Challenging the Past

In his long life, Chang Dai-chien (1899-1983) mastered all of the forms and genres of traditional Chinese painting. A calligrapher and poet as well, he was also a connoisseur and collector of Chinese art on a vast scale. And one more thing: He was a consummate forger, so expert and so prodigal that the full extent of his forgeries may never be established.

Chang’s life was almost as rich and complex as his work. Both are admirably treated in this volume, which was published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Shen C.Y. Fu, senior curator of Chinese art at the Sackler and Freer galleries, opens with a monograph-length essay surveying Chang’s tumultuous and extraordinarily productive career (he is estimated to have painted some thirty thousand works in his lifetime). A chronology of Chang’s life follows this introductory essay.

The heart of the book consists of a catalogue of eighty-seven works by Chang, each of which is accompanied by Fu’s analysis. (In all, the volume includes 240 illustrations, 125 in color.) Appendices, a bibliography, and an index complete the volume.

Chang’s ability to move at ease among a dazzling array of styles is readily apparent. Some of the most striking paintings reproduced here are late works which Chang created using a “splashed-ink-and-color” technique that revealed affinities with contemporary Western art (e.g., “action painting”) and at the same time constituted an homage to Tang dynasty artists who had employed a similar technique, though in a less radical form. In their bold appropriation of diverse traditions, these paintings exemplify Chang’s genius.