THE EPOCHAL SIGNIFICANCE IN
 ZHANG DAQIAN'S COPIES OF
DUNHUANG FRESCOES

Researcher, V ice Curator of Sichuan Provincial Museum
WEI  XUEFENG

 

        Mr. Zhang Daqian is one of the great masters in modern Chinese art history. Throughout his life, he had been dedicated to the sorting, exploring, innovating and developing of traditional art of Chinese painting. Identified himself as a cultural envoy, Zhang Daqian had traveled widely and left his footsteps in North and South America and many European countries, disseminating and carrying forward with all his efforts the Chinese culture and art. Due to his great contribution to art, he had won worldwide acclaim. In 1957, the International Fine Arts Association in New York elected Mr. Zhang Daqian as “The Best Contemporary Painter in the World”. A versatile talent, Mr. Zhang Daqian was unparalleled in his poetry, calligraphy, painting, seal cutting and artistic appreciation. As Mr. Xu Beihong put it, Mr. Zhang Daqian was the “first most talented artist in recent five hundred years.”


Bamboo seals made by Macau Artists, Li Ruizu, Xu Yunzhai, Lin Jin and offered to Zhang Daqia.

        Mr. Zhang Daqian had been probing the profound theory of Chinese painting. He had comprehensively inherited the essence of rich ancient Chinese culture, meanwhile, he had also absorbed the strong points of modern world art, and, by doing so, he had developed a brand new realm in his painting, calligraphy and artistic conception. Making a survey of Mr. Zhang Daqian’s lifetime artistic creative styles, we can roughly divide the development of his artistic styles into three periods. The first period, from early 1920s to late 1930s, Mr. Zhang Daqian had been a pupil of two famous calligraphers and painters, Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing, which was before he went to Dunhuang. In this period, he imitated the elegant styles of the “Four Buddhist Monks” (Shi Tao, Zhu Da, Shi Xi, Jian Jiang) in Qing dynasty, Qing Teng and Bai Yang, and concurrently the styles of “four masters of Wu School (Sheng Zhou, Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin and Qiu Ying)”. Later, he also adopted the delicate and graceful styles of Fanyuan School in his landscape painting, using blue and green colors in large scale. Mr. Zhang Daqian learned from “the four masters (Huang Gongwang, Ni Zan, Wu Zhen and Wang Meng)” in Yuan dynasty, as well as from Li Tang, Ma Yuan, Dong Yuan, Fan Kuan, Ju Ran, Guo Xi, and others. The general painting style of Mr. Zhang Daqian can be described as a humanistic quality of lofty beauty and elegance.

        The second period, from early 1940s to late 1950s, in this period of time, Mr. Zhang Daqian went to Dunhuang. After this period, he initiated his own splashed-ink painting style. In nearly three years of reclusive artistic cultivation in Dunhuang, he had been deeply enlightened by the great art works of ancient painters. Thereby, delicacy, elegance and vigor marked his painting style in this period.


Bamboo seals made by Macau Artists, Li Ruizu, Xu Yunzhai, Lin Jin and offered to Zhang Daqia.

        The third period, from early 1960s to 1980s, this was a period in which his splashed-ink style passed exploration period and entered its maturity. He completely broke off the traditional painting techniques that used lines as the molding language and lines and strokes as the essence in composing a painting. Combining the traditional methods of landscape painting, that is, framework concealing, splashed-ink and thick coloration, emphasizing both the subjective enthusiasm and natural presentation, he successfully reached a balance between the real and the romantic, perception and reason, concrete and abstract, painting and passion. The influence of western painting did not make him abandon the Chinese tradition, and he digested the strong points of western painting and developed them. Consequently, he created a brand new style of Chinese painting marked by Chinese spirit and national characteristics. Some people have regarded these three periods as the three “edifications and baths” by traditional art. He endeavored to seek for momentum from his predecessors and from nature, so as to correct the mistaken painting tendency of his time and make known the great art tradition of Chinese painting. The paintings of Mr. Zhang Daqian are elegant and natural, profound and sublime, as some people put it, as though the painting masters of Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties have made a unison, then there comes Daqian, a giant of modern art. This article is to discuss the most important turning point in Mr. Zhang Daqian’s art career: his journey to Dunhuang and its cultural value.

