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Chang Dai-chien: Painting From Heart to Hand

Asian Art Museum. San Francisco
Nov. 26, 2019 – Apr. 26, 2020

all text & images © and The Asian Art Museum except as where otherwise noted


Chang and his assistants copy wall paintings
at Yulin Caves, May 1943.
As the most accomplished Chinese painter of the twentieth century, Chang Dai-chien (Zhang Daqian, 1899–1983) enjoyed tremendous success and popularity throughout his legendary career in China and beyond. This brilliant painter was exceptionally prolific, and his versatility in subject matter and style was unmatched. With his unrivaled talent, Chang used ancient masterpieces and natural spectacles as sources of inspiration for his impressive works that bridged past and present. He vigorously expanded the field of traditional Chinese painting and became a leader in the modernization of ink art.

Chang Dai-chien: Painting from Heart to Hand, featuring works from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and loans from the artist’s descendants and friends, commemorates both the 120th anniversary of Chang Dai-chien’s birth and nearly 50 years since the museum’s first retrospective of his work. This exhibition showcases the remarkable artistic achievements of the painter as exemplified by works from his various artistic periods— from fine line painting imitating the styles of ancient Dunhuang murals to creative ink portrayals of nature, to spontaneous splashed-color landscapes inspired by the wonders of the world. Chang’s versatile styles not only manifest his artistic genius and keen observation, but also demonstrate his significant contribution in refashioning the rich traditions of Chinese art for an international audience. Chang attained the virtuosity of painting “from heart to hand” (得心應手) late in life. In 1971, he selected this particular phrase to carve into a seal. The phrase probably conveyed a twofold message. First, it is Chang’s proud claim that he had developed a stylistic versatility in depicting the infinite variations of the natural world. He acquired this ability by imitating the calligraphy and paintings of old masters, which led to a grand synthesis of historical styles in his art. He also enriched his personal experience with his extensive travel and enhanced his artistic vocabulary in order to capture the beauty of the world. Second, the phrase communicates Chang’s belief that an artist should follow his heart to convey “spirit resonance,” a historical principle in judging the beauty of Chinese painting. Before applying his brush on paper, Chang had conceived the forms he wanted to depict and the inspiration to convey, aware of the most effective vocabulary of expression to spark awe and wonder.

Chang in a cypress grove in Carmel, 1967, photographed by his friend Paul Hau.

This exhibition and its catalog provide an introduction to Chang’s legendary art and underscore the significance of his artistic evolution in California. Because Chang expatriated from China in his midlife, not enough scholarly attention had been paid to his diasporic experience and his groundbreaking role in revising ink painting. To fill this gap, this exhibition uses the Asian Art Museum’s Chang Dai-chien paintings, an important but lesser-known collection that resulted mainly from Chang’s 1972 retrospective in San Francisco, to discuss how Chang’s time in California contributed to his exploration of modern impressionism and led to a transcendence in his art.

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