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CLP 33: 1999 "Chang Dai-chien in California." Symposium, San Francisco State Univ.

Chang Dai-chien in California: paper for Sept.25 symposium


Preliminary remarks. Well-chosen theme, etc. I was involved w. Chang Ta-ch'ien over many years, in a number of connections. Let me run through them briefly by way of introduction.

S,S. I met Chang first in Kyoto (etc.) Tawaraya. He came to Freer in 1959? (slide missing) Here, at our apt in D.C., w. infant son Nicholas, b. 1958; now has four children of his own and teaches classical art and archaeology at U. Wisconsin. I looked at lots of ptgs in Freer collection w. Chang, espec. old col., --Chinese connoisseurs like Chang, or CCWang have a kind of dream of seeing all the good Chinese paintings that survive, and deciding whether they are genuine or not, and spend much of their lives pursuing that dream. (I had same dream, for many years.) I learned a lot from Chang, as I had already in Japan, and made interesting discoveries among the old Freer ptgs..In 1963 I wrote a short essay on his ptg for an exhibition in NYC. (Photo of him in 1975)

S, S. These two photos can symbolize Chang's move to Calif. Right: by Ch. photographer in Taipei who specialized in composite photos, many of them setting Chang in various ideal roles, such as the scholar-recluse in the wilds; other a real photo of Chang taken at Pebble Beach, probably ca. 1970. His love for the Monterey cypresses was a big reason why he bought a house and spent more and more time there in the late 1960s. So it's as if he were realizing an ideal, doesn't need to fake it any more.

After I moved from the Freer Gallery to U.C. Berkeley in 1965, I found myself coming together with Chang on various occasions, as described briefly in my "colophon" for the catalog. (Oct. '68: C.C.Wang exhib. opening here...some may still remember.) Chang was given a major retrospective at the Asian Art Mus. in 1972; many of you probably saw it.

S,S. From the mid-70s, I had as my student Chang's daughter Hsing-sheng, who was known simply as Sing. When I had a seminar on Wen Cheng-ming, the 16th century artist who himself was a lover of old cypress trees (and major painter of them--one on right), I took the members, including Sing, to Point Lobos to commune with the venerable specimens there, and we stayed overnight at Chang's house and saw his garden and studio.

S -- Photos made after his move to Taiwan in 1976: one real, other artificial--anyone who knows her . . . (another fake)

My other long-time engagement w. Chang I'll only mention; not relevant to this exhib. & symposium. While in Japan in the 1950s I became aware that he was making forgeries of old paintings; encountered these in major museums; began trying to identify them, understand how to detect them. This pursuit continued over the years. Finally gave paper on this at Fu Shen's symposium in 1991; caused some commotion, since I included ptgs that other people didn't want to see as Chang's works. Last ptg treated in my paper, ascribed to 10th cent. master Tung Yüan, bought later by (or for) Met; this controversy very hot right now. In early Dec. symposium at Met I will present my case for its being by Chang, both to give him the credit he deserves for producing this impressive work, and to remove it from our histories of early Chinese landscape painting, where it has no place.

S,S. Two self-portraits from 1958, when Chang turned 60, and 1968, when he turned 70. (Anyone who has himself entered his 70s will find it hard to comment on the difference between these two w/o turning autobiographical, as I don't intend to do.) In long insc. on later one, he talks of having reached old age and adds, "Nowadays everything seems so confused and muddled." Having passed this formidable turning point several years ago, I know all too well how he felt. Pebble Beach must have seemed an ideal place to escape from a confused and muddled world.

Now, I've taken too long w. introduction, must get on to proper topic: his paintings, espec. LS ptgs, done during his period in California (loosely defined as beginning in the late 1960s, when he began to spend more and more time here.)

