FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN COLLECTOR A resplendent vision rendered on magnificent scale, Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds is a masterpiece that can hardly be surpassed in sublimity or grandeur within Zhang Daqian’s splashed-ink and splashed-colour oeuvre. With extraordinary technical virtuosity, the artist conjures a glorious sight to behold: a mountain splintering the sky, shrouded by incandescent layers of cloud and mist – a landscape impossibly illuminated only by a pure spectrum of ink and colour against a golden background. Painted in 1965, Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds stands among the greatest compositions in Zhang’s long and illustrious career. Suffused with a radiant and mysterious light, adorned with vivid splashes of green and blue morphing into expanses of rising clouds and vegetation, the precipitous peak is depicted with ancient temples that stand atop: displaying a tour de force of the unique aesthetic that makes Zhang Daqian one of the most provocative artists of the twentieth century. THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: In Conversation with the Masters A sublime apotheosis of the artist’s career, Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds evokes an uncanny sense of déjà vu brought about by Zhang Daqian’s erudite dialogue with the thousand-year long Chinese painting tradition. Here, Zhang pays homage to the monumental Northern Song landscape paintings, of which Travellers Among Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan (c.950-c.1032) is an exemplary work. ‘My way of painting mountains amidst clouds is different from that of Mi Fu, Mi Youren, Gao Kegong, or Fang Congyi’, Zhang explains in the inscription, before adding: ‘I forge my own path’. The artist’s inscription transpires an unmistakable sense of confidence in his innovative technique and mastery rarely seen in his writing, firmly situating Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds in the landscape tradition of depicting mountains and clouds by the Song and Yuan masters. On one hand, it demonstrates the depth of Zhang’s engagement with the legacy of tradition; on the other, it serves as a testament to the special place the painting held in the artist’s heart. An artist devoted to the emulation of the styles of early masters with an unparalleled fluency and consummate ease, Zhang Daqian had long revered the tradition of depicting mountains and clouds in the history of Chinese painting, of which Mi Fu (1051-1107) and his son Mi Youren (1074-1153), Gao Kegong (1248-1310) and Fang Congyi (1302- 1393) are precedents. The earliest existing record of splashing ink on silk can be traced to the Tang artist Wang Qia (?-805), who was known to paint with his fingers and brush. Mi Fu and his son pioneered an over-layering technique of textured, wet ink dots in order to build up the mountain forms that was later developed by Gao Kegong and Fang Congyi, cementing a literati tradition in the portrayal of cloud-clad, lofty mountains. Throughout his career, Zhang Daqian continued to make copies of works by ancient masters that he admired, before creating his own compositions in their style; this is a practice he continued into the 1960s. Working with free-flowing ink on paper or silk, Zhang attempts to further break free from tradition by allowing the ink to form the underlying compositions, brilliantly building shapes, colours, textures, structures and shades, before adding figurative details of houses or temples, often with minimalist brushwork. Here, departing from a historical approach where the realistic rendition of mountains takes precedence over the autonomy of ink, by allowing the ink and pigment to flow spontaneously, Zhang is truly forging a new and untrodden path previously unknown to the Chinese painting tradition. Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds recalls Travellers Among Mountains and Streams in terms of composition: we are invited to peer through the clouds and mist, looking up to the awe-inspiring peak above as if based at the rugged foot of the mountain. Like the masterpiece by Fan Kuan, the landscape presents an unprecedented grandeur crafted by the instantaneous splashing of ink, creating rock formations like sharp arrow tips. Unlike the Northern Song work, the sky-piercing mountain in Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds rises from the water, bearing witness to Zhang’s fascination with the Yuan master Wang Meng (1308-1385) and his Secluded Dwelling in the Qingbian Mountains. In the painting, the artist creates an incredibly rich, moisture-laden aesthetic that is fundamentally grounded in the Chinese tradition, fully displaying the diverse influences – from the long history of the Chinese painting to the art of the Dunhuang cave murals – that nourished the artist’s practice. At times translucent, far from impenetrable, the swathes of ink construct a sense of space. Wholeheartedly embracing the fluid quality of ink what Zhang Daqian deftly demonstrates here is great virtuosity and radicalism – resulting in abstract expressions never seen before that forge, in a true sense, a new path for the prolific artist and the history of Chinese painting in the twentieth century. MAKING A SPLASH: the Development of a Technique Since leaving China, Zhang Daqian travelled the world from India to Argentina, before settling in Mogi das Cruzes near Sao Paolo in Brazil in 1954. There, he built an extravagant, lush Chinese garden which he named the Garden of Eight Virtues. The 1950s was a time when Zhang Daqian started to experiment with splashed-ink as a technique: the exposure to new cultures and geographies no doubt inspired him greatly. At the same time, he was suffering from an eye illness that diminished his ability to paint in the meticulous, precise manner that he was well-versed in. An early, experimental example of the splashed-ink technique is Sudden Rain in the Mountain Garden, in which the artist depicts his lush garden appearing exceptionally green in the afternoon after the rain. A quadriptych executed in 1962, Grand View of the Ch’ing-cheng Mountains heralds