Recently, MIR Appraisal Services was hired to evaluate a group of ink washes and watercolors on paper from Zhang Daqian, a Chinese modernist painter. For many, Zhang is not a household name. To the art world, he has been steadily breaking records and frequenting the top of auction house lists since his death in 1983. According to the New York Times and Artprice.com, just last year Zhang’s work brought in $354.8 million in sales. He is currently ranked number one of the top 500 selling artists at auction. In 2016, he set a record when his hanging scroll piece “Peach Blossom Spring” sold for more than 4 times its estimate for a total of $34.7 million at the Sotheby’s Fine Chinese Painting sale in Hong Kong. To reiterate his success, Zhang’s work had successfully out earned Picasso at this auction by nearly $30 million.
Zhang and Picasso had exchanged work during a famous meeting in Nice in 1956. Picasso, an archetypal figure in the world of modern art, represented the new philosophies associated with the West. Zhang, with his practice of calligraphy, Buddhist mural and traditional Guohua painting represented the East and its relevance in the creation of art in the present. The stylistic fusion that many see in his work provided much more than a fad like appreciation for Eastern culture. Zhang’s successes as an Eastern artist expressed an interconnectedness in all art forms, as well as a widened perspective of what the rest of the world, particularly the East, had to artistically offer.
Zhang was born in 1899 in Neijian, Sichuan province, China. From a young age his family encouraged his interest in traditional Chinese art practices. A dynastic upheaval would drive him from his home, and changing political ideals would keep him traveling throughout the world during his formative years as an artist. However, this would also provide him with broadened artistic exposure that would add to his unique style. He produced and exhibited his work in various countries including America, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and Taiwan. His true prominence stems from his understanding and extensive training in traditional Chinese art forms. His mastery of these practices paved his way to a career filled with creative experimentation of old and new styles.
His most sought after works to date were done in a “splashed-ink” method of painting. The purpose of a splashed ink piece is to create representations of nature from ink droplets and capture not only its formal qualities but its spiritual ones as well. Zhang's style shifted from more detailed and precise to impressionistic and abstract. While he was an accomplished portrait painter, Zhang began to experiment with more landscape representations later on in his career. Splashed ink painting offered more freedom and flexibility for expression with less emphasis on exact shape. Zhang incorporated splashes of color to depict the movements found within nature.
Coincidentally, his experimentation with this style of work corresponds with the time his eyesight began to deteriorate in the late 1950s. Additionally, the Western art world was experimenting with a new style that emerged from the United States known as Abstract Expressionism. With the birth of this genre, splatter paint artworks from artists like Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning began to dominate the modern art market. Due to his world travels and artistic exposure, many people believed that Zhang’s use of a splatter like style of painting was inspired by the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists. However, Zhang claimed that his work was solely driven by ancient Chinese art practices. Whichever the case, Zhang’s work embodied the two styles in the eyes of many, and placed the artist at the top of a list of influential modern artists. Since his passing in 1983, the prices for Zhang’s works have continued to skyrocket and have had a lasting impact on the art world.
Zhang's success has helped draw more attention and money to the auction market in China. Last year, the United States only accounted for 28 percent of public fine art sales whereas China occupied nearly 38 percent. With this much power in the world art market coming from the East, it is the ultimate goal of art appreciators everywhere that they can collaborate with Western institutions to effectively educate and expose their audiences to a wider range of artworks from around the world.
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“Zhang Daqian.” Tobin Reese Fine Art, www.tobinreese.com/zhang-daqian.html.