Three Thousand Times Infinity: Zhang Daqian 张大千 (1899-1983)
By Lily Hannah Spencer
Western art historical education has often focused on the Western narrative starting from the Ancient Greeks, via the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Modernism and Postmodernism. As a result, the general conception of art history has generally been West-oriented. This is a result of centuries of Western economic, colonial and, as a result, educational dominance. However, in this changing economic climate, a wider view of art history is crucial in order to keep up with the growing new markets. Chinese multi-millionaires dominating the art market means the growing importance and scale of Chinese art sales, both classical and modern. This brings me to the discussion of one artist in particular who is, arguably, the most important and most talented of all twentieth-century Chinese artists. He blurred the lines between East and West, tradition and modernity, naturalism and abstraction, master and forger and, in 2011, overtook Pablo Picasso as the best selling artist on the market. This man is Zhang Daqian 张大千.
He was born Zhang Zhengquan in Neijiang, Sichuan province, into a large family with a wealthy and artistic background. He had an eventful youth, being kidnapped by bandits in 1916 while studying in Chongqing, while his brother, Shanzi, was involved in Sun Yat-sen’s republican revolution, which resulted in the latter fleeing to Japan. Whilst traumatic, these events facilitated the beginning of Daqian’s formal education. His brother, Shanzi, an artist in his own right, brought Daqian to Kyoto where he studied textile weaving and dyeing, learning skills he would later use to age silk and paper. In 1917, he returned to China, moving to Shanghai where he socialised in intellectual circles and studied under China’s leading calligraphers Zengxi and Li Ruiqing. In the traditional Chinese manner, this involved working from and copying masters from the past, particularly those of the Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties in Daqian’s case. He spent a hundred days in a Buddhist monastery (to avoid his family’s attempts to arrange a marriage for him) where his name was changed from Zhengquan to Daqian, making reference to the Buddhist saying “sanqian daqian 三千大千” – three thousand times infinity – referring to the Buddha’s eternal spirit.
This name proved to be appropriate as throughout his career Daqian traversed over a thousand years of China’s historical artistic spirit, taking inspiration from, re-creating (chuangzuo 创作) and surpassing all of the artists he encountered during his studies. He managed this to the extent that throughout the 1920s and ‘30s he was a successful forger, managing to outwit specialists and connoisseurs, including the Japanese collector Nagahara Oriharu (1893-after 1961) whose large collection of Ming and Qing dynasty works was riddled with pieces supposedly by the masters Shitao and Bada Shanran but, after more modern inspection, show telltale signs of Daqian’s style.
In the 1940s, his studies went even further back in time to the Tang (619-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties when he took a group of students to the Dunhuang caves in Sichuan to study from the famous Buddhist wall paintings. This historicism and deep knowledge of China’s artistic tradition would stay with Daqian for his whole artistic career, even beyond his forging years. His flawless technique, developed through decades of study and practise, was the solid foundation on which he built the latter half of his career.
Fleeing China after the Communist takeover in 1949, Daqian travelled the world, exploring Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, but also reaching as far as America, Brazil, Argentina, France and the Swiss Alps. On his travels he placed himself in the midst of Western Modernism, encountering Abstract Expressionism in America and meeting Pablo Picasso in Nice in 1956. It was also around this time that he developed his characteristic pocai 潑彩 or “splashed ink” technique. This involved the combination of traditional landscape painting in muted tones combined with large areas of paint washes, or “splashes,” in bright colours. These splashes, which so resemble the work of Abstract Expressionist gesture painters, would otherwise be ethereal and intangible had they not been, in the words of the art historian Lang Shaojun, ‘transformed into concreteness’ by the juxtaposition with the naturalistic line landscapes. It is tempting, as an art historian brought up in the Western tradition, to be blinded by the Abstract Expressionist influences in Daqian’s later work, as the resemblances are undeniable. However, to describe Daqian as a mere follower of those American artists would be far too reductive. Daqian chains his abstraction to reality, form and the objective world, engaging with the history and philosophy of his tradition. Abstract Expressionists, on the other hand, did the opposite. Like the rest of the Western Modernists, they tried to shake off the weight of history, form and naturalism. Through his experiences and studies Zhang Daqian created his own Modernism, tackling the long history of China and her swift and violent burst into the modern age.
In 1981 Daqian created his final masterpiece, Panorama of Mount Lu. It is a traditional mountainous landscape scroll but the mountains move in and out of abstraction. It shows the grandeur of China’s landscape and the solidity and magnitude of her history but the interspersed strong blue splashes make the painting, like China, newly and undoubtedly modern. Lang Shaojun describes it as a ‘crystallisation of his nostalgia for his majestic and beautiful native land.’ To Daqian, China was ever-changing, but, despite this dynamism and despite the government’s attempts to destroy it during the Cultural Revolution, her history was always present, flickering in and out of the social consciousness as it flickers in and out of solidity in Daqian’s paintings. He died two years later in Taiwan, where there is now a memorial museum for him. His traditional education combined with his truly avant-garde way of thinking allowed him to be described by Fu Shen, one of the curators of the 1991 exhibition Challenging the Past: The Paintings of Chang Dai-chien in the Sackler Gallery, as both ‘the last great traditionalist of literati painting’ and an ‘internationally acclaimed modernist.’ Like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Zhang Daqian presents the conflict between the modern world and the weight of history and in doing so he encompasses the psyche of twentieth-century China. With an oeuvre as stylistically diverse and as large as Picasso’s, combined with a dedicated following garnering top prices at auction, it would be appropriate to describe him as, not only one of China’s greatest twentieth-century painters, but one of the world’s greatest Modernists.
Fong, Wen C. Art as History: Calligraphy and Painting as One. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Shaojun, Lang. “Traditional Chinese Painting in the Twentieth Century,” in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, 299-355. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997.
O’Dea, Madeleine. “Zhang Daqian Surpasses Picasso to Become the World’s Best Selling Artist,” Blouin Art Info, accessed 26th Oct. 2016, http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/755946/zhang-daqian-surpasses-picasso-to-become-the-worlds-best
“Zhang Daqian,” China Online Museum, accessed 26th Oct. 2016,