Zhang Daqian: Master Chinese Painter

ZHANG DAQIAN AS A FORGER: WUGOUCHENG BODHISATTVA, early 1950s forgery; dated AD 590. Zhang Daqian, ink and colours on silk, 113.4 x 98.3 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Keith McLeod Fund

THE ENIGMATIC 20th-century Chinese painter, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) could paint at will and in complete mastery all the great Chinese stylistic genres. His prodigious talent was matched by an unrelenting passion and enormous self-discipline. Although Zhang studied Chinese painting by copying the works of the great masters, he was able to reproduce first-hand any painting he set out to copy.

A scholar-artist of the old school, his studio, the Dafeng Tang, was a workplace frequented by connoisseurs. Early on in his career, one of his practice works was taken by accident, to be authentic by a passing connoisseur. From that point onwards, Zhang Daqian exploited his talent and began knowingly to forge the great Chinese masters. His forgeries grew in size and scope, and were dated further and further back in time.

Zhang Daqian Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts

Addressing the history of the man are 20 paintings in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston that he painted, owned or forged. They form the subject of a timely exhibition of immense importance, Zhang Daqian: Painter, Collector, Forger. Works executed in China reveal his precocious talent and technical virtuosity. They are placed alongside authentic old masters of major stylistic importance, which he collected to improve his skill.

Because they had belonged to Zhang, a selection originally believed to be genuine are now held suspect. Finally two of his outstanding and major forgeries at the MFA, once estimated to be much older, are subject to analysis. How Zhang went about his art, whether genuine or forged is explained throughout, giving an exceptional insight into the problems museums encounter in deciphering the authentic from the copy.

China’s Turbulent 20th-Century History

Zhang Daqian was a living witness to China’s turbulent 20th-century history. Born in Neijiang, Sichuan, he was first taught to paint by his mother. When he was twelve, Manchu China (1644-1911) collapsed and the modern Chinese republic was declared. Zhang’s elder brother, Zhang Shanzi (1895-1943), had campaigned against the first Chinese president, Yuan Shikai, and fearing reprisals, fled to Japan.

Visiting his brother between 1917 and 1919, Zhang studied textile weaving and dyeing in Kyoto. On his return to China, he was briefly a Buddhist novice. When he was 21, he descended on Shanghai to study under two famous artists, Zeng Nongran (1861-1930) and Li Ruiqing (1867-1920). Zeng admired the Qing monk painter, Shitao (1642-1707) and urged his student to emulate the latter’s technique of ‘representing real landscape with no exaggeration’.

Zhang therefore sought out and copied as many of Shitao’s works as he could find. Copying in Chinese painting tradition falls under two disciplines: lin, ‘close copy’ wherein composition, colour scheme and format are rendered as closely as possible to the original, and fang, ‘free-hand imitation’ where new personal elements might be incorporated to original composition and style.

Zhang Daqian’s Own Collection of Chinese Paintings

Zhang’s collection had previously included Album for Liu Shitou (1703), attributed to Shitao. Three album leaves, River with a Watchtower and Moored Boats, Fisherman’s Hut at Dusk and Winding Stream, believed initially to be the master’s, are now said to contain brush technique and stroke texture of dubious repute. As early as 1922, when he was only 23, Zhang had effectively forged Shitao’s work.

Even China’s most respected connoisseur of the time, Huang Binhong (1865-1955) was taken in, and much outraged. The Shitao Albums were documented as belonging to a private collection since 1926. If indeed painted by Zhang, they might be recognised as his earliest and finest forgeries.

Two Landscapes (1691) ‘formerly attributed to Shitao’, were once owned by Zhang. Because the nuances of brushwork and ink quality in one work are not stylistically Shitao’s, they raise questions as to whether it was a copy made by Zhang or somebody else. On the other, a well-known painter Wu Hufan (1894-1967), had written an inscription before it was painted: ‘Daqian loves Shitao’s paintings, and he has collected them very well. All great connoisseurs in China have flocked (to his studio) to view them; among the several dozen works there, this scroll is the most excellent. My solemn (opinion) upon viewing, Wu Hufan.’ Believed to be a willing accomplice, and also a connoisseur, Wu often authenticated Zhang’s paintings known to be forgeries.