S,S. By the late 1940s, Chang had mastered traditional landscape styles in China to the point where he could produce creditable imitations of most any of them, in addition to doing original works drawing on these styles. These two paintings are from 1948 & 1949, when he was also making his forgeries of early landscape, a production that probably continues at least into the early 50s. It was a kind of crisis: he must have felt, as many of the most creative Chinese artists of the centuries before him had, that everything had been done, no space was left for him. Shitao (etc.) Kao Ch'i-p'ei, worried that he would never make a name for himself, began to paint with his fingers, and was an instant success. And the Yangchou masters of the 18th cent. dev. distinctive styles based in some part on rule-breaking technical innovations.

S,S. Chang's move into a new manner can be illustrated with three paintings from 1965. I'm presenting only the barest outline here, and not implying that he didn't explore the looser, splashier style earlier--he did. But the mid-60s appear to have been his major period for making the move. On the left, "The Road Through Switzerland and Austria," one of the ptgs inspired by his travels in Europe. The composition echoes his monumental landscapes from the late 1940s, and has the same spaciousness, grandeur, and readability. But the traditional way of rendering surfaces with washes and texture strokes is replaced, in some areas of the picture, with ink washes that are applied wet and allowed to puddle and run. In the landscape at right, painted in August of that year, more of the space is given to wet wash, less to fine drawing.

A main theme of my talk, from this point on, will be to suggest some of the multiple factors that underlie Chang's new style, factors that can be introduced in attempting to account for it and understand it. Here I will follow the admonitions of Michael Baxandall about relating works of art with surrounding circumstance: (etc. Cluster of circumstance.) The first, a simple one, is that splashed-ink pictures take less time, and allow a more copious production. Chang writes on the picture that he did it in New York; he was by this time very famous, and called on to do paintings for people wherever he went. Adopting this style facilitated the more copious production that had become, for him, a necessity. Here he follows a trend that had begun much earlier--I have written about the shift among later Chinese artists to the so-called "hsieh-i" styles, sketchier, less time-consuming, and some of the economic changes that underlie this shift.

S --. Another factor must be Chang's observation of the scenery of nature, in all his travels around famous mountains, which under certain weather conditions can really look this way. This is one of Joan Cohen's photographs of Huangshan, made in the 1970s. Cohen, of course, was familiar with Chinese paintings like Chang's, and the idea of creating a similar image with her camera may have been somewhere in the back of her mind. Not by any means the innocent eye.

S --. But nature can't account for Chang's more extreme ventures into the splashed-ink and splashed-color mode, which leave naturalism behind to approach, and sometimes move all the way into, abstraction, the disappearance of readable imagery. This is "Autumn Light in Dawning Gorges," done in November of 1965. (Please don't misunderstand me to be arguing that his change in style took place during just these few months; I'm using these paintings to illustrate a large view of what happened, not offering a chronology.) Here he has added a minimal scattering of distant mts, texture strokes, trees etc. to make the ink and color splashes read as elements in a painting of a dark ravine with autumn trees. A third factor, invoked sometimes by Chang in his inscriptions and writings, is the practice of certain unorthodox painters active in the 8th to 10th centuries in China, the i-p'in or "untrammeled style" artists in Shimada's famous study, who would wow their audiences by splashing the ink and sometimes color onto the painting surface freely (or at least seeming to--they must have kept more control than they let people see) and then making a picture out of the semi-random configurations with finer brush drawing. None of their works survive, nor was this mode of painting followed much in the later centuries; but that didn't stop Chang from re-creating the splashed-ink painting of the T'ang dynasty, and claiming it as a precedent. Like his friend C. C. Wang, he insists always that he is adhering to Chinese tradition even when he making radical moves.

