Saturday, 5 August 2017

Zhang Daqian's Dunhuang Years

Mother and Daughter donors of five dynasties (1941-43)
A colleague told me about an exhibition of Chinese artist Zhang Daqian's work in Macau -- and by the way it would end on Sunday -- and so I made an effort this morning to check it out.

When I got to Shun Tak Ferry Terminal just after 10am, it was a zoo, with long queues for the Jetfoil. My only hope was to get tickets from a subcontracted ticket office and after quickly going through Immigration, I was able to get on the 10.30am ferry. Phew!

Yaksha Demons of Northern Wai Dynasty (1941-43)
After I arrived I took the MGM shuttle bus to the hotel, where I then walked a few blocks to the Macao Museum of Art.

The exhibition was located on the fourth floor and free admission too!

Some 100 works were borrowed from the Sichuan Museum, with a particular focus on his drawings during and after his visits to the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu province.

He spent almost three years there, from 1941 to 1944, reproducing 309 cave paintings that feature Buddhist figures. Experts believe that his style of painting, particularly figurative changed significantly, making his visit to Dunhuang an important milestone in his career.

The Mogao Caves are known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, made up of 492 temples located along the silk road. The caves have the best example of Buddhist art that spans 1,000 years.

Detail of Manjushri Boddhisttva (1941-43)
When he exhibited his work in 1944 in Chengdu and Chongqing, many of the viewers had never seen this kind of art before, as it wasn't even mentioned in the bible of Chinese painting, Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden of the Qing dynasty.

Afterwards Zhang became interested in doing more research on the history of Chinese painting, looking at works from the Six Dynasties to the Sui and Tang dynasties.

The preface of the exhibition explains he learned painting from his mother, and that Zhang once said copying others is the first step to learning how to paint. He admired Shi Tao's paintings and they were copied so well that it was hard to tell the duplicate from the original.

Zhang is considered one of the grand masters in Chinese art because he excelled in painting works from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, and could paint in various styles: gongli (meticulous brushwork), xieyi (freehand brushwork), ink wash painting, blue and green landscapes, and jinbi (landscapes with gold outlines).

He believed learning painting is 70 percent hard work and 30 percent in born gifts and abilities.

Detail of Su Shi in bamboo hat and clogs (1947)
The collection of paintings shown at the museum range from sketches to unfinished and finished paintings painted before, during or after his visit to Dunhuang. Some of the sketches are so detailed, it's hard to imagine they are just line drawings and have yet to be filled in. He made those drawings when he was in the caves, copying them. There are some on paper, others on silk.

Others have the figures drawn and painted in, and the only thing missing are the eyes, or the figures are drawn out in thick brushstrokes and sadly won't be finished at all.

One can see the progression he makes after having drawn over 300 works at Dunhuang and then seeing his subsequent paintings -- the figures seem more confident and allow the brush to freely express itself instead of being tightly controlled.

Also in the exhibition are other paintings around the same time or before, some of women looking wistfully outside the window or holding a plum blossom branch looking very elegant and serene.

As if excelling in painting wasn't enough, Zhang also carved his own seals, two of which are presented in this show. He apparently made many friends who were seal carvers, and they gave him seals as a sign of their alliance, and some of those are shown in the exhibition.

For me, it was an eyeopener to see what Zhang had done in the early 1940s, before he became known for his ink splash paintings, and to see that he had such a keen interest in Buddhist art.

It also helps me better appreciate the Mogao cave paintings -- as I will see some of them in person very soon...

The Art of Zhang Daqian
Macao Museum of Art
Avenue Xian Xing Hai

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