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Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 19:25
Modern masterpieces
By Deng Zhangyu
Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 19:25 By Deng Zhangyu

Rare works by Zhang Daqian and other Chinese masters amassed by an art collecting couple in California are going on display ahead of auction. Deng Zhangyu reports.

Zhang Daqian painting at Dolores Lodge, a guesthouse operated by the Chew family in the mid-1960s. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

A collection of paintings and calligraphy featuring works by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), one of the most prodigious Chinese artists of the 20th century, as well as by many other Chinese masters, will go on public display at the Asia Week New York art event, which opens on Thursday. The works have been stored at the China Art Center in Carmel in California for more than 30 years by the Chew family, who enjoyed a close relationship with Zhang from the mid-1960s.

Most of the 76 works of Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the family collection were amassed by couple Thomas and Joan Chew during the 1960s and 1970s, and of these, 11 pieces were gifts from their close friend, Chinese ink master Zhang Daqian.

The China Art Center was a small gallery but it played a significant role in the career of Zhang Daqian

Arnold Chang, expert on Chinese painting

In the mid-1960s, Zhang left Brazil and relocated to California. Before he finally settled down to live in Monterey county, he made frequent visits to Carmel, a place known for its rich artistic history and where Zhang formed his long friendship with the Chews after spending weeks on end at Dolores Lodge, a guesthouse operated by the couple.

Joan Chew, or Wu Zhongying, was the youngest daughter of general Wu Luzhen, who followed China's founding father Sun Yat-sen in his push to establish a Chinese republic. Born into a prominent family, Wu was surrounded by Chinese art from a young age. After marrying Thomas Chew, the couple ran a business importing and exporting Chinese art and antiques, before setting up the China Art Center in Carmel to house their collections.

Their entire collection of art has largely remained under wraps at the China Art Center and has seldom been seen by anyone other than a handful of family friends over the decades.

Water and Sky Gazing After Rain, a large-format splashed color painting by Zhang Daqian. The work, a typical one representing Zhang's style and his technique of splashing paint and ink, was acquired by the Chew couple immediately after Zhang completed it in 1968. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"The China Art Center was a small gallery but it played a significant role in the career of Zhang Daqian as he transitioned into life in California, where he lived in the 1960s and 1970s, which were among his most creative and productive years," says Arnold Chang, an expert on Chinese painting and a friend of Zhang. He once visited the China Art Center to see Zhang's works in the 1990s.

The highlight of the gifts the couple received from Zhang is Water and Sky Gazing After Rain in Splashed Color, a work typical of Zhang's style and his technique of splashing paint and ink. He developed his iconic style after an eye disease prevented him from painting in finer detail.

The work, a large-format splashed color painting, was acquired by the Chew couple immediately after Zhang completed it in 1968.

Fang Xian, head of Sotheby's Classical Chinese paintings sales in New York, says it is rare to find a splashed color work by Zhang of these dimensions, which is about 2 meters long. Many of Zhang's works of this type were much smaller and normally painted on cardboard.

A Myna Under Banana Leaf by Qi Baishi, painter Yun Shouping is among the exhibits on show. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The entire collection is due to be auctioned at Sotheby's on March 22. The proceeds from the auction will go to two trusts that Frances Chew, the Chew couple's only daughter, set up before her death in 2017, to help those in need in Carmel, according to Anne Wilson, a close friend of the daughter. Frances Chew once studied Chinese painting under Zhang.

Apart from this large-format work, other works from Zhang include folding fans painted with landscapes and poems, and a painting depicting peaches on which Zhang inscribed good wishes for the Chew couple's 60th birthdays, featuring landscapes and figures. There is even a unique work that saw Zhang attempt to paint on fiberglass for the first time.

According to a catalog for an exhibition of Zhang's work held at the Fine Arts Center at San Francisco State University in 1999, Zhang produced a work painted onto fiberglass, attracted by the surface of the material's resemblance to rice paper. However, the artist soon gave up on the idea of using the medium after hurting his fingers, since he largely painted using his fingers. This was the only work he produced using fiberglass.

Landscapes After Song and Yuan Masters by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Besides Zhang's work, the collection includes some ancient ink paintings collected by Zhang and sold to the Chews. The couple's own artistic vision for their collection is also evident, as seen in their acquisition of works by Chinese masters such as ancient painter Dong Qichang, calligrapher Wen Zhenming, as well as modern masters such as Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong. Zhang even inscribed some of the couple's ancient paintings.

Before the exhibition in New York, the collection toured San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it attracted many art lovers, says Fang.

"Zhang has big influence in these areas of the US because many local galleries have held his solo shows. He also had a close relationship with many American artists and photographers, which brought him wide recognition," says Fang.

Contact the writer at dengzhangyu@chinadaily.com.cn

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