The Art of a Chinese Modernist
Upasaka Chang Dai-chien
The year after Master Tseng's death, I paid respects at his grave at Heng-yang in Hunan province and ascended the towering Chu-yung Peak of the Heng Mountain shortly afterwards. Later I moved from Soochow to Peking where I lived in a pavilion in the Winter Palace overlooking the K'un-ming Lake. It was then that my second elder brother and I made an excursion to the ancient capital Loyang in Honan Province. There we beheld the wonders of the far-famed Lung-men sculptures and spent the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hua-shan, the Sacred Mountain of the West. Next year we made another trip to the same place on the Double Ninth Day in October. The paintings I made during those trips were subsequently exhibited in Peking.
After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 I slipped through the enemy-occupied area and made my way to my native province Szechwan. There I settled down in Ch'ing-ch'eng and on frequent occasions ascended the majestic heights of O-mei Mountain. Wherever my clogs made their imprint, I would record my impressions in my paintings, which were sometimes displayed in the galleries of Cheng-tu and the wartime capital Chengking.
It was during the later years of the war that I made a pilgrimage to Tun-huang via the Chia-yu Pass, the westernmost terminus of the Great Wall, to see the marvelous murals and sculptures in the world-famous, yet almost inaccessible. One Thousand Grottoes of Buddha. There, after an extensive study of the wall paintings, I was convinced that the technique of human figure painting had long since been a lost art in China. So least everything else to the wind and devoted myself to the task of copying the murals. For two years I lived in the grottoes and made more than one hundred and ten copies, the larger ones over ten square feet in size, the smaller ones four or five. In addition to that, on the basis of my research I wrote a book on the grottoes, giving a full account of the dimensions of each cave, the age and period of individual murals, and the origin and development of each and every school to which they belonged.
Gasped in Wonder
Upon my return to Cheng-tu, the Ministry of Education and Governor Chang Ch'un of the wartime Chinese government jointly sponsored an exhibition of my copies of the Tun-huang murals in Cheng-tu and Chungking. The viewers gasped in wonder at the breathtaking greatness and overwhelming magnificence of our national art, which had reached lofty heights more than 1000 years ago.
Shortly after the Japanese surrendered in 1945, I retraced my steps to Peking where I happened to have the good fortune of acquiring the works of two 10th century masters--a large hanging scroll entitled Sunset on the River Embankment and a handscroll Hsiao Hsiang t'u, both by lung Yuan, and The Enchantment of a Sunset Scene, a handscroll by Chu-jan. Day and night I was lost in reverie over those masterpieces, and finally a great change was noticeable in my own painting style. This caused some of my eulogists to flatter me as being a reincarnation of those two old masters!
At the age of 60 I suddenly suffered from the effects of failing eyesight. To make a virtue of necessity, I began to paint in frugal strokes and bold sweeps since my blurred vision was no longer compatible with elaborate brushwork. This obligatory change of style, however, was lauded by the world of art at large as a path-finding experiment in the abstract. Was it really new and original, I wonder? For in point of fact the bold sweep is a traditional Chinese technique known as p'o mo fa, but it had long fallen into disuse. To be adept at it and be able to achieve perfection, one should, in the words of Lao Tzu,
"Take the center of the circle and transcend the phenomenal."
This is indeed a difficult ideal to attain, but if one can get at what the philosopher describes as
"Shadowy and flickery
Yet within it-there's an image,"
Then one shall find the hub.