Zhang Daqian’s Visit to Tokyo

At the height of Japanese atrocities at home, Zhang visited Tokyo in 1931 to take part in a Sino-Japanese exhibition. As a gesture of thanks, he presented an album of paintings to sculptor Richard Yen (Yan Zhikai), who organised the trip. Similar gifts were made by other parties, including Pu Ru (1896-1963, also known as Pu Xinyu), a highly accomplished artist and cousin of the emperor Pu Yi, as well as Zhang’s brother, Shanzi. In the 1930s and 40s, ‘Pu in the north, Zhang in the south’ was a much-circulated adage.

Pu Ru later played an important role authenticating Zhang’s works, both genuine and forged. Although Zhang Shanzi attained neither the eminence, nor the notoriety of his sibling, he was a considerable artist and wielded much influence on the latter’s early career. Upon Shanzi’s return from Japan, the brothers collaborated, signing Shanzi Daqian hezuo on their ‘joint works’. One fan painting, Tiger and Calligraphy (1936), of Shanzi’s much-loved subject, tigers, was painted according to his inscription in Suzhou, at the Wangshiyuan, a famous garden.

Once the retreat of Ming (1368-1644) painter Wen Zhengming, it was their home for some years from 1932, where tigers were reared for artistic observation. Zhang, whose calligraphy appears on the fan’s back, was already known to be enormously versatile. His affinity with nature is evident in Hollyhock (1944), sensitively depicted and complemented by classical poetic quotations about the flower.

Collection of Ming Masters

Zhang Daqian also collected the Ming masters. A masterpiece belonging to the Qing imperial collection during the 18th century was Shen Zhou’s (1427-1509) Autumn Scenery of Tongguan (1499). When Zhang took possession of it is not clear, but he documented the occasion with a unique seal in ‘bird script’. This ancient style was identified with the early Chinese Neolithic writing systems, and Zhang’s ability to carve it attests to serious scholarship.

As a scholar, Zhang recognised China’s great artistic and cultural heritage. But half his life experienced an eroding nation ruled by warlords, weakened by civil war and humiliated by Japanese aggression. As a patriot, he undertook to translate the majesty of Chinese civilisation through his work. Merely copying the masters was not enough. Between 1941 and 1943, Zhang ventured to Dunhuang in Gansu to study its wall murals dating from the 5th century. He paid meticulous attention to their frescoes’ line drawing and traditional colouration.

Assisted by local monks, he created his own life-sized copies on fabric, exhibiting some 276 specimens in 1944. Apart from professed self interest, his seminal work, Dunhuang Shishiji, ‘Notes on the Dunhuang Rock Caves’ drew attention to the grottoes. It is generally accepted that Zhang Daqian’s stint at Dunhuang elevated him from being a great talent to the finest of his generation.

Dunhuang’s Cave 103

Zhang Daqian spent much of his time at Dunhuang’s Cave 103 copying his favourite work, an 8th century painting of the legendary Buddhist layman, Vimalakirti. It would lay the foundations a decade later for his fabled Wugoucheng Bodhisattva (early 1950s), which he sold to the MFA in 1958. The work encapsulates both the lin and fang copying techniques employed in Zhang’s Dunhuang Buddhist repertoire.

A large white-robed Bodhisattva is seated under a canopy, as three apsaras with swirling red ribbons and looped streamers, scatter flowers, a feat that occurred when the Sakyamuni Buddha attained nirvana. In ink and colour on silk, the painting at 113.4 cm by 98.3 cm, was dated 590. Zhang’s audacity to go beyond the Ming or Qing eras and fabricate a 6th-century copy might be understood against what transpired the year before.

In 1957, the MFA had purchased directly from Zhang, Drinking and Singing at the Foot of a Precipitous Mountain, one of his greatest forgeries attributed to Guan Tong (fl. 907-923). Guan Tong, Fan Kuan and Li Cheng were three famous 10th-century artists linked with the then nascent northern landscape style. Measuring 218.2 cm by 90.2 cm, this monumental composition has a compressed range of mist-filled peaks in the archaistic blue-green landscape scheme. The compact rock forms contain clues to Zhang’s technique, achieved by deliberately aged ink and old brushes for effect. However the painting mounted as a scroll is an invaluable repository of all the devices he employed to service deception.

Zhang Daqian Painter, Collector, Forger

Part and parcel of Zhang’s trade was constant reference to the Xuanhe huapu, ‘Painting Catalogue of the Xuanhe Reign’ (early 1100s), by the Song emperor Huizong (1082-1135). By the 20th century, its catalogued paintings – if they existed – were extremely rare. Somebody of Zhang’s calibre would be aware of those extant. To locate a work to forge, he would refer to the catalogue, choosing one that could not have survived.

