The summer of 1967 was a turning point in the life and career of Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). After 50 years in China, the celebrated traditional painter had spent the next 18 in the West, overcoming his deteriorating eyesight by developing the splashed-colour painting for which he is now best known, and exhibiting his work worldwide.
In September, he was back home in Brazil, painting on the Lake of Five Pavilions in the lush Chinese garden he had created outside São Paulo, following exhibitions at the Stanford Art Museum and Carmel-based Laky Gallery, and a three-month tour of California’s sublime Central Coast.
It was then that he created Temple at the Mountain Peak — one of the top lots in the 20th and 21st Century Art Evening Sale on 24 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong — pouring ink onto gold paper and swirling swathes of azurite and malachite pigment on top.
The work is one of the largest and boldest of the splashed-colour landscapes Zhang produced, and the confidence and excitement he felt at the moment of creation are palpable.
While the painting imitates the sacred, monumental setting of an imperial palace in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), as Christie’s International Specialist Head of Chinese Paintings Kim Yu explains in the video, the gold of the paper seems to shine through the rainclouds and luxuriant vegetation like the promise of Californian sun.
The following year, Zhang would relocate to Carmel, where he would continue to embrace abstract lyricism, carving a new path for Chinese painting in the 20th century.
Zhang had a colourful youth: born into an artistic family in Sichuan in 1899, he was captured by bandits at 17 and spent a brief period as a monk. He went on to study first textile dyeing in Kyoto, then traditional painting under Zeng Xi (1861-1930) and Li Ruiqing (1867-1920) in Shanghai, where he began to emulate traditionalist masters such as Shitao (1642-1707), Tang Yin (1470-1523) and Chen Hongshou (1598-1652).
In Beijing from the late 1920s, he was viewed as the ‘southern counterpart of Pu Xinyu in shan shui painting, Qi Baishi in flower and bird painting, and Xu Cao in figure painting’ — and in 1944, his copies of Buddhist wall paintings from the caves at Mogao and Yulin prompted the establishment of what is now the Dunhuang Research Academy.
After leaving his homeland in 1949, Zhang eventually settled in Brazil, then California, and finally Taiwan.
Zhang was a gregarious character who styled himself as a scholar in a long robe and flowing beard, had multiple wives and lovers, and an entourage of family and admirers. (Walking in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park during during the ‘Summer of Love’, one friend recalled, young people approached him, presented him with a garland, and started discussing Buddhist philosophy with him.)
Between 1956 and 1966, he had travelled and exhibited widely in Europe, in a bid to introduce Chinese art to the West. This brought him into contact with the work of both Matisse — in whose sketches Zhang observed ‘lessons from Dunhuang’ — and Picasso.
His highly publicised meeting with the latter, at Picasso’s Villa La Californie in Cannes, was greeted as an encounter between the masters of the East and West, so it’s only fitting that Picasso’s Nu couché à la libellule from 1968 should be offered alongside Zhang’s work in the upcoming evening sale at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
‘Both the painting and the tailor-made mounting reflect Zhang’s particular liking of this work’ — specialist Kim Yu
By 1967, Zhang’s life was a whirl of exhibitions and plane journeys, as he noted in a letter: ‘Arrived in San Francisco on January 13th. Sojourn in Carmel. Flying to Japan on the 22nd. Taiwan before Lunar New Year’s Eve. Returning via Tokyo at the end of February. New York by the end of March.’
Naturally, his travels also introduced him to the major currents in US art, and although Zhang maintained that his splashed-colour landscapes were inspired by Tang dynasty artists who spilled ink onto silk in a drunken stupor, they are also thought to have been influenced by Abstract Expressionism.
Following an exhibition at the Laky Gallery in 1972, the San Francisco Chronicle critic Alfred Frankenstein described Zhang’s work as ‘a slightly drunken collaboration of Franz Kline and Hans Hofmann, with a few asides from Jackson Pollock, and a splash or two from Adolf Gottlieb’.
If Temple at the Mountain Peak is one of the most masterful of Zhang’s splashed-colour landscapes, it also seems to have been one of his personal favourites: as Kim explains, it was sent to Japan for mounting on a special scroll whose blue-and-white cloisonné-enamel ends are decorated with a pattern inspired by the eaves tiles of Chinese architecture, and inscribed with the artist’s signature, ‘three thousand Daqians’.
The work is also rare, says Kim, in that it was previously part of the collection of the artist’s close friends, Li Zulai and Li Deying. The couple were like family to him: Li Zulai’s parents had hosted him in Shanghai, and Li Zulai’s sister, Li Qiujun, was described by Zhang as his ‘soulmate for life’.
After moving to Hong Kong in 1948, the Lis organised shows of Zhang’s works there, including the landmark Exhibition of Recent Works by Zhang Daqian at City Hall in 1971. Li Zulai would also visit Zhang in both Brazil and California, becoming one of four witnesses to his will.
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