Why Chinese language artist Zhang Daqian is outselling Van Gogh

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

A model of this story appeared in CNN’s In the meantime in China publication, a three-times-a-week replace exploring what it’s worthwhile to know concerning the nation’s rise and the way it impacts the world. Join right here.

Zhang Daqian will not be a family identify within the West, however in China — and the worldwide artwork market at giant — he’s on par with the likes of Warhol and Monet.

A grasp of classical Chinese language portray who later reimagined trendy artwork in his adopted American homeland, Zhang’s work spanned traditions from ink landscapes to abstraction. And whereas the pervasive “Picasso of the East” comparability is deceptive stylistically, it nonetheless speaks to his means to transcend style — and the sky-high costs his work now command.

In April, virtually 40 years after his loss of life, Zhang’s 1947 portray “Panorama after Wang Ximeng” grew to become his most costly work ever to promote at public sale, fetching $47 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

It was simply the most recent in a string of main gross sales. The artist’s work generated greater than $354 million at public sale in 2016, exceeding some other artist — useless or alive — on the earth that yr, based on an annual rating produced by the Artprice database. Final yr, he completed sixth in that very same checklist, forward of market heavyweights like Vincent van Gogh and Banksy.
In April, the 1947 painting "Landscape after Wang Ximeng" became the most expensive of Zhang Daqian's artwork ever to sell at auction.

In April, the 1947 portray “Panorama after Wang Ximeng” grew to become the most costly of Zhang Daqian’s art work ever to promote at public sale. Credit score: Sotheby’s

This will solely be the tip of the iceberg, stated San Francisco State College artwork professor Mark Johnson.

“There’s been a fast escalation in worth as his genius is extra widely known,” stated Johnson, who co-curated a 2019 exhibition of Zhang’s work at San Francisco’s Asian Artwork Museum, in a cellphone interview. “I believe costs will double quickly,” he added, saying that “ignorance” about Zhang amongst Western museums and collectors is retaining costs “comparatively low.”

“There is no query that Zhang Daqian is without doubt one of the most essential artists of the 20th century. His work referenced international tradition and, on the identical time, was deeply embedded in Chinese language classical tradition,” Johnson stated, calling him the “first actually international Chinese language artist.”

Between worlds

Born in Sichuan, southwest China, on the flip of the 20th century, Zhang (whose identify can be romanized as Chang Dai-chien) was a prodigious expertise from a younger age. Taught to color by his mom, he claimed that as a teen he was captured by bandits and studied poetry utilizing their looted books.

After finding out textile-dyeing and weaving in Japan, he educated beneath the famend calligraphers and painters Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing in Shanghai. Copying classical Chinese language masterpieces was elementary to his training, and Zhang discovered to skillfully replicate the nice artists of the Ming and Qing dynasties (and later grew to become a highly-skilled forger).

Chinese artist Zhang Daqian pictured outside the Grosvenor Gallery in London on August 10, 1965.

Chinese language artist Zhang Daqian pictured outdoors the Grosvenor Gallery in London on August 10, 1965. Credit score: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Photos

He made a reputation for himself as an artist within the 1930s, earlier than spending two years finding out — and painstakingly copying — the colourful Buddhist cave murals at Dunhuang, in Gansu province. This expertise had a profound influence on his artwork. In addition to honing his figurative portray expertise, Zhang quickly began utilizing a broader vary of opulent colours in his work, reviving their recognition in Chinese language artwork “just about single handedly,” Johnson stated.

“It principally revolutionized the potential for classical Chinese language portray, as a result of it revealed this extremely luxurious, wealthy and sensual palette that had been eschewed for a drier or extra scholarly look,” Johnson stated.

A hanging ink-painted scroll titled "The Drunken Dance" (1943), an earlier, figurative work completed by Zhang while still living in China.

A dangling ink-painted scroll titled “The Drunken Dance” (1943), an earlier, figurative work accomplished by Zhang whereas nonetheless residing in China. Credit score: Museum Associates/Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork

However whereas Zhang’s observe was grounded in Chinese language custom, the ascent of communism in 1949 put him at odds together with his homeland. Specifically, Johnson stated, the painter was ill-at-ease with the brand new authorities’s disdain for historic tradition, which chairman Mao Zedong noticed as a barrier to financial progress.

“(Zhang) was so embedded in a very completely different sort of understanding of Chinese language tradition, which was rooted on this nice classical lineage,” Johnson stated. “And the communist revolution valued a really completely different sort of artwork.”

Zhang, like many different artists, left China within the early 1950s, residing in Argentina and Brazil earlier than settling in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. In 1956, he famously met and exchanged work with Picasso in Paris, a second billed within the press as an amazing assembly between East and West. When Picasso requested Zhang to critique a few of his Chinese language-style artworks, the latter diplomatically recommended that the Spanish grasp didn’t possess the appropriate instruments and later gifted him a number of Chinese language brushes.

In addition to opening him to wider creative influences, Zhang’s new life abroad heralded crucial stylistic shift in his profession: A brand new, summary fashion dubbed “pocai,” or splashed-color.

