Fabulous faker

By GREG COOK  |  December 31, 2007

At the center of the five-foot-tall scene, a massive mountain rises from a misty valley. People trod a path through an evergreen forest in the foreground toward a house. Above the mountain, hills and rivers meander toward the horizon. Zhang excelled at Chinese painting’s traditional expressive improvisational-feeling brushwork, which he deploys here to evoke the thrill of standing at the foot of an awesome peak.

In 1958, the MFA bought Wugoucheng Bodhisattva, purported to be a 6th-century ink painting, directly from Zhang. It is a lopsided scene, with a large, serious fellow sitting in a pavilion at the right, two little women standing at left, and a figure flying down out of the sky. Rumors began circulating in the 1960s that Zhang was involved in funny business, so though the painting looks old — big tears, murky patina — MFA staff now believe it was actually made by Zhang, based on the composition of one of his favorite Dunhuang cave murals.

The exhibit offers a handful of Zhang originals and some works that came from his collection, including a mountain and river landscape believed to date to 1499, and landscapes that may or may not be authentic and so may or may not date to the start of the 18th century.

INSIDEZHANG_Drinking-and-si
DRINKING AND SINGING AT THE FOOT OF
A PRECIPITOUS MOUNTAIN: Authorship
aside, it’s a great piece.
Which brings us back to Drinking and singing. Chinese painting from “the 10th century is quite rare, and there are so few signposts to go from in that era,” Scheier-Dolberg says. “So it’s a real curatorial thorn bush. But this is the right scale, the right idea, certainly the right content, a landscape theme.”

But, he adds, the scene is mostly blocked out in shapes of color, rather than line, which seems wrong for the 10th century. The museum’s lab found that all the painting’s materials would have been available in the 10th century—except for a white that wasn’t developed and in use until the 1920s. Museum staff believe Zhang took the title from a catalogue of the imperial collection from 1120s, carefully selecting a work that—based on his expert knowledge of the field—seemed no longer to exist. And they think he had it mounted in a Japanese style to suggest it had left China for a Japanese collection, which could explain why the grand work was absent from Chinese histories. He was a crafty rascal.

Convincing forgeries raise itchy questions about the foundations of our own taste (as well as the expertise of our experts). Without the benefit of a famous-name artist or the seniority of old age, Drinking and singing makes us decide whether we like it based on its looks alone. It looks spectacular.

Over at Harvard’s Sackler Museum, the exhibition “A Tradition Redefined” offers an overview of Zhang’s Chinese contemporaries. Contemporary Chinese art—particularly conceptual sculpture, photography, and performance—is the bee’s knees in the West these days. But the artists collected in the Sackler exhibit were all wrestling with the question of where traditional Chinese ink painting should go in the second half of the 20th century—and, for those who stuck around China, what the authorities would tolerate.

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