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All About Old Mr. Zhang

All About Old Mr. Zhang

This morning I awoke thinking, for some reason, about my late friend Zhang Daqian (or Chang Ta-ch’ien,  or Chang Daichien, or whatever--all the same person.) Nearly thirty years after his death, he is still very much in the news among those of us seriously concerned with Chinese painting--and will be even more in the news when a revelation about one of his works (I’ll get back to that below) breaks on the world. So, let me ramble for a while about my old friend.

Those of you who have explored this website know that he haunts it like a ghost--the long piece on his forgeries among “The Writings of JC,” various lectures and papers among the CLPs, reminiscences about him among the  R&Rs. And he turns up over and over, in images and in words, in my video-lectures. What can be added to all that? Well, let me (as I say) ramble for a while about him before trying to answer that question.

One can’t open an auction catalog today for any auction of recent Chinese painters, or read the results of those auctions, without being confronted constantly with his name. There are rich collectors who specialize in assembling as many as they can get of his works.  Sotheby’s Hong Kong “Fine Chinese Paintings” for April 3rd offered, as lot no. 1271, a piece of his calligraphy called simply “Menu,” framed, estimated at fifty to seventy thousand Hong Kong dollars. Looking at the reproduction and realizing what it was, I laughed aloud. When you went with Zhang for dinner at a restaurant--as I did quite a few times (Peking style in the suburbs of Washington D.C., Szechwan style near Roppongi in Tokyo--a restaurant with his paintings on its walls--others in Taipei, Hong Kong, San Francisco, elsewhere) Zhang never looked at the menu--he knew what the restaurant’s cuisine was, what could be expected of the chef,  and he simply took paper and  brush and wrote out the dinner he wanted and sent it off to the kitchen. And the chef jolly well prepared that dinner, scrambling to find the ingredients if he didn’t already have them on hand. So this piece of Chang’s “calligraphy,” now offered at auction, was one of those menus, quickly written out by Chang to order a dinner at some restaurant, that a chef had saved.

I may have related already, but let me do it again, my regrets over having turned down his request, delivered to me by Zhang’s son, that I write another essay for an  exhibition of his  paintings--I  had done  one, which he liked and often  reprinted, for a 1963 show of them in New York, I think it was at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery. This second request came after he had moved to California and was living at Pebble Beach near Carmel, and had begun painting in a new style in which he splashed ink and color onto the paper as if (but not really) randomly and then added some fine drawing--a few houses, perhaps--to pull it all together into a landscape. Why did I decline? Because I knew that this new style, hailed by some as Zhang’s brilliant response to Abstract Expressionism, was in considerable part adopted because his eyesight was failing--he had diabetes--and he wanted to minimize the need for detailed drawing in his paintings. Splashing was easier. And I didn’t see how I could write about his new style without revealing this truth about it, as I didn’t want to do.  I’ve sometimes regretted turning him down--I could have found a way out of this situation, compromised a bit. And (although this wouldn’t have been a big factor) been rewarded, doubtless, with one or more of the paintings, as I had been for the earlier essay, works of a kind that are now fetching millions of dollars. (I did in fact own a number of Chang’s paintings over the years, acquired cheap or as gifts, but never kept them--I was convinced, like C. C. Wang, that Zhang was too prolific, too facile, and that his works wouldn’t be worth much in future. This in contrast to C.C.’s own, serious paintings--which now are worth far less. Strange trick of history and reputations.)

I have related elsewhere various stories about how Zhang advised me as a collector, how his daughter Sing was my student through the masters degree, and about my first meeting with him--in Kyoto in 1953, when I was a Fulbright student and he was staying at the finest ryokan or Japanese inn in Kyoto, the Sa’ami, with his companion Chu Hsingchai. (Chu, an art journalist and sometime dealer, used his studio name Hsingchai, it was said, because he had dishonored his real name by collaborating with the Japanese during their occupation of China.) Chang had come to Kyoto bringing some of the old paintings he owned to arrange for the publication by Benrido of another volume in his series Ta-feng-t’ang ming-chi.  Anyway, Chang and I at that first meeting soon discovered that we had a common language, Japanese, and chattered away in that. And I have told of how, as we talked about particular paintings and I asked his opinions of them, he would sketch details from them with the brush he was holding--such was his incredible visual memory, his ability to turn his hand to re-creating pretty much any kind of imagery that the whole history of Chinese painting could offer. I write this now because a colleague asks me, in an email I was reading this morning, how it could be that C. C. Wang was fooled by Chang’s fake antique landscape, the one titled Riverbank: surely C.C. would recognize Chang’s hand, since he knew him so well? But Chang could disguise his hand whenever he wanted to, become Shitao or Bada Shanren or some antique landscapist at will. I watched this happen over the many years I knew him, often enough to recognize this extraordinary ability he had, beyond versatility.