S,S. Two landscapes from 1966 (in badly-made, over-exposed slides), "Boating on Jade Lake," in which a tree and boatman in lower left make us read the rest as a river with a wooded shore; and "Spring Mist," in which the only clues to pictorializing the scene are two houses in middle right, presumably on the shore of a lake. Another factor, our fourth: Chang, having left China and unable to return, and leading an expensive life with lots of travel, needed to appeal in his paintings to a new clientele, made up in considerable part of western buyers who were less attached to the Chinese tradition, and who found his works in the conservative, traditional styles less desirable. Among other things, this was a style meant to appeal to them. Chang felt the need, that is, to adapt his painting more to the foreign taste. And, let us remember--this is our fifth factor--that in the 1960s Abstract Expressionism, while its most creative period was over, still had enough popularity to appeal to some artists and their audiences. Chang was certainly not the only expatriate Chinese painter of this time to realize how elements of the Chinese tradition could be adapted to this development in American painting, to produce what could be seen as an exciting synthesis of east and west; it was a perception that numbers of them appear to have arrived at, usually in facile and unproductive ways, and it continues long after. Before concluding with Chang's work, I want to show a few of the other major expatriate Chinese painters, to give a quick art-historical context for Chang's stylistic shift.

S,S. What the overseas Chinese painters of this period have in common, so that we can discern in their works a definable art-historical episode, a kind of period style, is that they splash or soak or imprint the ink and color onto the paper, using some innovative techniques, and then add with a brush the minimal defining details that allow us to read these semi-random configurations as landscapes. The interaction between these artists was so rapid and fruitful that they themselves couldn't agree, then or now, on who did what first. I am inclined to give precedence for some important technical innovations to Ch'en Ch'i-k'uan, who already as a young architect at MIT in the late 1950s was experimenting with resist techniques, ways of soaking ink and color from the back of the paper, or through another piece laid over it, and so forth. I remember very well how excited I was by his exhibition at the Mi-chou Gallery in New York in 1960, in which he showed paintings inspired by his recent trip to Venice, catching the rich mottling of colorfully weathered walls seen through hazy atmosphere.

S --. This is one of them, from 1960, and represents the cathedral of San Marco, with pigeons flying up from the piazza below. If you can't make it out, it's only because I have to hurry on to keep within my time. (No brushwork here, but other ptgs by him have lots of it.)

S,S. Wang Chi-ch'ien in the 1960s, like Chang Ta-ch'ien, was replacing the more traditional brush rendering of landscape forms with ink splashes, in works from 1961 (left) and 1966 (right).

S,S. By the late 1960s (these two works dated 1970), he, too, was doing whole compositions using random techniques for applying the ink--impressing it on with crumpled paper, and so forth (he is here, you can ask him how he did it--he won't tell you) and then adding a few buildings, trees, a waterfall, to give the viewer visual clues around which to organize a landscape image.

-- S. Wang, too, began to use bright color in some of his later works. His style has always been more controlled, more disciplined, than Chang's, and he has resisted the kind of over-production that Chang often slipped into. But, very different as they are as painters, the general direction of their ptg in this period is closely related, . (1988 symposium exchange.)

S,S. The younger painters of the Fifth Moon group in Taiwan, notably Liu Kuo-sung, also played their roles in this large development. Here is Liu in 1962 (left) and 1965 (right). Liu and the others did not finish their landscapes by drawing in fine detail, but they managed in their own way to make them readable as grand visions with cliffs and lakes and waterfalls.

S,S. By the later 70s and into the early 1980s, another sea-change had swept over the overseas Chinese painters, and they were collectively moving away from abstraction and into more recognizable landscape imagery. (Liu Kuo-sung in 1977, 1983.) Some years ago I gave a lecture at Mills College tracing these large, pervasive changes over the decades, and can only assure you here that the pattern holds up surprisingly well for quite a few artists.

S,S. Back to Chang Ta-ch'ien: In these two paintings from 1967 he claims to be recording local color, the scenery of particular places: "Snowy Mountains in Switzerland" at left, "Summer Mountains of California" at right. It would be interesting to see how far one could pursue this direction into identifying another factor, and find in the paintings of this period real derivations from the character of local scenery. I won't attempt that here, but only suggest the possibility of it.