This shift was additionally, partly, the results of his deteriorating eyesight. Exacerbated by diabetes, Zhang’s declining imaginative and prescient made it exhausting for him to see effective element. Figurative types and outlined brushwork have been changed with swirls of colour and deep ink blotches. Mountains, timber and rivers have been nonetheless current, however their shapes have been solely hinted at, rendered in mild strains and vague types as if a mist had descended over the vista.

Zhang maintained that his strategy was rooted in Chinese language custom. Often seen in lengthy robes and sporting a flowing white beard — even many years after shifting to the US — he attributed his new fashion to the traditional painter Wang Mo. But it surely was clear Zhang was a minimum of partly impressed by American summary painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Take 1968’s “Mist at Daybreak,” which bought for practically 215 million Hong Kong {dollars} ($27 million) final yr: Though unmistakably based mostly on conventional landscapes, the wealthy colours and textured types clearly converse to up to date Western aesthetics.

“You can not deny the truth that he was there, in America, within the ’60s,” stated Carmen Ip, head of the effective Chinese language work division at Sotheby’s Asia, through video name. “So he have to be one way or the other impressed by Summary Expressionism. However to him, it was one thing that he might additionally relate to Chinese language portray historical past.”

New technology of collectors

Zhang’s means to bridge East and West helps clarify the recognition of his work, which is held in establishments together with the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork in New York and the Museum of Effective Arts in Boston. However the meteoric rise in its market worth over the previous decade has coincided with an explosion in Chinese language spending energy.

About twenty years in the past, China managed simply 1% of the worldwide artwork market. Zhang positioned simply 80th within the aforementioned Artprice rankings in 2002, producing lower than $5 million at public sale globally. Now, nonetheless, China is the world’s second-largest artwork market, after the US, based on Artwork Basel and UBS’ 2022 international artwork market report.

In response to Ip, who has overseen a number of gross sales of Zhang’s work, demand for his work is essentially pushed by Chinese language consumers who now have “extra mature” gathering habits. “They perceive the standard of the work,” she stated.

One of Zhang's later, abstract works titled "Mountain in Summer Clouds" (1970).

One in all Zhang’s later, summary works titled “Mountain in Summer time Clouds” (1970). Credit score: Asian Artwork Museum

“Museums in China have been gathering (Zhang’s work) fairly actively up to now few years,” Ip added. “However the majority of the market belongs in non-public palms.”

Sotheby’s declined to disclose who precisely bought “Panorama after Wang Ximeng” at April’s record-breaking public sale, solely confirming that it went to an Asian non-public purchaser. However Ip stated that curiosity within the sale had largely come from Chinese language collectors, each inside and outdoors the nation.

What was stunning about April’s sale, nonetheless, was not simply the worth tag — which exceeded 370 million Hong Kong {dollars} (or $47 million, greater than 5 occasions the preliminary estimate) — it was the kind of portray that smashed the document. In response to Ip, it has traditionally been Zhang’s later summary works, reasonably than his extra conventional work made in China, which have attracted the most important sums.

“The outcomes got here as a shock to us as properly,” Ip stated. “In the event you have a look at the costs which have been reaching the 200 million (Hong Kong {dollars}, or $25 million) degree, they’re normally splash works. So, we by no means actually anticipated this.”

Sincerest type of flattery

But, in some ways, “Panorama after Wang Ximeng” is typical of Zhang’s oeuvre. Because the identify explains, the portray was a contemporary tackle 12th-century artist Wang Ximeng’s masterpiece “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains.”

In faithfully recreating components of the unique, Zhang demonstrated his mastery of the Chinese language canon. However by including flecks of gold pigment, he gave the work a wealthy new high quality.

“He was in a position to elevate (the unique); he challenged it … he remodeled components of the portray, which pushes it to a complete new degree,” stated Ip.

Zhang Daqian's "Recluse in the Summer Mountains" on display at Sotheby's auction house in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang gave the six-panel screen to his daughter as a wedding gift.

Zhang Daqian’s “Recluse within the Summer time Mountains” on show at Sotheby’s public sale home in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang gave the six-panel display to his daughter as a marriage present. Credit score: Kin Cheung/AP

“He isn’t simply portray or imitating — he learns from these historic artists or masters. He has an amazing reminiscence and his brushwork is great and skillful, so he is in a position to remodel them.”

Zhang typically paid direct homage to his influences on this manner. However his classical coaching left him so proficient at copying that the replicas he produced and bought in his lifetime typically handed for originals. Artworks as soon as attributed to 17th-century masters like Bada Shanren and Shitao have since been revealed to be his handiwork. In response to Johnson, Zhang even attended an exhibition of Shitao’s work within the 1960s, solely to disclose on the opening symposium that he had painted a few of the artwork on show.

Zhang was not, Johnson argued, out to deceive per se. He loved the problem, and infrequently hid playful inscriptions in his forgeries that alluded to the deception.

“I used to be a good friend of a number of individuals who knew him personally,” stated Johnson, “and so they stated he simply liked to take a pen or a brush and simply begin sketching out these masterpieces from classical Chinese language artwork that he remembered completely — the compositions and completely different sorts of brushstrokes. He liked the craft.”

“So is it nefarious?” Johnson requested of Zhang’s forgeries. “Or is it a part of this super-sophisticated identification play?”

Prime picture caption: Zhang Daqian’s “Mist at Daybreak” (1968).

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