the beginning of a mature splashed-ink style for the artist: with adept accumulation of ink layer by layer, the artist constructs an atmospherically ethereal world depicting the landscape of his hometown. Since then, Zhang Daqian began on a journey towards employing an ever-more free expression of using splashed-ink. He gradually finessed the process, by adding splashed-colour to the composition in the early 1960s, and continued to develop it after moving to California and returning to Taiwan in the 1970s. To a great extent, Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds gives an impression of ease and spontaneity that is ultimately deceptive: the accumulation of ink and colour requires meticulous control. The expansive use of ink is also rare given the size of the painting, as the coherent splashing of ink alone demands greater flexibility, and therefore fewer large scrolls existed compared to splashed-colour works. As the Tang art historian Zhang Yanyuan (c.815-c.877) declares all five colours of ink manifest themselves, the difficulty in the act of splashing ink lies in the interplay between ink of varying degrees of lightness and density, exploiting the luminosity and visceral tactility of the material. With a full knowledge of ink as a medium, Zhang Daqian first generously splashes large areas of ink, letting it flow freely before adding secondary layers of ink in complementary darker or lighter tones when the ink is still wet – a technique also known as broken ink – in order to construct the shapes of the mountains and peaks. By gracefully doing so, luminous, translucent gradients of ink succeed in creating an almost incredulous sense of depth and distance, as well as the rugged textures of the rock formations, making them surge on paper like waves. Once the splashing of the ink is settled and complete, the artist further enriches the composition by adding green and blue pigments, also splashed skillfully, to depict the verdant vegetation at the bottom of the mountain and the clouds atop. Pigments coalescing into a dance, the ink and colour dissolve into an ethereal, otherworldly haze. The use of green and blue mineral pigments also presents a possible reference to the magnificent cave murals at Dunhuang, which Zhang Daqian painstakingly made reproductions of the murals and acquired the specialist knowledge and skill in preparing the mineral pigments. The use of vivid green and blue mineral pigments is seen in many mature compositions by Zhang Daqian, marked by a glorious splendour, giving full expressions to the rocks at the foot of the mountain that glisten in the reflection of the water, the densely foliaged body of the mountain, to the peak protruding from the cloud and mist. LANDSCAPE OF THE MIND: Abstraction and Beyond Abstract in nature, Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds presents one of the most thorough studies in abstraction that Zhang Daqian had ever undertaken and a landscape of the mind. The fluid and amorphous forms in the painting are at times entirely built up by swathes of ink splashes, with silhouettes of temples and pavilions minimally outlined by a few simple brushstrokes, not unlike abstract art of Europe and North America prevalent at the time. Since leaving China, Zhang Daqian had travelled extensively, from Asia, to Europe and South America and was likely exposed to the diverse artistic developments that swept the world at the time. Billed as the meeting of the East and West, Zhang’s famous encounter with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) at his Cannes villa La Californie in 1956 propelled him in new artistic directions, departing even further from the aesthetics that shaped the first few decades of his career. Yet, the pursuit of abstraction in the work of Zhang Daqian is perhaps a far cry from that of Picasso; for formal likeness holds very different currency for Chinese artists, as Su Shi writes: ‘If one judges the superiority of a painting by its formal likeness, one is no different from a child.’ Unlike Picasso’s desire to reduce, dissect, and deconstruct forms, the abstract expressions conveyed by splashed-ink and splashed-colour composition correspond to the expressive (xieyi) style, further transforming and simplifying the boneless (mogu) style and Zen painting, modernising Chinese painting by adapting the visual vocabulary of the twentieth century, in an increasingly globalised world. Compared to earlier splashed-ink works such as Grand View of the Ch’ing-cheng Mountains, Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds illustrates a previously-unseen confidence and maturity with which the artist controls the flow of the ink and pigment. A fresh, free, and unrestrained visual delight, the painting displays an incredible sense of strength and rhythm that dominates the work. After moving to California in the U.S., and later returning to Asia to Taiwan, Zhang Daqian to an extent restricted his liberal use of such an uninhibited splashed-ink method – perhaps catering to a predominately Chinese audience. In his later years, he employed a process that in a way combines splashed-ink with figurative expressions, as seen in Panorama of Mount Lu. It was only during his time in Brazil in the 1960s, living almost in a state of remote seclusion, that works such as Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds could ever be possibly imagined and executed. THE BIRTH OF A MASTERPIECE Dawning Light in Autumn Gorges is another fine example of such brilliant achievement, which, with strong chiaroscuro and an unconventional composition, appears perhaps more modern. In contrast, exuding an unequalled sense of grandeur, Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds bears witness to the great heights that Zhang Daqian reached in his life-long quest to challenge the past, to internalise the finest peaks and mountains that he saw, and to express a free landscape of the mind. It is this unique quality that positions the artist as a singular force in Chinese modern painting for his grand synthesis of abstraction, making Zhang Daqian one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.
Ancient Temples Amidst Clouds