For almost 20 years, a gentleman with oriental features, a long beard and a cane within reach, has been circulating around Mogi das Cruzes, in the interior of São Paulo. In the Chinese garden he built as a refuge, he painted paintings exhibited at the São Paulo Museum of Art, the Rio Fine Arts Museum and the 6th International Biennial of the Arts. His works, which are auctioned all over the world, are already worth US $ 1 billion, surpassing traditional names in the West, such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Despite an impressive program, the greatest master of contemporary Chinese painting, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), remains unknown and almost erased from Brazilian history.
But that is about to change. Passionate about the life and work of one who considers “the ‘Chinese Picasso’, a genius who inspired Chinese philosophy, painting and calligraphy throughout the twentieth century”, the filmmaker and professor at the University of He State of San Francisco Zhang Weimin is preparing a documentary that will reconstruct the painter’s footsteps in Brazil and the rest of the world. In an interview with Folha, Weimin says he always heard about him while still living in China, but it was an old film that sparked the desire to produce the documentary.
“All Chinese know Zhang Daqian and know that he left China in 1949 to disagree with Communist values, dying in Taiwan decades later. But in 2011, I found footage from his time in California. I was shocked at the discovery. I never imagined he lived in the West, ”she says.
The few seconds left on film sparked an investigation for years. This is when the filmmaker discovers not only the painter’s wanderings, but the nearly 20 years he has lived on a farm located in Mogi das Cruzes.
History of comings and goings
For those born under the Chinese Empire, Zhang Daqian had a curiously international life. Born in a small village in western Sichuan province, the painter was born into a family of artists. As a young man, he went to study fabric dyeing techniques in Japan and, back to China, he became an excellent plagiarist of classical paintings of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Quickly recognized by the technique that made blue and green shine on his canvases – a skill of ancient artists hitherto lost in history – he acquired notoriety and fame among the elitist circles of Shanghai and Beijing. .
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), he refused the invaders’ attempts to co-opt and isolated himself on a mountain, from where he produced paintings to provide for his family and help finance his Chinese compatriots. . At the end of the conflict and with the rise of the Communists in 1949, Zhang preferred to leave China and go into exile abroad. He passed through Hong Kong, India and lived in Mendoza, Argentina for two years.
Without getting a permanent visa to stay in the country, he overheard a friend talking about Mogi, an area that has traditionally received a lot of Japanese immigration. He ended up laying foundations in 1954 in the district of Taiaçupeba, where he invested to build a large Chinese garden and lived until 1973.
Born in the same Mogi, doctoral student in social sciences at Unicamp and associate researcher at the Zhang Daqian research center Guilherme Gorgulho heard the story of the Chinese painter in 1999. Since then, he has devoted himself to reconstructing the artist’s footsteps in Brazil and worked as a consultant in the documentary Zhang Weimin.
“In thematic terms, having lived in Brazil influenced dozens if not hundreds of paintings he made. The landscape of Mogi das Cruzes and other places he visited in the south and southeast of Brazil are present in several works, ”says Gorgulho, who in 2018 helped locate a painting painted by Zhang, lost in the archives of the Pernambuco Contemporary Art Museum and valued at nearly US $ 800,000.
Researcher Guilherme Gorgulho poses next to photos of Zhang Daqian in Brazil (Personal archive)
While living in Brazil, Gorgulho reveals, Zhang circulated museums and galleries, toured the country and even appeared on a TV show. Despite this, the painter never learned to speak Portuguese and therefore did not give many interviews. In Folha’s collection, there are few mentions of him, all relating to the works exhibited in the city’s galleries in 1971 and 1973.
With the land where he lived for so many years flooded by the dam of the Jundiaí river, the few recordings of the Chinese master’s passage in São Paulo have been limited to private collections, lost canvases and until today not. identified by museums and in memory of a few. inhabitants of the city of São Paulo who met him.
“When [o líder chinês] Xi Jinping came to Brazil and spoke in the Senate in 2014, he mentioned Zhang’s visit to Brazil. It is a link with our country that China is trying to strengthen. Even so, he remains so anonymous that there are those who lose very valuable arts presented by him because he does not know that the scrolls are not left can be exhibited, ”reveals the professor.
Filming in Brazil
It was Gorgulho to connect director Zhang Weimin in Brazil. While researching the painter in 2013, he eventually found the filmmaker’s website, who was still searching for information about Daqian’s life outside of China. Since then, the two have toured three times: 2015, 2018 and 2019.
“These visits to Brazil were very interesting because they allowed me to see a face of Zhang Daqian that neither I nor anyone in China knew: that of a sociable artist, who even with language barriers made friends. locals and even entered a city competition. representing Mogi das Cruzes. I found that very curious, ”laughs the director, who had to stop working because of travel restrictions due to the pandemic.
Gorgulho underlines the importance of the work and hopes that the painter will be better known in Brazil. “During our research, I discovered that he had even obtained an honorary doctorate at the UFRJ and that even his family did not know about it. There is still a lot to know about Zhang’s years here ”.
Tentatively titled “Chang Dai-dog 1949,” the documentary will still require possible searches only when international borders are opened, Weimin explains. The director is looking for images and people who knew the artist during his stay in the country and does not intend to give up on the project. “Few people have influenced so many areas of Chinese arts as Zhang. If I could describe him to someone, I would say exactly that he was an indescribable artist ”.
Check out an unpublished excerpt from the documentary on Zhang Daqian:
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