        As is known to all, from 1941 to 1943, in a period of two years and seven months, Mr. Zhang Daqian led over ten people, including his disciples and several Tibetan monks, into Dunhuang after a long journey, this brave deed composed a majestic stanza in modern art history. At that time, he was already a famous painter in China, so what caused him to abandon the intellectually leisure life of the city without hesitation and seek for his dream in Dunhuang? As Mr. Zhang Daqian explained, “As for the reason for my journey to Dunhuang, it’s because I heard Mr. Zeng and Li talked about the Buddhist sutras and sculptures of Tang dynasty, but then I didn’t know there were frescoes. When I returned to Sichuan Province after the Anti-Japanese War, my friend Ma Wenyan, who was an official in the Supervision Bureau, told me about his journey to Dunhuang. He used every good word to describe its greatness. I like travel all my life, and I knew it’s historical site, naturally I had the intention of going there, so I decided to make a journey to Dunhuang.” (Xie Jiaxiao: Briography of Zhang Daqian, p.135). Besides, Mr. Ye Gongchao also suggested Daqian indirectly that he should take a trip to Dunhuang when he had chance. Mr. Zhang Daqian recalled this in the Preface of Collections of Mr. Ye Xieyan’s Calligraphical Works and Paintings, “…Thus Mr. Ye said to me, ‘figure painting has its root in Wu Daoxuan (Wu Daozi), and passed its prime time in Li Gonglin. The paintings of Qiu Shifu (Qiu Ying) were too charming and tender; Chen Laolian’s were too eccentric, in three hundred years of Qing dynasty, there had been no great painters of figure painting.’ So Mr. Ye spared no efforts in persuading me to quit the painting of landscape, flowers and bamboos to concentrate on figure painting in order to revitalize it. Soon I went westward to the sandy land, stayed in Yulin and Mogao Grottoes for nearly three years, copying nearly three hundred pieces of frescoes of the Northern Wei, Sui, Tang and Song dynasties, this could happen all because of the suggestion of Mr. Ye.” Mr. Zhang Daqian met Mr. Zeng and Li around 1920. From these two teachers, he was first inspired by Dunhuang Art. Then it was the beginning stage of his art career, so journey to Dunhuang was a necessity for him to follow the teachers’ instruction on the one hand, and on the other hand, it was also the need for change of his own painting style. The famous scholar Lin Sijin wrote in Preface of Collections of Da Feng House’s Copies of Dunhuang Frescoes, “My friend Zhang Daqian, is an ambitious artist dedicated to the art of painting and calligraphy and has won worldwide fame. He is always busy and does not have many words. He had seen many paintings of Song and Yuan dynasties and Fayuan School. Yet, he was not satisfied, so he decided to go to Dunhuang to search the pearl of art. He prepared everything and crossed Jiayu Pass and Guasha Area…During this period, he told me, ‘China is the birthplace of the six methods of figure painting, I want to prove this by investigating in Dunhuang the ancient painting styles. In those times, many surrounding countries all took the Middle Plains as their model, many clothing, calligraphic works are well known to Europe, that’s why I spare no efforts to make the investigation.” By saying so, Daqian made clear his motive and purpose of journey to Dunhuang: to probe the origin of the six methods of figure painting and fulfill his dream of witnessing the authentic works of Six Dynasties, Sui and Tang dynasties. From the beginning of the 1920s to his journey to Dunhuang, in the two decades, he had grown from a student of art to a master of traditionalistic art. He realized that by following the painting styles of Ming and Qing dynasties, no matter how skillful he would make himself to be, he could not distinguish himself from traditionalistic painters of his time. How to harmonize the styles of landscape painting and delicate design and coloration of professional painters, this was the basic reason that urged him to make the journey.

        The west end of the Gansu Corridor is Dunhuang, which was the door for the Middle Plains to the Western Regions. Since the 2nd year of Jianyuan of Qianqin Kingdom (336 A.D.) to the Yuan dynasty, Buddhist believers devoutly made over one thousand grottoes on the cliffs of the Mingsha Mountains. Up to now, there are 492 grottoes that still have frescoes and sculptures. There are altogether 45,000 square meters of frescoes and over 2,400 colored sculptures. These grottoes are not only the treasure house of collective art of ancient Chinese, these were also sacred land for them to express their religious devotion. The elegant and sublime modeling, vivid and beautiful coloration of Dunhuang Art is the cream of nearly one thousand years of eastern and western painting and sculpture. It has surpassed all other Buddhist arts of any other time in any other areas. The content of Dunhuang Art stemmed from religion, yet it is near to life, and full of rhythm and vigor of life everywhere, it is a shining pearl left of human civilization history.