S,S. Works of 1967, left, and 1968, right. Now we had best confront another factor that is most often introduced to account for Chang's move into the splashed-ink and splashed-color style, the deterioration in his eyesight. Already in an an inscription on a painting of 1955, written on it six years later after he had discovered it in his luggage, he writes, "My eyes have not been well for three years." In another inscription he writes that "From age 60 [1958] I suddenly suffered failing eyesight." It was diabetic retinopathy, ruptured capillaries in the retina. Chang was clever and self-confident enough to claim sometimes himself that his new style was an accomodation to this problem in vision, in the belief that people would discount his statement as self-deprecation and see the change as a matter of stylistic choice, independent of physiological condition. In other words, I suspect that he would say it in the expectation that people wouldn't believe it because he himself said it--that would be just like him.

S,S. But of course his worsening vision did affect his painting, making it very difficult for him to do fine brushwork, or to see the whole composition at once. Photo of him ca. 1975, painting (lotus) with an eyepatch; a Landscape with Waterfall from 1970. By balancing and integrating the parts of the picture that could be produced through semi-controlled ink and color splashing with those that had to be done with a brush, and in different degrees maximizing the former and minimizing the latter, he kept up a copious output. At times he had to bring his eyes to within a few inches of the paper to do the fine drawing. But there is no evidence, and I have heard no suggestion, that he ever had assistants or family members do parts or all of the paintings for him, as other artists have in their late years.

S,S. Two works in the exhibition, "Cloudy Waterfall and Summer Mountain" from 1970, left, and "Snow in the Spring Mountain," 1973, right. Both done during his period in California; one could argue for either one that California scenery partly inspired it (coastal scenery); both good examples of the very satisfying combinations of splashed color and brushwork that are typical of this period. I would like, perhaps as a native Californian who grew up on the rocky coast (Fort Bragg), to see both Chang's move into the new style and his move to California as aspects of the same desire for escape, or release, a retreat from his intense engagement with the great tradition of Chinese painting on the one hand, and on the other from that tight-knit Chinese community of the cities that re-forms itself wherever enough Chinese come together, and the horde of Chinese friends and acquaintances, all giving banquets and wanting paintings, who used up so much of his time and energy. We should think, after all, of the great influx of other people who came to California in the 1960s in search of one or another kind of liberation, escape from pressures and demands and constraints they felt were weighing too heavily on them in other places. Chang of course continued to travel a lot, and was far from being a real recluse; other Chinese expatriates lived on the Peninsula and further down the coast. But he could have his stretches of quiet productivity, to design and build his garden, to paint his pictures.

S,S. Majestic Waterfall, 1981; Peach Blossom Spring, 1983. After his move to Taipei in 1976, while he continues to do the ink and color splashing sometimes, Zhang goes back to using more brush drawing in most of his paintings, making them, for better or worse, more simply and completely readable. Again, we can adduce several factors, all of them true, none of them the whole truth, in accounting for this late-life change. First, as noted before, the overseas Chinese painters as a group were moving in that direction. Second, Zhang's eyesight had improved somewhat. But also, as Fu Shen notes, he was doing more work for Chinese clients who were less likely to be satisfied with works in the color-splash style--they wanted more of the hand of Zhang Daqian for their money or their friendship. Along with an endless round of banquets and honors and personal appearances, the burden of producing so many pictures, from simple to complex, small to large, wore him down terribly. "Taiwan is really too hot," he wrote to a friend in Carmel, "and those who are seeking my paintings are too numerous; it is a burden to accept the obligations." And his insc. on the "Peach Blossom Spring" picture tells of how, even in what he had intended as a retreat built outside Taipei, he was pursued by visitors, and people building their houses near his to be his neighbors. It would not be too fanciful, I think, to read the "Peach Blossom Spring" picture, a work from the year of his death, as an expression of his deep feelings about this dilemma: a substantial outside world, done in conventional brushwork, from which one needed to escape, vs. the haven of the Peach Blossom Spring rendered by a great splash of ink and color that draws the fisherman, and the viewer, into its liberating depths.

