dynasty, but Zhang reinterpreted it in a way that’s really unique,’ notes the specialist. ‘In these ethereal paintings he never completely dissolves into Abstract Expressionism. He always leaves physical details — for example to delineate water and mountains — that keep you rooted.’ As Kong explains, Zhang is ‘adding to the Chinese tradition rather than departing from it. He really did “forge a new path” in Chinese art history.’
Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds represents the pinnacle of Zhang’s splashed-ink paintings. For Kong, it’s the kind of work that ‘always stays in the back of your mind on your mental wish-list. You always hope that some day the work will come through our doors.’
Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds will be offered in Resplendent and Glorious – Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds previously from the Mei Yun Tang Collection, on 30 May 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.