The Chinese Painter Who Knocked Picasso Off His Pedestal

Zhang Daqian

A Zhang Daqian painting signed in 1947 that just sold for $87.43 million at an American auction. Photo by Cordon Press.

Zhang Daqian

The Chinese Painter Who Knocked Picasso Off His Pedestal
This week, Zhang Daqian dethroned the Malagan as the best-selling artist in world auctions. Who was this versatile master?
El País: El pintor chino que noqueó a Picasso
Estrella de Diego reporting from Madrid February 25, 2012

He is sometimes compared to Jackson Pollock for his “dot paintings”, and he was influenced by American Abstract Impressionism and its mysterious colors and ambiguous contours. But just observing one his works attentively is enough to convince you of his greatness. Or seeing one of his most famous portrait photos, which captures him as a handsome old man with a long white beard, absorbed in his work, his arm raised and holding a paintbrush, the essential instrument of painting and calligraphy. This photo shows that Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) (1899-1983), is more a traditional Chinese painter than an expressionist; he is also one of his country’s most outstanding and admired painters.

This week, his name, little known to the Western public, jumped to the front pages of Western newspapers because his auction sales in 2011 were the best in the world, according to Artprice data. It was the first time in 14 years that Picasso wasn’t in first place. Does this tune sound familiar? Three decades ago, the works of the traditional Chinese painter were available for up to a thousand times less money than they are now, but today the artists of this country are among the most sought-after in auction houses. Not long ago, another Chinese painter, Qi Baishi (1864-1957), earned notice after taking third place on the international art market sales chart after Picasso and Warhol.

It wasn’t the first time the three coincided. In 1956, Zhang Daqian visited Picasso in Niza. He arrived without notice, like a youth, although Zhang was Picasso’s contemporary. The Chinese master, fascinated by Picasso’s brushstrokes, learned to his surprise that Picasso was himself influenced by Qi Baishi, then a nonagenarian. The Spanish artist confessed his admiration for someone he considered “the best painter in the Orient.” In his judgment, nothing could equal Chinese art. He never went to China because he didn’t want to have to compare his work with theirs.

Perhaps Picasso didn’t know that, despite his skill in traditional painting, Zhang Daqian was already immersed in Western art, from which he learned a new way of seeing that broke with the order demanded by his country’s traditional painting, which Shen Tsung-Chien explained at the end of the 18th century like so: “in a good, well set-out painting, all the trees and rocks, all the lines of hills and forests have a very defined place, even though objects like these are actually very variable.” After leaving China at the end of the 40s, Zhang Daqian went halfway around the world – to Argentina, São Paulo, and California – perfecting a style that culminated in his “dot paintings”, which characterized his last work.

Zhang Daqian had always distinguished himself with his malleability. He was born in Sichuan Province to a family that encouraged his dedication to painting and calligraphy. In 1917, he moved to Japan with his older brother to learn coloring techniques, and soon after he traveled to Shanghai, where he had the opportunity to work with two known painting and calligraphy specialists of the era. He got in touch with the great classical masters. The tradition was one of the passions of his life, and soon enough his grand collection of masterpieces spanned the Chinese tradition, including hundreds of works of the Tang and Qing dynasties. His collectionism is essential to understanding his great secret sleights of hand: that is, his forgeries.

Perhaps in his case it would be better to call them false authentic paintings, not copies; according to legend, they were so perfect they still occupy places of privilege in many European and North American museums. One can see he had a rare ability: his first copies of Shitao fooled even the experts. We should clarify, though, that copies – and even forgeries – have a very different meaning in China than they would in the West: Chinese think only great painters can be great masters of imitation.

Perhaps because of this, when he was in his late 50s, he began to develop sight problems and started to work on his “dotted paintings”, it wasn’t difficult for him to start seeing things totally differently. These works are based on the beautiful color spots which he later retouched in his outlines, converting the mysterious blues, greens, and browns into majestic mountains. Many see Pollack in these paintings, although Zhang Daqian insisted on naming the classical painter Wang Mo as his inspiration. Be that as it may, these “dot paintings” are unbeatably healthy on the art market. And they are also influencing new generations, who know that in his work, as Shitao said, “the ink, in filling the brush, fills the soul; the brush, in using the ink, fills the spirit.”

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, China, Taiwan, Translations

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One Comment on “The Chinese Painter Who Knocked Picasso Off His Pedestal”

  1. Anne Baluch Says:

    Always so interested when it comes to art. Great post :)


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