Modern masterpieces

Updated 2018-03-21 12:00:02

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Myna Under Banana Leaf by Qi Baishi, and Landscapes After Song and Yuan Masters by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) painter Yun Shouping are among the exhibits on show.

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.

"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.

Zhang Daqian painting at Dolores Lodge, a guesthouse operated by the Chew family in the mid-1960s.

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.

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