        Before his journey to Dunhuang, Mr. Zhang Daqian didn’t know there were such a great number of frescoes. The only knowledge he had was that there were a lot of Buddhist sutras and colored sculptures, and the fact that many of them had already been stolen, the things left in the grottoes were colored sculptures of hundreds or thousand years ago. He wished to become a painter who could transform those cubic colored sculptures into planar paintings on painting scrolls with his paintbrush. This deed would be a great achievement in the research of the development history of Chinese painting. Therefore, at the very outset, he planned to finish this task within several months. Quite unexpectedly, the task actually took him nearly three years. In 1941, Mr. Zhang Daqian led a group of people to Dunhuang, among them, were Yang Wanjun, his wife, Xin Zhi, his second son, teachers from Chongqing Central University and Sun Zhongwei, a brilliant disciple of Mr. Xu Beihong. As soon as they arrived at Dunhuang, Daqian was immediately charmed by the frescoes on the walls and the delicate and beautiful colored sculptures. Upon this, he decided to cancel his own initial plan to draw the colored sculptures by leaving it to Sun Zhongwei alone. While he himself began to copy the frescoes in those grottoes. For the task to proceed smoothly, Mr. Zhang Daqian first numbered the grottoes. Before this, a Frenchman named Paul Pelliot numbered the Mogao Grottoes according to the order of the photos taken of the frescoes, and the total number was 171. This numbering was disorderly and unsystematic in nature. Another numbering of the Mogao Grottoes was conducted in 1930s by Gansu Governmental Office. The total number was 353. Because the second numbering was rarely used, most markings peeled off and there were also many mistakes in them. Mr. Zhang Daqian was the third person and the first individual Chinese to number the Mogao Grottoes with personal power. Daqian’s numbering followed the direction of the canal flowing down from the Qilian Mountains, that is to say, from south to north, from left to right, and then turned back up along the grottoes, the route was somewhat like a double-lined English letter “E”, the numbering took five months of arduous work. As a result, altogether 309 grottoes were numbered.

        Since everything was ready, in 1942, Mr. Zhang Daqian invited Tibetan lama painters Ang Ji, San Zhi, Xiao Wu Ge Lang, Lo Shang Wa Zi, Du Jie Ling Qie to go to Dunhuang with him. In the same year, his nephew Zhang Bide, his disciples Xiao Jianchu and Liu Lishang, and his bosom friend Xie Ziliu came to help. One of the five lama painters’ tasks was to prepare painting cloths. First, they jointed the painting cloth so perfectly that they looked like one; second, the cloth was to be stretched tightly between a wooden frame and daubed three times with rubber dust and ground seven times with big stone. Equally important was the concoct of colors. The Buddhist frescoes have their own traditions in the employment of colors, which was unknown to most painters of traditional Chinese painting. When copying the frescoes, Daqian instructed his disciples, his son and nephew and lama painters to divide the work among them. They had overcome many difficulties, such as the dim light and limited space inside the grottoes. The colors of the original frescoes faded due to long time, some colors peeled off and some lines were indistinct. First, they would climb up the ladders and squatted down, then drew outlines of the frescoes on glassines pressed closely on the wall. After this, they would adhere the glassines on the painting cloth. In the daylight, they would draw the outlines on the cloth with charcoal by the sunlight, then they used Chinese black ink to draw the outlines. The last step was filling colors. All those major parts containing Buddhist figures were drawn and colored by Daqian himself, the rest pavilions, buildings, cabinets and other background decorations were done collectively by others. In that period of time, Daqian often held a stick of candle in one hand, and a paintbrush in another, standing or squatting on the ladders, sometime even lying on the ground. He would spend scores of times studying the frescoes before he started drawing. Each piece of painting would go through a series of complicated procedures. The large pieces would usually take over two months each to finish, while the smaller ones would also take over ten days to finish. Every early morning the working group entered the grottoes, and exited in the evening with dirty faces and messy hairs. Day after day, they plunged themselves in the “furnace of art”.

