Why Chinese artist Zhang Daqian sells better than Van Gogh

Written Oscar Holland, CNN

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s “Meanwhile in China” newsletter, which comes out three times a week and explores what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it affects the world. Subscribe here.

Zhang Daqian may not be well-known in the West, but in China – and in the global art market as a whole – he is not inferior to Warhol and Monet.

A master of classical Chinese painting who later reimagined modern art in his adopted American homeland, Zhang’s work spans traditions from ink landscapes to abstraction. While the ubiquitous comparison to “Picasso of the East” is stylistically misleading, it nonetheless speaks volumes about his ability to transcend the genre – and the exorbitant prices his paintings now command.

In April, almost 40 years after his death, Zhang’s 1947 painting Landscape after Wang Ximeng became his most expensive work ever sold at auction, at $47 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

It was just the latest in a string of big sales. According to Artprice’s annual rankings, the artist’s work fetched over $354 million at auction in 2016, more than any other artist, dead or alive, in the world in the same year. Last year he finished 6th on the same list, ahead of such market heavyweights as Vincent van Gogh and Banksy.

In April 1947, Landscape by Wang Ximeng became Zhang Daqian’s most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Credit: Sotheby’s

This may just be the tip of the iceberg, says University of San Francisco art professor Mark Johnson.

“There has been a rapid escalation in value as his genius has gained wider recognition,” said Johnson, who co-curated the 2019 exhibition. Exhibition Zhang’s work at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in a telephone interview. “I think prices will double soon,” he added, adding that “ignorance” about Zhang among Western museums and collectors is keeping prices “relatively low.”

“There is no doubt that Zhang Daqian is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His work referenced global culture while being deeply rooted in Chinese classical culture,” Johnson said, calling him “the first truly global artist.” Chinese artist.

Between worlds

Born in Sichuan, southwestern China at the turn of the 20th century, Zhang (whose name is also romanized as Chang Dai-chien) was an outstanding talent from a young age. Taught drawing by his mother, he claimed to have been captured by bandits as a teenager and learned poetry from their stolen books.

After studying textile dyeing and weaving in Japan, he studied with renowned calligraphers and artists Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing in Shanghai. Copying classical Chinese masterpieces was the basis of his education, and Zhang learned to skillfully copy the great artists of the Ming and Qing dynasties (and later became a highly skilled forger).

Chinese artist Zhang Daqian at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, August 10, 1965.

Chinese artist Zhang Daqian at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, August 10, 1965. Credit: Rolls Press/Popperphoto/Getty Images

He made a name for himself as an artist in the 1930s before spending two years studying and painstakingly copying colorful Buddhist rock paintings in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. This experience had a profound effect on his art. According to Johnson, in addition to honing his figurative painting skills, Zhang soon began to use a wider range of sumptuous colors in his work, resurrecting their popularity in Chinese art “practically single-handedly”.

“It revolutionized the potential of classical Chinese painting because it revealed this incredibly luxurious, rich and sensual palette that had been abandoned for a drier or more scientific look,” Johnson said.

Hanging scroll, drawn in ink, titled "drunken dance" (1943), an earlier figurative work created by Zhang while still living in China.

Hanging ink scroll titled The Drunken Dance (1943), an earlier figurative work created by Zhang while still living in China. Credit: Museum Associates / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

But while Zhang’s practice was based on Chinese traditions, the rise of communism in 1949 placed him at odds with his homeland. In particular, according to Johnson, the artist did not like the new government’s dismissive attitude towards ancient culture, which Chairman Mao Zedong saw as an obstacle to economic progress.

“(Zhang) was so immersed in a completely different understanding of Chinese culture that is rooted in this great classical lineage,” Johnson said. “And the communist revolution valued a completely different art.”

Zhang, like many other artists, left China in the early 1950s, living in Argentina and Brazil before settling in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. In 1956, he famously met and exchanged paintings with Picasso in Paris, a moment described in the press as a great meeting between East and West. When Picasso asked Zhang to criticize some of his Chinese-style work, the latter diplomatically suggested that the Spanish master did not have the right tools, and later presented him with a set of Chinese brushes.

Zhang’s new life abroad not only opened him up to wider artistic influences, but also marked the most important stylistic shift of his career: a new abstract style dubbed “pokai” or “painted splatter”.

This shift was also partly the result of his deteriorating vision. Due to diabetes, Zhang’s deteriorating eyesight made it difficult for him to see fine details. Figurative forms and defined brushwork have been replaced by whirlpools of color and deep inkblots. Mountains, trees, and rivers were still there, but their outlines were only hints, rendered in smooth lines and indistinct forms, as if a mist had descended on the vista.

