Post Lot Text
From The Collection Of Zhang Xinjia
Born in the Forbidden City, Beijing in 1928, Zhang Xinjia is the youngest daughter of Zhang Shanzi, the elder brother of Zhang Daqian. Petite in stature and fearless at heart, the young girl known to her family as Jiade grew up in the storied Garden of the Master of Nets in Suzhou in the early 1930s, where her family took up residence and where her father, famed for his spirited depictions of tigers, cared for a tiger gifted to him. For several years the Garden was a sanctuary for artists, scholars and connoisseurs such as Ye Gongchuo. It was in this extraordinary milieu that Xinjia, under the guidance of her father and uncle, received her first lessons in painting.
In 1937, with war imminent in China, Zhang Shanzi took his family on a long, arduous journey to seek refuge, first to Yichang in Hubei, where he created the earliest surviving painting in celebration of Xinjia’s birthday, and eventually to Chongqing. From there he embarked on campaigns to Europe and North America, fundraising for war relief efforts by exhibiting and selling his paintings. The gruelling trips inevitably took a toll on his health and upon his return in 1940, he succumbed to a sudden illness. Zhang Daqian was then a month into his north-ward journey to Dunhuang. Stricken with grief, he rushed to Chongqing and vowed to take care of Xinjia and her siblings, a promise he kept unwaveringly over the next forty years.
After the war, Xinjia came of age and returned to Shanghai, where she pursued studies in geology and archaeology. In 1953 she married Duan Qing’an, a chemical engineer, and together they raised two children. Throughout these decades her uncle lived in South and North America, although they kept in close touch through correspondences. ‘If you’re ever in need,’ Zhang Daqian wrote in a letter to Xinjia and her sister during the tumultuous years of the 1970s, ‘write any time. Uncle will do whatever it takes.’ True to his word, he became guardian to Xinjia’s son Duan Jing in the 1960s, fully supporting his studies in Brazil and California. An endearing portrait by him of his young grandniece Duan Duan, likely done from photographs, also tenderly demonstrates the affectionate relationship between Zhang Daqian and his niece’s family.
When Zhang Daqian settled in Taiwan in 1977, China was gradually opening up. A letter from the artist in the collection recounted a terrible accident of falling into a pond while taking a stroll in his garden in 1979: ‘in distress I called out to everyone…it took an hour before someone came to my rescue. My back is awfully injured.’ He had long wished to be united with Xinjia, and this injury proved to be the last straw. In a letter dated October 1979, he urged in earnest: ‘my niece, I hope you will come as soon as you can. Go to Hong Kong first. From there, it will be easy to enter Taiwan.’ It was still highly unusual for someone to travel from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan then. Unsurprisingly, Xinjia was stranded in Hong Kong for several months. It took persistent lobbying, aided by Zhang Daqian’s politician friends, for Xinjia to finally be allowed in Taiwan, where she stayed with her uncle during his final years.
In Taiwan, Xinjia spent several blissful years by her uncle’s side. An accomplished artist and calligrapher herself, she was naturally entrusted with organising his private papers: previously unpublished manuscripts, sketches, menus, and letters to family and friends spanning decades – providing an intimate glimpse into the artist’s world in which his generosity, humility and joie de vivre come to light. Many works were painted or inscribed for Xinjia, often with a dedication ‘to my darling niece’. Most exemplary is a rare sketch depicting an elegant lady and two scholars with simple brushstrokes, and an amusing inscription: ‘June 29th, xinhai year (1981) – today marks the second day I try out contact lenses’, perhaps a reminder of a happy afternoon in the studio.
Since the artist’s passing in 1983, the collection of paintings and calligraphy has been under Xinjia’s careful stewardship in loving memory of her uncle, and presents the largest collection of Zhang Daqian’s private writing to ever appear in the market to date. Her extraordinary life, from Shanghai, Suzhou, Chongqing, Taiwan to the United States, bears witness to the changing histories of China in the 20th century. The artworks are not only invaluable additions to scholarship and connoisseurship, but also personal gifts from Zhang Daqian and Zhang Shanzi to their beloved niece and daughter, as gestures of affection, together or apart.