        As regard to the copying principles, Mr. Zhang Daqian stressed that the drawing should be very precise and no personal thing should stand in the way. In grasping the form of the fresco, he acquired a deeper understanding of its spiritual connotation. Considering the changes of styles of times, Mr. Zhang Daqian thought, ‘the paintings of Northern Wei dynasty were excellent in drawing landscapes such as wild mountains and forests; in Sui dynasty, styles of paintings of that period followed that of the Sui dynasty and were added with simplicity and tranquility; in Tang dynasty, the paintings were both pretty, vivid and heavily colored; in the Five Dynasties and beginning of Song dynasty, paintings were of lower artistic quality, there had been few outstanding painters then; the paintings in the Xi Xia Dynasty had some fresh elements, but they were unnatural therefore also of lower artistic value.” (Zhang Daqian: Preface for the Collection of Copies of Dunhuang Frescoes)

        As to artistic spirit, Mr. Zhang Daqian deemed, the immense scale of the Dunhuang Frescoes was the presentation of the great creative power of ancient Chinese people. In terms of artistic value, Dunhuang frescoes were more valuable than the Yungang Stone Carvings in Shanxi Province and Longmen Statues in Henan Province. According to Mr. Zhang Daqian, Dunhuang was not only the treasure house of Chinese art, it was also the treasure house of world art. The number, timespan, painting styles and painters of Dunhuang frescoes were unparalleled. He made an account of the influence of Dunhuang frescoes on Chinese painting in the following ten aspects: First, Buddha images and human figures; second, the emphasis on lines; third, the restoration of the ancient method of drawing outlines and coloration; fourth, the change from delicate miniature style to grand style; fifth, the change from simple style to precise style; sixth, accurate knowledge of the painting method of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; women in the paintings are portrayed vigorous and graceful; seventh, the shift from painting of historical theme to realistic painting; ninth, the surrealistic Buddha images were used to cater the taste of common Chinese people; tenth, Western paintings could not longer belittle the Chinese painting circle due to the existence of Dunhuang frescoes. (Zhang Daqian: On Dunhunag Frescoes). Mr. Zhang Daqian’s understanding of Dunhuang Art had been carried out in his artistic practice. There are distinctive differences between his works before and after his journey to Dunhuang. The lines, coloration and layout before and after the journey are all different. From the frescoes, he saw the precision of the thinking of ancient painters and perfection of their spiritual world. Their attitude toward artistic reality, their great efforts and patient pursuit of precision stimulated him to put an end to casual, carefree painting style and to develop new painting style by inheriting the great artistic spirit of ancient art.

        Mr. Zhang Daqian spent a total of two years and seven months in Dunhuang. During this period, he had copied 276 pieces of small or large frescoes (presently 183 pieces are kept in Sichuan Provincial Museum, 62 pieces are kept in Taiwan National Palace Museum, including copies of frescoes in Mogao and Yulin Grottoes). Ordinary people could not imagine the hardships he had experienced in this period. Just as the writer Mr. Gao Yang said, “Zhang Daqian was an ascetic in researching the Dunhuang Art. Spiritually speaking, he had something in common with Buddhist monk Xuan Zang. There he gave full display of his courage, persistence and his devotion to art. The over two years of life in Dunhuang itself was a great achievement.” (Gao Yang: Life and Death: Meiqiu and Abode of Maya-Painter, p.187).