Zhang claimed that his approach was based on the Chinese tradition. Usually seen in long robes and a flowing white beard – even decades after moving to the US – he attributed his new style to the ancient artist Wang Mo. But it was clear that Zhang was at least partly inspired by American abstract painters like Jackson. Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Take 1968″fog at dawnwhich sold for nearly HK$215 million ($27 million) last year: while it is unmistakably based on traditional landscapes, the rich colors and textured shapes clearly speak of a modern Western aesthetic.

“You can’t deny the fact that he was there in America in the 60s,” Carmen Yip, head of fine Chinese paintings at Sotheby’s Asia, said via video link. “So he must have been inspired in some way by Abstract Expressionism. But for him it was that he could also be involved in the history of Chinese painting.”

The new generation of collectors.

Zhang’s ability to connect East and West helps explain the popularity of his work, which is held in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But the meteoric rise in its market value over the past decade has coincided with an explosion in China’s purchasing power.

About two decades ago, China controlled only 1% of the global art market. Zhang took only 80th place in the aforementioned Artprice rankings in 2002, earning less than $5 million at auction worldwide. However, China is now the second largest art market in the world after the US, according to Art Basel and UBS’s 2022 Global Art Market Report.

According to Yip, who has overseen several sales of Zhang’s work, the demand for his paintings is largely driven by Chinese buyers who now have “more mature” collecting habits. “They understand the quality of the work,” she said.

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

One of Zhang’s later abstract works titled “Mountain in Summer Clouds” (1970). Credit: Museum of Asian Art

“Museums in China have been collecting (Zhang’s paintings) quite actively over the past few years,” Yip added. “But most of the market is in private hands.”

Sotheby’s declined to say who bought Van Seamen’s Landscape at the record-breaking April auction, only confirming that it went to a private buyer in Asia. But Yip said the interest in the sale came mainly from Chinese collectors both domestically and internationally.

What was surprising about the April sale was not only the price, which topped HK$370 million (or $47 million, more than five times the original estimate), but the type of painting that broke the record. According to Yip, historically it was Zhang’s later abstract work, and not his more traditional paintings made in China, that attracted the biggest sums.

“The results came as a surprise to us as well,” Yip said. “If you look at prices that have reached the 200 million (Hong Kong dollars, or $25 million) level, it’s usually a staggering job. So we never expected it.”

sincere form of flattery

However, “Landscape by Wang Ximeng” is in many ways typical of Zhang’s work. As the title suggests, the painting is a modern take on Wang Ximeng’s 12th-century masterpiece, A Thousand Li Rivers and Mountains.

By faithfully recreating elements of the original, Zhang demonstrated his mastery of the Chinese canon. But by adding grains of gold pigment, he gave the work a new rich quality.

“He was able to exalt (original); he challenged him… he transformed the elements of the painting, which takes it to a whole new level,” Yip said.

Zhang Daqian "Hermit in summer mountains" at the Sotheby's auction house exhibition in Hong Kong in 2011.  Zhang gave the six-panel screen to his daughter as a wedding present.

Zhang Daqian’s painting The Hermit in the Summer Mountains, auctioned at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in 2011. Zhang gave the six-panel screen to his daughter as a wedding gift. Credit: Kin Cheng/AP

“He doesn’t just paint or imitate – he learns from these ancient artists or craftsmen. He has an excellent memory, and his brush is excellent and skillful, so he can transform them.”

In this way, Zhang often paid tribute to his influence. But his classical education made him so adept at copying that the copies he made and sold during his lifetime were often mistaken for originals. Pieces once attributed to 17th-century masters such as Bada Shanren and Shitao have since proven to be his creations. According to Johnson, Zhang even attended an exhibition of Shitao’s paintings in the 1960s, only to reveal at the opening of the symposium that he had painted some of the art on display.

Johnson argued that Zhang did not intend to cheat on his own. He liked the challenge, and he often concealed in his forgeries playful inscriptions hinting at deceit.

“I was friends with a few people who knew him personally,” Johnson said, “and they said that he just liked to take a pen or a brush and just start sketching these masterpieces of classical Chinese art that he remembered very well – compositions and different types of brushstrokes. He loved this craft.”

“So it’s disgusting?” Johnson asked about Zhang’s forgeries. “Or is it part of an over-complicated identification game?”

Top image caption: Fog at Dawn by Zhang Daqian (1968).

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