Why Chinese language artist Zhang Daqian is outselling Van Gogh

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

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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 capacity to transcend style — and the sky-high costs his work now command.

In April, nearly 40 years after his dying, 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 newest 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 — lifeless or alive — on the earth that 12 months, in response to an annual rating produced by the Artprice database. Final 12 months, he completed sixth in that very same checklist, forward of market heavyweights like Vincent van Gogh and Banksy.

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, mentioned San Francisco State College artwork professor Mark Johnson.

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

“There isn’t any query that Zhang Daqian is without doubt one of the most necessary artists of the twentieth century. His work referenced international tradition and, on the similar time, was deeply embedded in Chinese language classical tradition,” Johnson mentioned, calling him the “first actually international Chinese language artist.”

Between worlds

Born in Sichuan, southwest China, on the flip of the twentieth 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 skilled below the famend calligraphers and painters Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing in Shanghai. Copying classical Chinese language masterpieces was basic to his training, and Zhang realized to skillfully replicate the good 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 Thirties, 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 impression on his artwork. In addition to honing his figurative portray abilities, Zhang quickly began utilizing a broader vary of opulent colours in his work, reviving their reputation in Chinese language artwork “just about single handedly,” Johnson mentioned.

“It mainly 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 mentioned.

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 dwelling in China. Credit score: Museum Associates/Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork

However whereas Zhang’s apply was grounded in Chinese language custom, the ascent of communism in 1949 put him at odds along with his homeland. Particularly, Johnson mentioned, 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 type of understanding of Chinese language tradition, which was rooted on this nice classical lineage,” Johnson mentioned. “And the communist revolution valued a really completely different type of artwork.”

Zhang, like many different artists, left China within the early Fifties, dwelling 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 incredible 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 proper instruments and later gifted him a collection of Chinese language brushes.

In addition to opening him to wider inventive influences, Zhang’s new life abroad heralded a very powerful stylistic shift in his profession: A brand new, summary model 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 onerous for him to see fantastic element. Figurative varieties and outlined brushwork had been changed with swirls of coloration and deep ink blotches. Mountains, timber and rivers had been nonetheless current, however their shapes had been solely hinted at, rendered in mild strains and vague varieties as if a mist had descended over the vista.

Zhang maintained that his method was rooted in Chinese language custom. Normally seen in lengthy robes and sporting a flowing white beard — even many years after transferring to the US — he attributed his new model to the traditional painter Wang Mo. But it surely was clear Zhang was not less than partly impressed by American summary painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Take 1968’s “Mist at Daybreak,” which offered for practically 215 million Hong Kong {dollars} ($27 million) final 12 months: Though unmistakably primarily based on conventional landscapes, the wealthy colours and textured varieties clearly converse to modern Western aesthetics.

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

New era of collectors

Zhang’s capacity 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 High quality 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 eightieth 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, in response to Artwork Basel and UBS’ 2022 international artwork market report.

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

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 season 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 arms.”

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 mentioned that curiosity within the sale had largely come from Chinese language collectors, each inside and out of doors the nation.

What was stunning about April’s sale, nonetheless, was not simply the value 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 file. In keeping with Ip, it has traditionally been Zhang’s later summary works, moderately than his extra conventional work made in China, which have attracted the biggest sums.

“The outcomes got here as a shock to us as effectively,” Ip mentioned. “When you take a look at the costs which have been reaching the 200 million (Hong Kong {dollars}, or $25 million) degree, they’re often 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 Twelfth-century artist Wang Ximeng’s masterpiece “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains.”

In faithfully recreating parts 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 reworked parts of the portray, which pushes it to a complete new degree,” mentioned 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 season Mountains” on show at Sotheby’s public sale home in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang gave the six-panel display screen to his daughter as a marriage reward. Credit score: Kin Cheung/AP

“He is not simply portray or imitating — he learns from these historic artists or masters. He has an incredible reminiscence and his brushwork is excellent and skillful, so he is in a position to rework 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 offered in his lifetime typically handed for originals. Artworks as soon as attributed to Seventeenth-century masters like Bada Shanren and Shitao have since been revealed to be his handiwork. In keeping with Johnson, Zhang even attended an exhibition of Shitao’s work within the Nineteen Sixties, solely to disclose on the opening symposium that he had painted among 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 pal of a number of individuals who knew him personally,” mentioned Johnson, “and so they mentioned he simply cherished 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 cherished the craft.”

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

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