The Chinese Painter that Surpassed Picasso

10th May 2019

He was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso and, in 2011, surpassed him to become the most expensive artist in the world, and yet few in the Western world are familiar with the work of China’s most prolific 20th century artist.

Zhang Da Qian (1899-1983) was at one time producing some 500 paintings a year and actually met Picasso at an exhibition in France in 1956; one that was extensively marketed as a meeting between East and West. A traditionalist at the start of his career, Zhang Da Qian was once known as an excellent forger of ancient Chinese paintings, deceiving several other learned painters and academics and claiming in later life that a treasure in a famous collection was, in fact, his own work. He was well travelled and, having spent a long time exploring the rivers and mountains of his own country, journeyed extensively across Japan, India, Europe and South America. It was in Brazil that he learnt to combine elements of American abstract expressionism with classical Chinese brush painting to create his unique modernist style; a style that he used to produce sweeping stylized landscapes of treacherous bare rock and dramatic waterfalls, broken by hints of emerging vegetation and delicate prunus blossom.

Now, on the bicentenary of his birth, a scroll painting by Zhang is set to be auctioned by Woolley and Wallis Salerooms in Salisbury. Grand View of Chao Mountain, painted in 1965, features the splashed-ink (or pocai) technique that placed him as one of the 20th century’s most innovative artists, and is similar to a sizeable painting of Manchurian Mountains that sold at auction in Hong Kong in the last month for over £13m.

While specialists at Woolley and Wallis are not expecting their scroll painting to reach such dizzying heights, they are confident that its modest starting price of £100,000 will encourage competitive bidding among their established wealth of clients, and it could break the UK record for sales of Da Qian's work. Head of Chinese Paintings, Freya Yuan-Richards, believes the painting will easily top the lots offered as part of the firm’s Asian Art sales on 21st and 22nd May. “Despite his prolific output, Zhang Da Qian’s paintings are highly sought after by collectors, and those that feature his splashed-ink technique are particularly desirable. Several exhibitions have been organised in the East to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth, and this is all adding to his status as one of the top artists from the last century.”

Consigned from an English private collection in Berkshire, the painting could become another key lot for the department that in November 2018 achieved £1.75m for Yang Fei Yun’s The Northern Girl, a more Westernised contemporary Chinese portrait of the artist’s wife from 1987 that was sold on behalf of the Roddick Foundation. “That painting, and others from the same collection, showed that Woolley and Wallis don’t only sell traditional Asian Art,” said deputy chairman and Head of Asian Art, John Axford. “Freya’s specialism in Chinese paintings has enabled us to expand on our areas of expertise and provide our clients with a much wider knowledge base. This painting is particularly exciting and I’m sure will draw a lot of attention from collectors across the world.”

Grand View of Chao Mountain (lot 16) measures 191cm x 101cm and is being sold in Salisbury on Tuesday 21st May.

For further coverage, please click here.

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