So, let me continue with a good Chang Ta-ch’ien story, one that was well-known to those of us in the field back in the years of his flourishing as a forger. Among his specialties was the great Individualist master Shitao--there are still paintings floating around that no one, certainly not myself, can be entirely sure of: are they real Shitaos or Chang’s fakes? The story was related in print by Chu Hsingchai in one of his publications, but it was well-known to insiders before that. Here is the story (I’ll call him Chang in this one, as I did when I first heard it):

Chang hears of a collector who is especially fond of Shitao’s paintings, and goes to visit him. (You should understand that Chang, although known as a  Shitao forger, was  also a recognized authority on Shitao--he published a corpus of his paintings, as I recall, as well as other writings about him.) Chang expresses lavish admiration for the man’s collection, and tells him that he should construct a special gallery to show off his Shitao paintings--all the art-lovers of the region, he says, will flock to see it. The man is inspired by this idea, constructs the gallery as an addition to his residence, and invites Chang back to show it to him with pride. Chang indeed admires the gallery and the collection, but meanwhile is also measuring one of the walls with his eyes, and he tells the man: This is all very impressive, but what you really need now is one large, major Shitao painting to hang on that wall. That would be wonderful, the man responds, but where am I to find such a painting? Just be patient, says Chang, it will turn up in time if you just wait. And indeed, some months afterwards a dealer turns up with a painting that is just what the collector is hoping for, an impressive large Shitao (or would-be Shitao) painting that fits ideally on that wall. The collector, feeling almost too lucky, calls back Chang Ta-ch’ien--who was, as I say, a recognized authority on the artist--to see it and pronounce judgment on it before he buys it. The dealer who is offering it is there. Chang stands gazing at it for a long time, eventually shaking his head and saying: No, a very impressive forgery, but nonetheless a forgery. The collector gives the painting back to the dealer, who hurries frantically after Chang asking:  What are you up to? He was going to buy that painting! And Chang replies: Don’t worry, just wait for some days and then go back and tell the man that I have bought it. The dealer understands, and after a time revisits the collector to tell him that Chang himself has bought the painting, saying he made a mistake in pronouncing it a forgery, that it is really a fine and genuine work by Shitao. The collector is now convinced that Chang tricked him, told him it was a fake so that he could get it for himself. And that painting becomes the one he cannot live without, must have for his collection; he sends the dealer back to Chang offering to pay a higher price for it. But Chang says no, he made a mistake once but now he realizes that this is a fine and genuine Shitao, one that he cannot part with. And the man continues to make higher and higher offers through the dealer, for the one painting that he really must own--until finally--You can guess the rest. Chang at last agrees to let him have this great work by Shitao--which is, of course, one of his own forgeries--for a very high price.

True story? I have no idea. I remember Cheng Shifa taking me to see the collection of a private collector in Shanghai that contained just such a big Shitao painting. (One that seemed genuine to me at the time.) But it’s the kind of trick that Chang was capable of--I can vouch for that. The great Mr. Chang, I knew him well. And liked and admired him, in spite of everything, and learned a lot from him.

Question: But surely all this is in the past--his forgeries couldn’t fool today’s sophisticated specialists, at a place like, for instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Answer: (to which all this has been leading up): Go to my Pure and Remote View video-lecture series, pull down to the most recent, open and watch Addendum 1B, the one titled “Riverbank, the Controversy.” That will answer your question.

Question: But surely there must be some way to prove that Riverbank is a Zhang Daqian forgery, to everybody’s satisfaction, beyond argument?

Answer: I thought you’d never ask.  Now, for what really all this has been leading up to: Go to Addendum 2B, the one titled “Riverbank, A Closer  Look.” About twenty minutes into that (be patient) begins an insertion that I added at the last minute, presenting in words and images a new discovery which, I firmly believe, does exactly that: it proves beyond any remaining doubt, with visual evidence that everyone can see for themselves, that Riverbank is one of Zhang Daqian’s forgeries. I won’t tell you here what it is: find the time to watch it.

That addendum ends, by the way, with a concluding passage in which I show two more photos of Zhang Daqian, one in which he is seated before some of the great Monterey cypress trees, another in which he sits in his garden across the valley from the Palace Museum outside Taipei, his final home, with his daughter Sing standing beside him and smiling. A perfect image--evoked, that is, not reproduced here--to end this very long reminiscence about, and tribute to, my old and good friend Mr. Chang, he of the great beard and the intense inner vitality, or charisma. No photograph can really convey those.

(P.S. For a lengthy and detailed account of the 1999 symposium, go to Carter Horsley’s Chinagate website at

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