Global Artistic Essence: Zhang Daqian and Chinese Expressionism
By Kendall Hanner
The life of Chinese painter, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), coincides with a period of substantial modernization, and transformation of visual culture. The international radicalization of aesthetic tastes, a product of a rapidly globalizing world, is marked by deviations from academic artistic traditions and style. This phenomenon is prolifically recorded in scholarly discourse, typically centralized within a Eurocentric lens. The mid-twentieth century paintings of Zhang, widely accepted as a Chinese master painter, push the boundaries of preceding traditional Chinese nature and literati painting. The abstraction of line and form is on clear display within the two Zhang compositions to be offered at Oakridge’s Chinese Painting sale on March 18th, 2023 as lot 517.
The composition depicts Damo, a Buddhist monk best known as Bodhidharma outside of China, who is perhaps most revered for his persistence in meditative and religious concentration. Upon first glance, the painting appears to be in accordance with traditional Chinese landscape style, with mountainous peaks protruding from behind wispy branches extending across the horizontal plane. While the religious and natural subject matter of Zhang’s 1932 composition are in tune with its predecessors, the brush strokes and application of pigment align more closely with the rising global movement of abstract expressionism.
Only identifiable from Zhang’s accompanying inscription, the figure of Damo is loosely rendered, visible only from the back and clad in a red robe with a bamboo cane resting on the shoulder, wading through water towards the edge of the frame. The illusion of water is produced with faint light gray, nearly indiscernible, contours representing the current and light refraction. Perhaps most curious of Zhang’s stylistic choice of these loose brushstrokes is the ambiguous nature of forms, appearing as both, gentle waves or fluffy clouds. The technique of loose, organic ink application carries into the foliage draping from the feather-edged branches, appearing as linear drips, as if melting.
Zhang’s global travels and residences he amassed throughout his career, spanning from California to Brazil, are partly responsible for the integration of artistic techniques and styles developed beyond the confines of China. Equally beneficial to Zhang’s globally-inspired craftsmanship were his studies of textile weaving and dyes in Kyoto. During his training, the artist was introduced to the Nihonga movement, which encouraged a widened inclusivity of stylistic elements, while maintaining the materiality of traditional Japanese art. In doing so, Zhang achieved mobility to experiment with globally-derived techniques.
Perhaps the most conducive to observing Zhang’s deviations from traditional Chinese landscapes and figural compositions is comparison with contemporaneous works. Also offered at Oakridge’s upcoming March sale of Chinese paintings is a masterfully crafted landscape by Yuan Songnian (Chinese, 1895-1966) as lot 432.
Conversely to Zhang, Yuan fills the canvas with short brushstrokes to create the illusion of a rocky, mountainous landscape, accented by densely packed greenery. So tightly rendered are Yuan’s contour lines that a steep staircase leading to the water’s edge is clearly defined. The artist establishes depth, notably absent in Zhang’s work, through the inclusion of mountain tops in the distance by using a lighter toned gray than that used in the foreground.
In comparing the two works, the expressive, loose forms of Zhang’s Damo in a landscape become undeniable. Certainly not a product of lack of skill, considering Zhang’s experience copying master works of Buddhist art he observed on an excursion to the Dunhuang cave paintings. Furthering the case of Zhang’s artistic abilities is his reputation to expertly forge Chinese old master paintings. This considered, the motivation for rendering the scene in this manner is likely correlated with the artist’s internal interpretation of the subject - a central concept of expressionist movements occurring outside of China. With the selection of Damo as the sole figural representation, it could be considered that Zhang’s use of expressionist lines is a reflection of the meditative persona of the famed monk. The contemplative, transcendental aura, achieved by the artist’s global lens of stylistic techniques affords a rare opportunity for any collector to introduce such a work of Chinese expressionism into a collection.
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“New Asian Art: A Synthesis of East and West.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 58, no. 3 (2001): 38–47. https://doi.org/10.2307/3269185.