“Debatably the richest and most dramatic ‘splashed colour’paintings date from the years of 1967 to 1969, which achieve the “forcefulness and immediacy” of the strongest Abstract Expressionist painters.”
- Mark Johnson, “A California Reintroduction”, Chang Daqian in California, p.19
A masterpiece of Zhang Daqian’s late splashed-ink oeuvre, Summer on California Mountain is an exquisitely rendered tour de force within his celebrated series of paintings executed in California. Painted in 1967, it represents the artist’s most powerful and monumental engagement with the Californian landscape: the Half Dome, the iconic rock formation in Yosemite National Park (Fig. 1).
Zhang’s stay in California from 1967 to 1978 marked a fruitful period in his artistic career when he finessed the radical splashed-ink and splashed-colour techniques, further breaking away from the traditional Chinese landscape painting that he had mastered. These powerful and innovative works were produced in the late 1960’s just before he underwent a risky eye surgery in New York in 1969. These landscapes, similar to the present painting, incorporate rich swaths of yellow and gold which were unprecedented in the artist’s earlier compositions, possibly reflecting Californian colour and inspiration. During this time, the Laky Gallery in California was especially significant to Zhang’s career as they introduced the artist’s most extreme explorations of abstract painting. As Zhang’s primary gallerist, they exhibited his works to a predominantly non-Chinese audience, where the majority of those works were more abstract than classical in nature. One of the only works to specifically name California as an inspiration, Summer on California Mountain has stood as an important milestone for the artist at exhibition, particularly during the 1999 exhibition, Chang Dai-chien in California, jointly presented by San Francisco State University and the National Museum of History in Taiwan, during the centennial year for both the San Francisco State University and the artist (Fig. 2).
Since leaving China in 1949, Zhang Daqian travelled the world from Argentina, to Brazil, before settling in Carmel, California in 1967. During his time in California, Zhang befriended a number of artists, including renowned photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984), whose work he admired. Many of his contemporaries sought inspiration from their environment, and Zhang was no exception. An avid
admirer of majestic mountains, Zhang loved the Half Dome and landforms of the Yosemite National Park which were the result of ice age glacial erosions. In Summer on California Mountain, the dark green and blue centre draws us in with a dense spiral of textures and colours, revealing a powerful and untamed version of the mountain that seminally exemplifies Zhang’s work from this period: the Half Dome depicted by Zhang rises majestically from the ground in the bright sunlight, imposing a towering presence of dripping pigments of vivid golden yellow, green, and blue. With impeccable control of the ink and brush, Zhang brilliantly builds shapes, colours, and textures, creating wisps of clouds and dense vegetation with minimal brushstrokes almost invisible to the eye. Though abstract in nature, the fluid and amorphous forms in Summer on California Mountain are remarkably accurate in delineating the finer details of the mountain ridges and the surrounding scenery, especially viewed in conjunction with the striking photograph of the Half Dome by Ansel Adams (Fig. 3). El Capitán (Fig. 5), colour woodcut on paper by the Japanese artist Chiura Obata (1885-1975) is another example that shows the Half Dome in a similar light.
Zhang is known to design his paintings to prompt associations with older master landscapes. A sense of remoteness is palpable in Summer on California Mountain, where the absence of figures and buildings are comparable to the panoramic rural landscapes of classical Chinese landscape paintings. The horizontal composition invokes the Song Dynasty monumental landscapes of Li Cheng’s (919- 967) A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks (Fig. 4), and Fan Kuan’s (960-1030) Travellers Among Mountains and Streams (Fig. 6). The use of yellow, green and blue pigment also presents a possible reference to Tang Dynasty sancai lead-glazed earthenware, along with the influences of Zhang’s travels to Dunhuang; where he painstakingly made numerous reproductions of Buddhist murals and acquired the specialist knowledge and skill in preparing mineral pigments.
In spite of Summer on California Mountain’s imposing, immediate and effortless appearance, such ‘splashed-ink’ paintings were not made quickly, and required the help of his students and family members to dry each layer of colour or wash over a fire, and later with a hair dryer. This painting process was complicated and involved mounting and remounting the paper to absorb the liquid layers of pigment, sometimes taking weeks, months or even years to perfect. It is in this saturation of colour, precision in composition, and dedication by the artist that perhaps gives his splashed-ink works such weight and richness.
It is suggested that Zhang found the mountains in Yosemite to be the most beautiful in the United States – it became an imagery that stayed with him until his return to Taiwan. Here, the power of the brushstrokes and the dynamism of the composition effortlessly capture the breathtaking magnificence of nature. It is this unique quality that positions the artist as a singular force in Chinese modern paintings for his grand synthesis of Abstract Expressionism and Impressionism, making Zhang Daqian one of the greatest painters of his generation.