A Thousand Peaks lift from earth in ranks of green and azure, Ancient pine trees sigh and moan across their layered slopes.
These winding, convoluted ridges seem wondrous and fantastic, Cascades spurt a thousand meters dangling from the Milky Way.
SELF-EXILE TO GLOBAL NOMAD
By 1965, Zhang Daqian had travelled much of the world covering South America, Europe and Asia before he chose to make Carmel, California his home for several years to follow. His paintings completed in this year portray a multitude of subjects, from the snowstorms of the Swiss Alps to the remote settlements of Brazil, but it is likely this work was inspired by nostalgia and sentiment. Perhaps yearning to recall memories of life in Asia, the artist sought comfort in painting a vivid depiction of towering mountains with a cluster of Chinese homes nestled amongst its high precipices accessible only by a winding road precariously hugging the mountain edge.
EARLY DISCIPLINE IN CHINESE CLASSICAL ART TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPLASHED-INK PAINTINGS
Zhang Daqian's early training provided him with a strong grounding in Chinese Classical art - having spent his 20's perfecting the style of old masters, he took great delight in challenging his peers to differentiate between the original and his copy. During this time, Zhang engaged himself in the study and understanding of classical traditions, submerging himself in the works of Bada Shanren and Shitao, and creating works filled with elegance and a balanced restraint. He built a strong foundation in his control of the brush and use of colours, culminating to a two and a half year study of the caves at Dunhuang from 1940-1942 (Fig. 1).
From this experience, he was able to extract, digest, and personalize the essence of the scholar tradition, and move in a new direction, inspired by the extremely colourful and meticulously painted cave drawings from the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties which he religiously copied. Here, Zhang cemented his craft in meticulous drawing and developed a sensitivity to the use of colours in his work (Fig. 2).
Zhang's second period of artistic development happened post-1957, as he started experimenting in the splashed-ink style. His use of colours became more fabulous and diverse, exuding an air of magnificence and monumentality in his landscape creations. This technique of “accumulating ink and colour” were in part derived from the Tang dynasty model of splashing ink on silk and spreading them into shapes.
Particularly, Zhang focused on the ancient method of splashed-ink, boneless (mogu) works (Fig. 3).
The years from 1965 to 1969 marked the apex of Zhang's artistic career. Undoubtedly, his exposure to different cultures and artistic styles over the course of his travels greatly inspired and influenced him in his own pursuit in paintings - it was around this time his splashed-ink paintings developed into the technique that is highly revered today. Zhang's meeting with Picasso in late July 1956 was influential in his pioneering a new path towards his approach to art creation (Fig. 4) – this period also marked Zhang's meeting with Chinese artists practicing within the abstract realm, such as Zao Wou-ki and San Yu, which very likely expanded his exposure and understanding towards Abstract Expressionism.
Many have noted that Zhang's splashed-ink paintings were representations of a synergy of both Western and Chinese painting practices - nevertheless, Zhang stressed his splashed-ink works were a continuation of Chinese paintings rather than a departure from it, reflections of Tang dynasty methods whereby artists randomly splashed and saturated their paintings with ink. Blue and green landscape were believed to have been invented by Li Sizun and his son Li Zhao-dao in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), that relies on heavy mineral blues and greens and sometimes gold and silver. Whereas gongbi works emphasised meticulous and tidy focus, in turn preventing independent and expressive freedom, the xieyi method favoured sweeping broad swaths of ink, encouraging flowing forms, and created dramatic works contrasting to his earlier style.
Zhang's most prolific period came about the mid1960's, around their departure from South America, and at the time this present piece was executed. Zhang's residence in Brazil, Ba De Yuan (The Garden of Eight Virtues), was both vast and opulent, with an excavated lake and five pavilions (Fig. 5, 6), and it was here he produced some of his most powerful and innovative works during this period, creating a series of almost abstract paintings in his Brazil studio, which were the centerpiece of his first Laky Gallery exhibition.
This splashed-ink landscape synthesis is probably the most significant fusing of Chinese and Western elements with its bold approach, fluid and free brushwork.
In this present lot, Zhang brilliantly builds shapes, colours, and textures, creating wisps of clouds and dense vegetation with minimal brushstrokes , amorphous forms delineating details of the mountain ridges and the surrounding scenery in remarkable accuracy. A sense of majesty, grandeur and ambition is felt, where the top dominating splashes of green and blue exude dynamism and perpetual movement.
Here, colour is integral to structure, compared to the subordinate and ornamental role it would have played in a more traditional setting – this new language opened up his vision and place as an artist to a global platform.
The aura of this present lot, Splendour of the Peak, is both moody and evocative, its composition leading our eye to explore the scenery and appreciate the solitude of the dwellings in the house in the middle of the mountains. The rocky mountainside on which the houses stand imposes a hostile environment which the artist has skillfully rendered via varying layers of pigment and pressure. It is indeed remarkable that he was able to communicate such depth via this darker hue of ink and upon closer inspection, the viewer is able to see that colours of green and blue subtly infiltrate, echoing the life of the surrounding vegetation. As we travel up and around the mountains, upon the demarcated path Zhang deliberately left untouched by ink, we make our way to the summit, greeted by an explosion of intense colours and life.
A further nod to the classical Tang dynasty and the mesmerizing cave paintings of Dunhuang which he studied for several years, these vivid blues, greens and the autumnal flash of red were composed from the same mineral pigments of azurite, malachite and vermillion resulting in a beautiful landscape that pays homage to the enchanting peaks and valleys of China.
UNIQUE BASE – GOLD AND SILK
Throughout his career, Zhang experimented with a plethora of canvasses and indeed, the foundation of silk would have proved the most challenging. It is likely this painting was intended as a panel for a Japanese screen evidenced by the textural quality of the weave.
Such painted screens often in panels of four and six, although mostly documented as having the lotus flower as their subject, have been recorded with a similar year of execution. It is known that the artist had a favourite Japanese store where he ordered most of his painting supplies, but what makes this particular work unique is not only its scale, also the employment of gold paint pigment on the surface of the silk which the artist began experimenting with only after his travels to California, perhaps inspired by the golden light and coastal colours he witnessed. Other recorded paintings note gold-flecked silk and paper but this complete coverage in gold would have provided Zhang with further difficulties since the gold pigment on silk would have increases the absorption of the other coloured pigments at a faster rate decreasing the artist's ability to control the resulting flow and dispersion.
As a foundation for a painting, the beauty and irony of silk is that it is unforgiving on the artist, recording every stroke and contact the ink makes. This work displays much skill and dexterity whereby each mark speaks to a stroke Zhang applied. Despite seemingly unforced execution, the splashed-ink method took considerable time to perfect, requiring much patience and help from the artist's students. Every layer of paint had to be independently dried before the next addition to ensure pigments were properly absorbed and this often meant a single work would take many weeks, months and even years to complete.
POWER, ENERGY AND SOLITUDE
Imagine the artist bending over the painting, using both hands to rotate the silk in order to command the flow and amalgamation of ink working to construct his interpretations of the monumental mountain. When we truly realise the physical energy devoted to creating such a piece, we also appreciate more its hidden vitality and spirit, beautifully expressed by the contrasting sullen darkness against the luminescence of gold.
Zhang created Splendor of the Peak based on a deep foundation in traditional Chinese painting and philosophy, coupled with a long and gradual incubation and digestion of western influence – ultimately, Zhang successfully created a new style, a singular force that continues to awe and delight views generation after generation.