This was calculated to fool potential collectors who might believe they had chanced upon a rare masterpiece from the imperial collection. Details surrounding the work were critical. Zhang mounted his painting in antique Japanese patterned silk, secured at the base by gilt copper and silver rollers. It was designed to create the impression that the scroll had been in an eminent Japanese collection, and would thus explain its absence from Chinese records of a particular time.

The Art of Seal Carving

The art of seal carving intrinsic to Zhang’s apprenticeship, proved invaluable when seals became his crucial tools. Red mineral pigment stirred into castor oil was normally used as seal paste. Zhang utilised a water-based solution to have control over colour, and to vary the seal’s age. Seals authenticating Drinking and Singing at the Foot of a Precipitous Mountain include those used by Huizong, no less. A colophon at the top right corner is by the Song-Yuan painter, Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) and the Qing era seals of collectors, Geng Zhaozheng (1640-1687) and Gong Qinwang (1832-1898) are visible.

Traditional materials – such as the shell-white that Zhang preferred – had chemical components that were difficult to decipher. But its ‘modern’ version, the more durable titanium white, was detected on the painting by the MFA Scientific Research Laboratory. Zhang was careful even in the packaging. The painting’s storage box lid of paulownia wood carries an inscription by his old friend, Pu Ru, of the Qing imperial family. Recollecting the painting’s history, Pu admits to having no knowledge of when it travelled from China to Japan. Pu Ru had an excellent eye, having grown up surrounded by the finest imperial paintings and Zhang believed rightly, that his writing would carry much weight.

An Unwitting Victim of Forgery

Ironically, Zhang was himself an unwitting victim of forgery. On a trip to the US in 1953, he visited the MFA for the first time. When shown the first ‘Zhang Daqian’ the museum acquired in 1950, he declared it a forgery. He spontaneously gave the MFA his Mount Emei of Sichuan (1953), painted as a tribute to his native Sichuan, to which he would never return.

The mammoth work, at 158 cm by 83 cm (62 inches by 32 inches) is an expansive aerial topography with a far perspective of distant rivers. It represents an elusive ideal where a foreground of dark green pines is juxtaposed against a series of high ridges. Mount Emei of Sichuan evolved both in size and scope from Landscape of Lake Dongba (1941), painted earlier in China, a gentler landscape of linear details and controlled colour suited to the scholar paradigm.

Living Abroad

His deception apart, Zhang Daqian remained totally committed to his calling even after leaving his homeland. In the wake of the 1949 communist victory, he transited in Taiwan, Hong Kong and India. A three-month stay at the Ajanta Caves of Maharashtra was dedicated to mural study, to compare them with those of Dunhuang. In 1952, he relocated to South America, first to Buenos Aires and then to Sao Paolo, his home in Brazil for two decades.

Despite living abroad, Zhang continued in the 1950s to catalogue and publish his own collection in classical Chinese fashion. Masterpieces of the Dafeng Tang, is a four-volume selection of his studio’s finest works as of 1955. On show are Volumes 2 and 3 (1955-56), with an illustrated 1702 Shitao handscroll now in the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Return to Taipei in mid-1970s

Failing eyesight following a bout of diabetes in 1957, did not prevent Zhang from meeting new challenges. His ‘splashed colour’ method, a synthesis of traditional materials and Western Impressionism was a response to modern abstraction in Chinese style then gaining popularity in the west. Homesick for China – where he was outlawed as an erstwhile Guomintang supporter – Zhang returned to Taipei in the mid-1970s.

Visually impaired, he moderated ink flow and colour by rotating paper or silk using both hands. The bocai, ‘adding colour’ style, was adapted with the mogu, ‘boneless’ painting without outline. It was perfect for the lotus, one of his favourite flowers. Painted a year before his demise, the dominant Red Lotus (1981), in a sea of blue and green splashes is testament to his ingenuity.

Zhang Daqian touted himself as ‘the last of the Chinese literati’. As painter, collector and forger, he was certainly the greatest 20th century manipulator of Chinese art. Almost every major US museum acquiring Chinese works has paid him the ultimate compliment by asking the proverbial question: ‘Could this be a Zhang Daqian?’


Zhang Daqian: Painter, Collector, Forger is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, until 14 September, www.mfa.org