Catherine PAGANI

Drinking and Singing at the Foot of a Precipitous Mountain was supposedly a tenth century work attributed to the painter Guan Tong, now believed to be a master forgery by Zhang Daqian. The forgery includes seals of supposed past owners to create a false history.

Zhang Daqian was one of the great modernist painters of the twentieth century. Along with a mastery of styles, techniques, and innovative methods, he is also known for his convincing copies and forgeries, many of which found their way into museum and private collections. In his sixty-year career, Zhang Daqian produced around thirty thousand paintings, five thousand of which are extant.

Although he considered himself a traditionalist painter, Zhang Daqian was one of the great modernists of the twentieth century. He combined a mastery of a broad range of styles and techniques with innovative methods of using ink splashes and color splashes to produce bold, semiabstract compositions that also evoked works of the past. Zhang’s command of the styles of the great masters also allowed him to make convincing copies and forgeries, many of which found their way into both museum and private collections. A well-traveled artist, Zhang was also a prolific one: Estimates put his total output during a sixty-year career at around thirty thousand paintings, five thousand of which are extant.

Zhang Daqian was born in Neijiang, Sichuan Province, to a large, well-to-do family. His given name was “Zhengchuan,” but in 1919 a Buddhist abbot gave him the name “Dai-chien,” which he preferred and used for the rest of his life. He had a colorful youth: In 1916, when he was captured by bandits and held for one hundred days, Zhang managed to convince the leader to make him his personal secretary. In 1917 Shang traveled to Kyoto with his brother, Shanzi, where he studied textile weaving and dyeing for two years. This time in Japan was influential for Zhang: He was introduced to Western styles of art, Japanese-style painting, Japanese woodblock prints, and Chinese works by the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) Zen Buddhist artists.

Upon his return to China in 1919 Zhang briefly entered a Buddhist monastery. He then studied calligraphy in Shanghai under the celebrated masters Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing. Soon Zhang showed an impressive ability to copy the works of others. He gained a reputation for his imitations, and from 1941 to 1943 he used this talent to copy the wall paintings in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang. With the Communist takeover of China in 1949 Zhang left for India, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil, the United States, and eventually Taiwan, where he retired. He never returned to China.

Zhang’s best-known works are his abstract ink-splashed paintings that utilized rich, dark tones and brilliant mineral-based colors, a technique he started in the late 1950s. He poured ink and colors onto the paper or silk so that they produced random, ambiguous forms to which he added small details—a figure or a tree—to give concreteness to the painting. This combination of traditional Chinese brushwork and abstract expressionism created powerful and dramatic works unlike anything seen before. Although the splashing technique itself is quick, some paintings were years in the making because Zhang had to wait for one application of ink to dry before he could pour on another.

Zhang was also an art collector and connoisseur. He felt that in order to paint well an artist needs to copy the works of the best artists. He traveled widely, viewing paintings in private collections and acquiring works for his own. Three aspects of his career—as an innovative artist, as a connoisseur and collector of all genres of Chinese art, and as a masterful forger—were the focus of a 2008 exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, to which Zhang, upon visiting there in 1953 and finding not a single one of his works in the museum’s collection, bequeathed a painting of a mountain scene in Sichuan. One of the highlights of the exhibit was a Zhang forgery the museum acquired in 1957, believing it to be an authentic tenth-century landscape by the Five Dynasties master Guan Tong.

Upon his death in 1983 Zhang left his collection to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. With his innovative use of color and his firm rooting in ancient styles, Zhang Daqian is remembered as both China’s last great literati artist and also as its first great abstractionist.

Further Reading

Fong, W. C. (2001). Between two cultures: Late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinese paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fu, S. C. Y. (1991). Challenging the past: The paintings of Chang Dai-chien. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Sullivan, M. (1996). Art and artists of twentieth-century China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhang Daqian: Painter, Collector, Forger. Retrieved January 7, 2009, from

Source: Pagani, Catherine. (2009). ZHANG Daqian. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2617–2618. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Zambian collectible stamps featuring paintings by Zhang Daqian.

ZHANG Daqian (Zh?ng Dàqi?n ???)|Zh?ng Dàqi?n ??? (ZHANG Daqian)

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