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Zhang Daqian: The Early Years
As we look back at the development of 20th century Chinese ink painting, Zhang Daqian is often recognised as the most innovative artist among his contemporaries. Spanning over six decades, Zhang’s career as an artist went through many phases of development, with some distinct techniques and outlooks in his art only seen in a specific period in his life. The works from Zhang’s early period, dated between the 1920s and the 1930s, reflect his ambition and ingenuity as a young artist. Zhang conceived of his work within the longue durée of China’s artistic history, once stating: “During every period in Chinese painting, what is newest is what has come down from the past.” With an open mind, Zhang studied under various masters from the Shanghai School of painting, but also copied signature works by masters of the Ming and Qing dynasties to strengthen his foundation. Zhang’s reservoir of historic models was cemented in his 1930s oeuvre, which formed the basis for his later artistic development. While Zhang used painting to articulate a relationship to antiquity, he insisted that each of his paintings speak with its own voice. He measured himself against three criteria: monumentality, indirectness, and presence.
Monumentality – Zhang’s conception of monumentality was not a simple idea of scale or physical size. He was concerned with the impact of a painting on the viewer. Works that embody this quality are characterised by technical excellence, intriguing compositions and compelling narratives. They transport us beyond our mundane surroundings.
Indirectness – Zhang’s indirectness describes the winding route between his paintings and their classical inspiration. It is a quality accessible to cognoscenti, exciting viewers as they unpick the layers of references within a painting. Zhang’s indirect borrowing from antiquity ensured his paintings were not slavish copies, but modern creations inspired by a classical muse.
Presence – In Chinese, this term literally means luminescence or brightness. Zhang’s usage derives from Chinese opera, where liang refers to an imposing stage presence. In painting, it encompasses both the simulated presence of a figure, and the evocation of a mood through a pictorial scene.