S,S. (My final pair of slides.) It was a kind of defiance of old age and failing health, and a desire to complete a major painting while he still could, that led Chang in 1980 to accept a commission to do a huge work (about 33 feet long, nearly six feet tall) for the lobby of a new hotel in Yokohama partly owned by his longtime friend Li Hai-t'ien. He chose as his subject Mt. Lu, where he himself had never been, but which he knew intimately from numerous old paintings and poems. He worked on the painting for more than a year and a half, sporadically as his health permitted, without ever quite finishing it. It was terribly taxing--Fu Shen gives a detailed account in his catalog of the physical demands it put upon him--and it wouldn't be an exaggeration or over-dramatizing to say that this painting was the death of him. On the one hand, it's a magnificent ending to a brilliant and extraordinarily productive career; on the other, it might be seen as representing Chang's final capitulation to the system of obligations and rewards that Chinese society imposes on its members. The California years, in this context, could be imagined as a period of escape into a kind of ideal refuge, like the paradise of the Peach Blossom Spring, from which the fisherman had to emerge finally and suffer mortality like everyone else. If Chang had stayed in Pebble Beach, would he still be with us, celebrating his hundredth birthday? Idle speculation; everyone makes his choices and accepts the consequences, without knowing beforehand what they will be. And we can celebrate Chang's paintings from his California years, as the exhibition presents them, without hoping or claiming to do more than imagine, with the help of the paintings, what those years meant to Chang himself. Thank you.

Colophon on Chang Dai-chien

I first met Chang Dai-chien in Kyoto in 1955, when I was a Fulbright student there and he was working with the publisher Benrido on the four-volume picture catalog of his collection. Our common language (my spoken Chinese being poor, like his English) was Japanese, which he knew from several long stays in Japan, beginning when he was a teen-ager. I recall sitting with him in his ryokan or inn, the Tawaraya (Kyoto's most elegant), talking about paintings, he with a brush and paper in front of him: I would ask his opinion on some work, and while replying he would sketch its composition or a detail from it. This was my introduction to his amazing visual mastery of the surviving corpus of Chinese paintings in collections all over the world.

In the later 50s and early 1960s, while I was a curator at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., he came there several times to look at paintings, and I came to respect both his eye for old styles (I learned a great deal from going with him through the old Freer collection, discovering and re-attributing fine but neglected pieces in it) and his own versatility and brilliance as an artist. In 1963 I had the honor of contributing an Introduction, which pleased him, to the catalog of an exhibition of his paintings at the Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York.

After I moved to Berkeley in 1965, and he to Carmel in 196?, we would meet sometimes at places where our common engagement with Chinese painting drew us, such as a symposium organized in his honor at the College of the Pacific in Stockton on "The Future of Chinese Literati Painting." I remember him at the opening of an exhibition of recent works by his friend and fellow-artist Wang Chi-ch'ien in San Francisco in October, 1968: a big, crowded gallery at the De Young Museum, with Wang as the center of attention--until, that is, the dramatic arrival of Chang, with his extraordinary charisma (an effect I associated with his outthrust, mysteriously energized beard.) I watched the sudden shift of focus within the room, feeling, as a decidedly non-charismatic person myself, some sympathy for Wang, who was Chang's equal (although very different) as a painter but completely outclassed as a commanding presence.

From the mid-70s it was my further honor to teach his daughter Sing (properly Chang Hsing-sheng) in our graduate program at the University of California. When I gave a seminar on Wen Cheng-ming, the great Ming master who had as one of his specialties the portrayal of old pines and cypress trees, I took the group, with Sing as a member, to Point Lobos to commune with the venerable specimens growing there. Through her introduction we were able to stay overnight at Chang's house at nearby Pebble Beach, and see his studio and the garden he had built there. His move away from California, and his death in Taiwan in 1983, left me feeling the loss of one of the most colorful and admirable people I have known, one of the giants of 20th century Chinese painting.

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