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Fine Chinese Paintings / ZHANG DAQIAN (CHANG DAI-CHIEN 1899-1983) Water-Moon Guanyin
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張大千 臨敦煌水月觀音 設色勾金紙本 立軸
As the pre-eminent Chinese painter of the 20th century, Zhang Daqian had a long and prolific career that was often defined by his journeys. After becoming well-established in elite artistic circles in Shanghai during his early career, the artist returned to his native Sichuan in 1937, due to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945). In 1941, he arrived at Dunhuang in Northwestern China, accompanied by his son, nephew, and an entourage of assistants to document, study and reproduce the recently rediscovered murals at the Mogao Caves, as well as those at the Yulin Caves, 170km to the east. His time in Dunhuang stood in stark contrast to the urban environment of Shanghai, and the nearly three years the artist spent at the Buddhist caves would significantly impact his approach to figure painting in the decades that followed.
Although briefly ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty (his name "Daqian" is an explicit reference to the Buddhist worldview of "a thousand, thousand Universes", i.e. the Great Chiliocosm), Zhang Daqian painted Buddhist subjects infrequently prior to 1941, and his technical approach for figure painting favored the methods of Tang Yin (1470-1523), Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) and Gai Qi (1774-1829) from the Ming and Qing dynasty. After his residency studying the murals at Dunhuang, Zhang Daqian's paintings were infused with the deepest roots of the Chinese figural painting traditions, as well as influences from Indian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongolian visual culture. The use and application of vivid, opulent colors, rhythmic lines, and emphasis on the hands and elegantly elongated fingers, were all aspects of Dunhuang mural art that informed the artist's figural paintings throughout his career.
The present lot portrays Avaloskitêśhvara (Guanyin), the Indian Bodhisattva of Compassion, reclining on a rock in the pose of royal ease (maharajalilasana). As indicated in the artist's inscription, the prototype is one of two 'Water-Moon' Guanyin in Cave 2 of the Yulin Grottoes (fig. 1), dating from the Western Xia dynasty (1038-1227). In addition to the present lot, Zhang Daqian painted at least three other versions of the composition, each with slight variations, all together exemplifying his progression toward artistic refinement on a single subject.
The earliest version of the four is in the collection of Sichuan Museum, a hanging scroll painted on cloth (fig. 2). When compared with the other three, this one most closely resembles the original mural at Yulin in terms of its squarish composition, the inclusion of Sudhana and the flat coloration with minimal gradation. A second version also on cloth and dated 1943, was formerly included in the collection of Jung Ying Tsao (fig. 3). In this version, the composition is elongated to emphasize the verticality of the landscape setting. Compared to the earlier work, the color contrasts in the foreground are softened, allowing the middle ground where the deity is portrayed to be the focus. The artist added more tones of green, and an inscription and water grasses in ink. The 1943 rendition demonstrates the artist's innovations, adding personal touches that transcend faithful reproduction of the original mural.
A third Water Moon Guanyin by Zhang Daqian based on the Yulin cave murals, dated 1945 and presently in the collection of Baoguang Temple in Chengdu (fig. 4) is the closest comparable example to the painting offered here. In both versions, the towering rock at the back is colored in a striking azurite. The celestial orb encircling the deity and the lotuses beneath the rocky pedestal are removed to achieve a more simplified and compact composition. While the Baoguang Temple painting employs a more solemn palette highlighting the contrast between dark azurite, malachite and red, the present lot introduces a sweeter and delightful color scheme. The lavish use of gold lines and golden washes evokes the luminous effect of gold leaf applied to the original mural. Whereas the two earliest paintings utilize bright yellow pigments to fill the clouds behind and above the vase, in the present lot, the artist relies on these colors for the lining of the deity's sash and a small piece of fabric on her right knee. The highly saturated colors assembled in the middle band of the painting anchor the viewer's gaze. It is also interesting to note that the lobed metal vase with a willow branch in the original fresco and Zhang Daqian's two earliest reproductions, transforms to porcelain in the two slightly later versions. The vase's white ceramic ground and interspersed red bands visually correspond to the deity's left arm with golden bracelets resting on her left knee.
Avaloskitêśhvara (Guanyin) is one of the most revered deities of the Indian Buddhist pantheon. The iconography of 'Water-Moon' Guanyin, however, was developed in China in the Tang dynasty with the Sinicization of Buddhism. Zhang Yanyuan (815-877) comments in Vol. 9 of Lidai Minghua Ji (A Record of Famous Paintings of All Dynasties) that the mid-Tang painter Zhou Fang (730-800) created a new expression of Bodhisattva portraiture that included a water element and the moon and exuded a sense of graveness and severeness(菩薩端嚴，妙創水月之體). The author records in Vol. 3 of the same book a mural portrait in Shengguang Temple 勝光寺 of a 'Water-Moon' Avalokitêśhvara with a halo and bamboo grove. The line drawing of this mural portrait was executed by Zhou Fang, and the coloring by Liu Zheng. 塔東南院，周昉畫水月觀自在菩薩掩障，菩薩圓光及竹，並是劉整成色. A comment from the Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi (772-846) on Zhou Fang's 'Water-Moon' Avalokitêśhvara portrait provides us with more information about the original design: "Above the pure green water and amid the faint white light, [the deity] Alone I gaze upon the image; all happenings are illusory in nature. 淨綠水上，虛白光中，一睹其像，萬緣皆空（《畫水月菩薩讚》Although none of Zhou Fang's religious portraits survived today, two anonymous 10th-century paintings of 'Water-Moon' Avaloskitêśhvara in the collection of the Musée Guimet (fig. 5; inv. No. MG. 17775) and the British Museum (fig. 6; 1919,0101,0.29) provide us with a hint of Zhou Fang's original design.
The Western Xia mural from Yulin cave number 2 that Zhang Daqian studied and reproduced preserves major pictorial elements from these Tang Dynasty representations, but also includes Song and Western Xia innovations. For instance, the pictorial style of the bamboo and the gigantic porous rock nod to Song dynasty aesthetics. The reclining posture of the deity, gazing up to the moon in the sky rather than its reflection in the water may in fact be contributions of the anonymous Western Xia muralists. Zhang Daqian himself commented: "the works of Western Xia reveal painstaking attempts to blaze a new trail 西夏諸作......頗不屑踏陳跡." Perhaps the groundbreaking approach that was preserved in the Yulin caves inspired Zhang Daqian to recreate and further transform this composition multiple times.