        The understanding and evaluation of the artistic value of Zhang Daqian’s reproductions of Dunhuang frescoes has always been controversial in the painting circles. As early as in 1941, Daqian stayed at Mogao Grottoes for a short time, he sent to his friend in Chengdu over twenty pieces of his copies of single figures of Mogao Grottoes, entrusted his friend to hold an “Painting Exhibition of Zhang Daqian’s Journey to the West,” this aroused a lot of praise and disparage. Some people even thought that Dunhuang frescoes were merely vulgar artisan works of religious superstition, a painter who indulged himself in such paintings was going crazy. However, Mr. Zhang Daqian didn’t step back because of these comments. Instead, he was made more determined to make great achievement in Dunhuang. According to his view, the painters in Tang and Song Dynasties invariably engaged in painting of frescoes, many of the Dunhuang frescoes were not the works of plain artisans, but of famous painters, “their works were masterpieces of figure paintings and the yardsticks of ancient painting styles.” (Zhang Daqian: Preface of Exhibition of Copies of Dunhuang Frescoes, 1944). In 1943, Exhibition of Zhang Daqian’s Copies of Dunhung Frescoes was held in Lanzhou. People began to realize the potential artistic value of these frescoes. The Northwest Daily announced in the notice that ‘Mr. Zhang Daqian has spent several years in Dunhuang, studying the frescoes there and tracing the painting traditions of thousand years. His effort has made the once unknown Dunhuang Grottoes known to the world. And the authentic paintings of the Six Dynasties, Sui and Tang dynasties were vividly brought back from oblivion. In 1944, Exhibition of Zhang Daqian’s Copies of Dunhuang Frescoes was held in Chengdu. The great Dunhuang Art was highly praised by all social circles. In the same year, the exhibition was held in Chongqing, again caused a sensation. At once, throughout China, a “Dunhuang Cult ” had taken shape. People’s awareness of cherishing and protecting the excellent historical heritages was wakened. But some still held that “copying was the last thing in the world a painter should do, for a painter’s mission was to create.” In spite of the praises and blames, most people in the academic and fine arts circles had good comments on Mr. Zhang Daqian’s persistent inquiry into the nature of art. The famous painter Ye Qianyu remarked that ‘His is a historical pioneering work in the study of ancient art, this is also the decisive factor that propelled him to climb the summit of figure painting.” (Ye Qianyu: Preface of Collections of Zhang Daqian’s Copies of Dunhuang Frescoes). Seeing from the angle of modern art phylogeny, we should say, had it not been for this hard journey to Dunhuang, there would have been no Zhang Daqian the great master of painting.

        Half a century has passed, as we recollect Mr. Zhang Daqian’s arduous journey to the wilderness and wall-facing years and examine the masterpieces he has left us, it is not difficult to find out their profound epochal significance.

        The first significance lies in the fact that, unlike other painters of his time, Mr. Zhang Daqian made a completely different choice with extraordinary courage. The end of the 19th century witnessed the reevaluation of traditional Chinese culture and the doubt of its future, this phenomenon triggered self-criticism of all aspects of traditional Chinese culture. The call for “reform” and “revolution” in Chinese painting was also vowed. Facing the collision of western and Chinese cultures, painters made their own choices. Mr. Zhang Daqian was famous for his traditional painting skills and versatility. The famous works he had copied were so many that what he had done was a rare phenomenon in modern times. Unlike Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian who received the baptism of western culture in their youth, Zhang Daqian didn’t reform the modeling principles of traditional painting. While Xu Beihong reformed those principles with “scientific methods” of modern western fine arts, and Lin Fengmian expressed the rhythm of Chinese art with form and texture of western painting. Mr. Zhang Daqian firmly believed that traditional painting art was an inexhaustible treasury. Outside the “decent traditional painting”, it was just in Dunhuang where Mr. Zhang Daqian found the breakthrough point to open up new boundary for Chinese painting. He remarked, “In terms of artistic value, we may say that Dunhuang frescoes are the condensation of all the achievements of ancient eastern and Chinese painting art. The Dunhuang frescoes embody the one thousand years of development history of Chinese fine arts from Northern Wei dynasty to Yuan dynasty. In other words, we may say that they are the acme of Buddhist art…. The Dunhuang frescoes of our country were about one thousand years earlier than the European Renaissance. The fact that they are still kept in quite good condition is a miracle of human civilization!” In 1930s, traditional folk art was not paid much attention to, but if we trace the history back before Tang dynasty, we can see that fork tradition was the mainstream of art. After Song dynasty, intellectual tradition began to thrive. Folk art is a treasure land buried with rich forms and formal beauties. It is the major pillar of the makeup of aesthetic judgment. Mr. Zhang Daqian was not Qi Baishi, who grew from a folk artisan to a master of art. With the blood of folk art in his heart, Qi Baishi annotated the paintings of intellectuals according to his understanding. His absorption ability of folk art can be said to be innate. While Zhang Daqian, an intellectual painter who received decent cultural education, was active and purposeful in absorbing the nutrition of folk art. In his judgment, the works by those nobody painters were by no means inferior to those by such great painters as Yan Liben and Wu Daozi. Therefore, he had the courage to devote himself to the study of those paintings in order to develop a new style of his own. The great master of Chinese studies, Mr. Chen Yinge, commented after he saw the Zhang Daqian’s copies of Dunhuang frescoes, “Dunhuang Study is one of the major trends in today’s cultural and academic research. By copying the frescoes of Northern dynasty, Tang dynasty and the Five Dynasties, Mr. Zhang Daqian has opened the window for people to see the national treasure, and his achievement surpassed previous research results. With his brilliant talent, although he has only made copies of the frescoes, the copies are also full of creativity. Actually, based on our national art, he has already developed a new kingdom. His act is without doubt a great event in the field of Dunhuang Study.” Mr. Zhang Daqian is not a scholar of painting history, yet his accurate knowledge and penetrating views of ancient painters and painting theories, his deep insight into the epochal styles of paintings and his comprehension of the spirit of painting far outshine those ordinary historians. His journey to Dunhuang is just the result of his introspection of the development and change of painting styles in several thousand years. Any master of art with sense of responsibility and confidence will inevitably take up the mission to revitalize national art. Only Mr. Zhang Daqian saw more clearly that the fountain of traditional art consisted of three mutually complementary parts: folk art, intellectual art and court art. As an all-round type of artist, Daqian took the tide of his time, we could also say history had chosen this man, Zhang Daqian.

