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Why this Chinese artist is outselling Van Gogh

Oscar Holland, CNN

Zhang Daqian may not be a household name in the West, but in China — and the global art market at large — he is on par with the likes of Warhol and Monet.

A master of classical Chinese painting who later reimagined modern art in his adopted American homeland, Zhang’s work spanned traditions from ink landscapes to abstraction. And while the pervasive “Picasso of the East” comparison is misleading stylistically, it nonetheless speaks to his ability to transcend genre — and the sky-high 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 to sell at auction, fetching $47 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

It was just the latest in a string of major sales. The artist’s work generated more than $354 million at auction in 2016, exceeding any other artist — dead or alive — in the world that year, according to an annual ranking produced by the Artprice database. Last year, he finished 6th in that same list, ahead of market heavyweights like Vincent van Gogh and Banksy.

This may only be the tip of the iceberg, said San Francisco State University art professor Mark Johnson.

“There’s been a quick escalation in value as his genius is more widely recognized,” said Johnson, who co-curated a 2019 exhibition of Zhang’s work at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, in a phone interview. “I think prices will double soon,” he added, saying that “ignorance” about Zhang among Western museums and collectors is keeping prices “relatively low.”

“There’s no question that Zhang Daqian is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. His work referenced global culture and, at the same time, was deeply embedded in Chinese classical culture,” Johnson said, calling him the “first really global Chinese artist.”

Between worlds

Born in Sichuan, southwest China, at the turn of the 20th century, Zhang (whose name is also romanized as Chang Dai-chien) was a prodigious talent from a young age. Taught to paint by his mother, he claimed that as a teen he was captured by bandits and studied poetry using their looted books.

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

He made a name for himself as an artist in the 1930s, before spending two years studying — and painstakingly copying — the colorful Buddhist cave murals at Dunhuang, in Gansu province. This experience had a profound impact on his art. As well as honing his figurative painting skills, Zhang soon started using a broader range of opulent colors in his work, reviving their popularity in Chinese art “virtually single handedly,” Johnson said.

“It basically revolutionized the potential for classical Chinese painting, because it revealed this incredibly sumptuous, rich and sensual palette that had been eschewed for a drier or more scholarly look,” Johnson said.

But while Zhang’s practice was grounded in Chinese tradition, the ascent of communism in 1949 put him at odds with his homeland. In particular, Johnson said, the painter was ill-at-ease with the new government’s disdain for ancient culture, which chairman Mao Zedong saw as a barrier to economic progress.

“(Zhang) was so embedded in a completely different kind of understanding of Chinese culture, which was rooted in this great classical lineage,” Johnson said. “And the communist revolution valued a very different kind of 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 billed in the press as a great meeting between East and West. When Picasso asked Zhang to critique some of his Chinese-style artworks, the latter diplomatically suggested that the Spanish master did not possess the right tools and later gifted him a selection of Chinese brushes.

As well as opening him to wider artistic influences, Zhang’s new life overseas heralded the most important stylistic shift in his career: A new, abstract style dubbed “pocai,” or splashed-color.

This shift was also, partly, the result of his deteriorating eyesight. Exacerbated by diabetes, Zhang’s declining vision made it hard for him to see fine detail. Figurative forms and defined brushwork were replaced with swirls of color and deep ink blotches. Mountains, trees and rivers were still present, but their shapes were only hinted at, rendered in gentle lines and indistinct forms as if a mist had descended over the vista.

Zhang maintained that his approach was rooted in Chinese tradition. Usually seen in long robes and sporting a flowing white beard — even decades after moving to the US — he attributed his new style to the ancient painter Wang Mo. But it was clear Zhang was at least partly inspired by American abstract painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Take 1968’s “Mist at Dawn,” which sold for nearly 215 million Hong Kong dollars ($27 million) last year: Although unmistakably based on traditional landscapes, the rich colors and textured forms clearly speak to contemporary Western aesthetics.

“You cannot deny the fact that he was there, in America, in the ’60s,” said Carmen Ip, head of the fine Chinese paintings department at Sotheby’s Asia, via video call. “So he must be somehow inspired by Abstract Expressionism. But to him, it was something that he could also relate to Chinese painting history.”

New generation of collectors

Zhang’s ability to bridge East and West helps explain the popularity of his work, which is held in institutions including 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 Chinese spending power.

About two decades ago, China controlled just 1% of the global art market. Zhang placed just 80th in the aforementioned Artprice rankings in 2002, generating less than $5 million at auction globally. Now, however, China is the world’s second-largest art market, after the US, according to Art Basel and UBS’ 2022 global art market report.

According to Ip, who has overseen several sales of Zhang’s work, 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.

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

Sotheby’s declined to reveal who exactly purchased “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” at April’s record-breaking auction, only confirming that it went to an Asian private buyer. But Ip said that interest in the sale had mostly come from Chinese collectors, both inside and outside the country.

What was surprising about April’s sale, however, was not just the price tag — which exceeded 370 million Hong Kong dollars (or $47 million, more than five times the initial estimate) — it was the type of painting that smashed the record. According to Ip, it has historically been Zhang’s later abstract works, rather than his more traditional paintings made in China, that have attracted the largest sums.

“The results came as a surprise to us as well,” Ip said. “If you look at the prices that have been reaching the 200 million (Hong Kong dollars, or $25 million) level, they’re usually splash works. So, we never really expected this.”

Sincerest form of flattery

Yet, in many ways, “Landscape after Wang Ximeng” is typical of Zhang’s oeuvre. As the name explains, the painting was a modern take on 12th-century artist Wang Ximeng’s masterpiece “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains.”

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

“He was able to elevate (the original); he challenged it … he transformed elements of the painting, which pushes it to a whole new level,” said Ip.

“He’s not just painting or imitating — he learns from these ancient artists or masters. He has a great memory and his brushwork is superb and skillful, so he’s able to transform them.”

Zhang often paid direct homage to his influences in this way. But his classical training left him so proficient at copying that the replicas he produced and sold in his lifetime often passed for originals. Artworks once attributed to 17th-century masters like Bada Shanren and Shitao have since been revealed to be his handiwork. According to Johnson, Zhang even attended an exhibition of Shitao’s paintings in the 1960s, only to reveal at the opening symposium that he had painted some of the art on display.

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

“I was a friend of several people who knew him personally,” said Johnson, “and they said he just loved to take a pen or a brush and just start sketching out these masterpieces from classical Chinese art that he remembered perfectly — the compositions and different kinds of brushstrokes. He loved the craft.”

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

Top image caption: Zhang Daqian’s “Mist at Dawn” (1968).

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