Artist to Know: Zhang Daqian

Liz Catalano
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Oakridge Auction Gallery to Present Works from 20th-Century Chinese Painter

An artist who got his start creating forgeries of the ancient masters, Zhang Daqian would later become one of the most internationally-recognized Chinese painters of the 20th century. His copied works were not condemned as criminal but rather celebrated as tributes to China’s history and traditions. Paintings from the prolific artist—both his notorious forgeries and his own influential works— continue to attract attention in both the East and the West.

Three paintings by Zhang will be available in Oakridge Auction Gallery’s upcoming Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy sale, held at 10:00 AM EDT on July 26th, 2020. Before the bidding starts, learn more about Zhang and his artistic legacy.

Portrait of Zhang Daqian. Image from Sotheby’s.
Portrait of Zhang Daqian. Image from Sotheby’s.

Zhang’s artistic proficiency was visible at an early age. In his late teenage years, he traveled to Kyoto and later Shanghai to study under leading contemporary painters. He fell under the influence of Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing, both of whom taught him the methods and mannerisms of traditional Chinese painting. His early works from this time have been heavily studied and analyzed, as his fakes continue to be found hanging on the walls of ancient Chinese art exhibits. Wu Hufan, a painter and art critic, was taken in by Zhang’s copies but respected his endeavors: “All great connoisseurs in China have flocked (to his studio) to view them; among the several dozen works there, this scroll [a copy of Shitao’s work] is the most excellent.”

With time, Zhang developed his own style, an intersection of Chinese traditions and the Western avant-garde art movements that dominated the 20th century. This later style has been compared to Helen Frankenthaler’s “soak-stain” paintings and Expressionist methods. Zhang traveled extensively, particularly after the Communist takeover of China in the late 1940s. At this midpoint of his career, Zhang began building an international following, which included Pablo Picasso.

Despite his inability to return to his own country, Zhang chose to, in the words of The Washington Post, “see the present as entangled in the past.” This is evidenced in his most famous splashed-ink paintings. Partially the result of his cataracts and deteriorating eyesight, Zhang began using broad splashes of color to emulate landscapes and traditional themes in Chinese art. He credited Wang Mo, a Tang dynasty painter, with the development of these works. 

“Zhang Daqian was able to transform his traditional roots to create his unique abstract style… Expressive and dramatic in appearance, these signature works make him undoubtedly one of the most important Chinese artists of the 20th century,” says Carmen Ip of Sotheby’s.

Zhang Daqian, Peach Blossom Spring, 1982. Image from Sotheby’s.
Zhang Daqian, Peach Blossom Spring, 1982. Image from Sotheby’s.

These splashed-ink paintings fetch the artist’s highest prices at auction today. A 1982 painting, completed just a year before his death, holds his current market record. Peach Blossom Spring sold for HKD 270,680,000 (USD 34,920,800) in 2016, more than four times the high estimate of HKD 65,000,000 (USD 8,386,000). Though these works are often forged by Zhang’s own imitators, he left behind thousands of authenticated originals. 

His more traditional works perform well in their own right, often after competitive bidding. A lotus painting by Zhang was sold by Oakridge Auction Gallery in May of 2020 for USD 168,000 after 52 bids. Months before, a hanging scroll painting executed in 1974 reached USD 1,000,000 against a high estimate of $100,000 at Eden Galleries.

Blending poetry and his musings, Zhang often personalized his works, especially those given as gifts. One such painting, given to an acquaintance named Huang Zhongfu, will be offered in the upcoming Oakridge Auction Gallery event. Set in a frame with a silk backing, this untitled piece shows a scholar walking among bamboo and flowering branches (USD 30,000 – $40,000). 

Zhang Daqian, untitled watercolor and ink painting. Image from Oakridge Auction Gallery.
Zhang Daqian, untitled watercolor and ink painting. Image from Oakridge Auction Gallery.

Other Zhang works offered in this auction include a fan painting with a scholar and landscape, as well as a bird painting created to commemorate the marriage of Luo Na and Bing Zhong. The latter is offered in a portfolio with additional works from Wang Jiyuan and Wang Yachen. 

Despite his outsized influence on contemporary Chinese art, Zhang’s fame has receded in Western popular culture. In the art world, however, this is not the case. Interest in his paintings reached a new peak in 2011 when Zhang became one of the best-selling artists in the world. Aided by the sheer number of works he completed, averaged at 500 per working year, he continues to be sought by collectors. Between 2003 and 2017, 98.5% of Zhang’s works increased in value when they came to auction with an average compound annual return of 20.8%. 

Those interested in the available Zhang works can find more information by visiting Bidsquare. The upcoming auction will begin at 10:00 AM EDT on July 26, 2020 with online, telephone, and absentee bidding. 

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