        Secondly, after his ascetic cultivation in Dunhuang, he fulfilled the transcending of himself. In Research of Zhang Daqian by Mr. Ba Dong of Taiwan National Museum of History, the author summed up, that the early painting styles of Zhang Daqian followed that of the Four Monks in the end of Ming dynasty, the painting techniques he adopted were those of Yuan and Ming Dynasties or later. When he took the long journey to Dunhuang, he witnessed the great, delicate, spectacular manifestation and coloration of art. The persistence and devotion of those professional painters of the Dunhuang frescoes, the radiating brilliance and vigor, are all qualities that those unrestrained and proud intellectual painters do not possess. He was greatly shocked and deeply moved, there he was fully enlightened and understood the essence of “the Sublimity of Buddha and Bodhisattvas”. Therefore, he had no further puzzlement in his artistic creation, defying the challenge of the bad living conditions, and he stood the test with his persistence. In his artistic pursuit, without a thread of opportunist thinking, he had sincerely displayed the same quality of determination and devotion as those ancient painters. From then on, he entered the state of ancient times, and realized spiritual elevation. All his efforts made him a master of art of his time who “employs the past to create the present”. We should say the whole process of Mr. Zhang Daqian’s copying of ancient paintings is just a process of discovering beauty. He didn’t only pay attention to paintings of intellectual painters of Ming and Qing dynasties, his artistic antenna was further extended to the art heritage of and before Tang dynasty. He was qualified to be an intellectual painter, and he also had the skills of an academic painter. But what he had chosen was neither the casual and leisurely painting styles of intellectual painters, nor the lifeless and trivial academic painting style. His choice was what he termed the “painter’s painting” which was rich in cultural flavor. His proposition was a challenge against the ideas of those restoration painters and vulgar intellectual painters. Mr. Zhang Daqian once expressed his intention to spend more time doing some research. He said humbly that he had “only touched a little of frescoes”. But his research of Dunhuang and over 300 hundred copies of frescoes undoubtedly have composed the most moving chapter in the art world of this great master. Copying itself was not the real intention of Mr. Zhang Daqian. Actually, through this arduous work, he transformed himself from merely a sustainer of tradition to amalgamator of the painting art. This kind of amalgamation is not that of western and Chinese arts, but the harmonization of inner artistic structures of traditional art. It can also be said that this amalgamation is the re-annotation of a modern artist of the “tradition” in his mind. In Dunhuang Art, Mr. Zhang Daqian had found the long-lost “color life” of Chinese painting. This enlightenment comprised the spiritual kernel of his splashed-ink-and-color painting technique. It can be said that the journey to Dunhuang laid the basis for Mr. Zhang Daqian’s to become a master of art of his time.

 

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