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The Sound of One Hand: Reaching Beyond the limits of Traditional Ink Painting

Friday, July 6, 2012

Picasso of China

Clouded Mountain
by Chang Dai-chien

Chinese artist Chang Dai-chien (also known as Zhang Daqian) may not have the kind of name recognition that Pablo Picasso enjoys, but he is regarded as 'The Picasso of China' and the most important Chinese painter of the twentieth century.  

Chang Dai-chien (simplified Chinese: 张大千; traditional Chinese: 張大千; pinyin: Zhāng Dàqiān; Wade–Giles: Chang Ta-chien) (May 10, 1899 – April 2, 1983) was one of the best-known and most prodigious Chinese artists of the twentieth century. Originally known as a guohua (traditionalist) painter, by the 1960s he was also renowned as a modern impressionist and expressionist painter. Chang was also known as a master forger of old master paintings. Art experts will agree, that in rare art collections around the world, Chang Dai-chien forgeries posing as other masters' creations are lurking in their midst unknown by the collections owners. Chang was that good!

It is his paintings of the 1960's and 1970's that I am most drawn to. He lived on the California coast at that time in Carmel. I currently live in Carmel and am also inspired by the beauty of this area (Carmel, Pebble Beach, Big Sur, Carmel Valley). I see every day the landscape that so inspired him while he lived here. He painted the area in his unique technique.  During this time, he unexpectedly developed his most innovative painting technique of splashed ink and color which serves as a source of inspiration to the ink painters of today including myself.

Clouded Mountains (painting above) exemplifies the splashed ink technique. 
The poem, inscribed by Chang on the painting, reads:
I was in the mood to paint in the middle of night
My wife and son were awakened from their dreams
Ink overturned and running out of control
Emerging from the summer clouds a celestial mountain

Chang Dai-chien

Even though the artist lived half of his career in the West and a decade in California, his work remains virtually unknown in the American art world except in the Chinese American community and among scholars. I recently stumbled across this amazing artist in my ink painting research. Because ink painting is segregated academically and rarely presented in American museums, there is a widespread lack of familiarity about its traditions, aesthetics and practitioners. Perhaps as few non-Chinese can read inscriptions, rapid or casual appreciation is limited for many.

 Versing the Landscape

This painting is one of my favorites of Chang Dai-chien's. It is a painting of the California coast and looks to me as if it is the Big Sur coastline with the fog hugging the coast and the Monterey pines. Chang especially loved painting the Monterey Pines found in Carmel and Big Sur.

The video below is a trailer of a movie about Chang that was developed by San Francisco State University in California. It contains shots of him with his beloved trees. Enjoy!

After establishing a major reputation in China, Chang Dai-chien emigrated to the West after the Communist Revolution in 1948. He traveled and exhibited extensively in Asia, Europe and South and North America, living in garden home/studios in both Brazil and California. He visited California as early as 1954/55, staying with a friend in Berkeley for a few days at a time during international stopovers. In the mid- 1960s, Chang Dai-chien and his wife Hsu Wen-po began spending more time in California.  The artist spent increasing percentages of time in California throughout the remaining years of the Sixties. The artist professed his move was inspired by the distinctive pines of the Monterey peninsula, which reminded him of Chinese trees he had painted earlier in his career, and which became signifiers of this period and place in his painting.

 Cloudy Waterfalls and Summer Mountains

 The artist and his wife initially stayed for months at a time at Thomas Chew's Dolores Lodge in Carmel, where they occupied a special cabin with a suite of rooms. He bestowed the name 'K'e-yi Chu' (translated as 'barely habitable' or 'just OK') on his first Carmel house which was purchased in 1968, and the garden pavilion at his second home which he purchased in 1971. The second house was located on the exclusive Seventeen Mile Drive and had a sandy yard large enough for him to develop a separate studio and a garden. The transformation of the sandy yard into an opulent garden became a daily preoccupation and passion. Chang once lost his shoes in the mud after running into an orchard to admire a tree, and caused consternation by asking if he could purchase and transplant fully grown trees from neighbors explaining that he was too old to wait for trees to grow from seedlings. (From: Mark Johnson, Professor at SJSU)

 Splashed Ink on Gold (Pebble Beach)

Debatably the richest and most dramatic splashed ink paintings date from the years of 1967 to 1969, which achieve the "forcefulness and immediacy" of the strongest Abstract Expressionist painters. These landscapes sometimes incorporate rich swaths of color including yellows and golds which were unprecedented in the artist's earlier landscapes, possibly reflecting California color and inspiration, although many of these pictures continue to rely on the blue-green associated with ancient Chinese landscape painting. 

Landscape 1967

Several landscapes painted during and after 1967 resemble California locations the cliffs of Big Sur and the hills of the Coastal Range. In an interview published in May 1970, Chang Dai-chien explained that he was "busily absorbing Carmel into his being and hope(d) to soon be able to paint Carmel in the Chinese manner." Although far from photographic and often including only portions of recognizable landscapes, the resemblance to California locations is an important aspect of Chang Dai- chien's paintings after 1967.

 Summer on California Mountain

Noted San Francisco art critic Alfred Frankenstein reviewed Chang Dai-chien's art at a San Francisco exhibition, and wrote very positively about the splashed ink works which seemed to him to be "both ancient and modem at once ... original and decidedly up to date." Frankenstein dismissed the artist's more traditional works, writing "one feels that Chang Dai-chien came into his own only when he shook off the weight of the ancient dynasties he had carried for so long on his shoulders." 

Director of North American Branch
International Chinese Calligraphy and Ink Painting Society
国際中国書法国画家協会アメリカ支部:Ms. Casey Shannon アメリカ現代水墨画家


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