Specialist Liz Hammer offers insights into the life and career of China's most popular artist, from his brilliance as an innovator and forger to his restless globetrotting lifestyle
Zhang Daqian was born in 1899 in Sichuan province in the final years of China’s last dynasty, the Qing. The upheaval of the succeeding decades provided the young artist with both challenges and opportunities — he was able to see and experience much throughout the world, but he spent the second half of his life unable to return to his homeland.
Born into an artistic family, Zhang Daqian was first taught to paint by his mother and older siblings. He went on to copy as many masterpieces as he could set eyes on, and was especially influenced by the individualistic masters Shitao (1642-1707) and Bada Shanren (1626-1705). In 1941, Zhang Daqian spent two years studying the Buddhist mural paintings at Dunhuang, which proved to be a pivotal experience in his development.
His eagerness to view and study past masterpieces naturally led Zhang Daqian to become an influential connoisseur and an important collector. His colophons and collector’s seals can be found on key paintings in many world-famous museum collections.
Zhang Daqian’s oeuvre is noteworthy for the many painting styles that he mastered, from highly meticulous and detailed portraits to bold and expressive splashed-ink landscapes. While he was highly innovative as he developed his own unique style, he always insisted that his art was firmly rooted in Chinese tradition. As is usually the case with ink artists, his later works, especially his vibrant splashed-ink landscapes, are the most sought after.
Blessed with a long life — he was 83 when he died in 1983 — and filled with enormous passion and energy, Zhang Daqian produced a huge number of paintings, calculated at an average of 500 a year.
Following his first trip abroad to Japan when he was a young man to study textile design, Zhang Daqian also travelled in his youth throughout China, and in his later years around the world, especially after he had left China permanently in 1949. The artist had homes in Argentina, Brazil, California, and finally, in Taiwan.
Zhang Daqian was a very gregarious person, who was always surrounded by a large entourage of family, students, friends and admirers. With his long scholar’s robes and flowing beard, he presented himself as a traditional Chinese literatus-artist. He built impressive homes for himself with Chinese classical gardens. One of his best-publicized events was his famous encounter with Pablo Picasso in 1956, which was billed as a meeting of East and West.
A master of the art of guanxi — or social reciprocity — Zhang Daqian gifted paintings to influential people and to the teachers, doctors and chefs who provided him with help and services. Nowadays these paintings are not only intrinsically valuable as the works of a gifted artist, but also because their provenance assures their authenticity.
Drawing on his early years of copying old paintings, Zhang Daqian was a known forger who took great glee in revealing that an ancient treasure in a famous collection was in fact a copy he had made. Ironically, Zhang Daqian’s paintings have become so popular that he, too, is now widely forged. Careful examination, however, should reveal his distinctive style and robust personality.
In 2011, Zhang Daqian became not only the most popular Chinese artist at auction but the best-selling artist in the world, surpassing his former acquaintance, Picasso. Since then demand for works by Zhang Daqian has remained keen.