IF imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Chang Dai-chien admired the ancient Chinese master painters on the highest level. In his more than 60-year career, Chang created nearly 30,000 works of art, and considered among his best were his outright forgeries of great Chinese masters.
Examples of Chang's work, including a number of his copies and forgeries of master works are now on display at the Asia Society in New York. It is the first major retrospective of his work since his death in 1983.
But it seems that the gallery's emphasis on Chang as a forger has not pleased some viewers.
"We've had a number of complaints from members of the Chinese and Chinese-American communities about playing up the forgery aspect of Chang's work," a spokeswoman for the Asia Society says. "It's been quite unusual. I don't remember the last time a show created this much controversy."
As one of the last "literati" painters, Chang was concerned with the studies of poetry and calligraphy, as well as painting. And he indulged in the time-honored tradition of copying the works of old Chinese masters as a way of improving his own work.
But Chang took this practice farther than any other artist of his caliber.
Not only was he able to copy the styles of old masters with incredible skill, he was able to create whole new compositions in a certain master's style, sign the work with that master's seal and signature, and then watch as art collectors of the day snapped them up as originals.
It all started as a ploy for attention, according to Shen C.Y. Fu, senior curator of Chinese art for the Arthur Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, who arranged this show. As a talented young artist in China, Chang was frustrated by the Chinese tradition that favors age and experience over youth. He wasn't getting the attention he thought he deserved in his 20s, so he created a forgery: He did a hanging scroll in the style of the 17th-century artist Shitao and called it "Through Ancient Eyes. "
It wasn't long before the piece caught the eye of one particularly arrogant art collector, who proclaimed it one of the finest works by Shitao he'd ever seen and promptly laid down his money. Chang didn't tell him the truth right away, but when he revealed the true nature of the painting, the collector, considerably deflated, didn't stay angry for long.
"These forgeries are a byproduct of his studies of the early master," Mr. Fu says. "On one hand, they show how very diligent he was: copy, copy, copy. At the same time, they were very playful. He wanted to make some fun."
Although such traditions of Chinese art are not lost on the Chinese viewing the show, Fu says he understands some of the umbrage taken at the exhibit. "To many Chinese, Chang Dai-chien is a great master, like a national treasure," he says. "To reveal him as a forger seems degenerate."
Chang was never a common con man, says Fu. On the contrary, he did what he did because he had the sheer bravado to do it. "Even a professional forger can only specialize in one or two masters," Fu says. "Chang Dai-chien could do thousands, anything from contemporary to 7th- and 8th-century artists. No other forger has that kind of scope. When collectors bought them, then he, and everyone else, knew how good he was."
Indeed, many of Chang's forgeries are now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. Nor should it be any surprise that copies of Chang's work by his students and other admirers have been around since the 1930s.
Chang was a competitive and ambitious artist. "He was in competition with himself, and in competition with the early masters," says Fu. Perhaps the show's title, "Challenging the Past," refers to Chang's continuing challenge for acceptance.
Chang Dai-Chien is considered one of China's last scholar-artists. He was a lively and sophisticated character, given to wearing the long beard and flowing robes of an 11th-century scholar, and yet he insisted on traveling by jet.
After fleeing mainland China in 1949 to avoid Communist rule, he kept lavish homes in Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, and California. In the West he became the first artist to blend ancient styles of Chinese painting, such as the 8th-century technique known as pomo, or splashed ink, with Western abstract expressionism. He is regarded as the artist who pushed Chinese art into the modern era. The exhibit continues at the Asia Society until July 19.