Abode of Illusion: The Life and Art of Chang Dai-chien

China has nurtured the world's oldest continuous painting tradition. Many of the artistic concepts that the West has developed only in the past hundred years were already in the mainstream of China's art world for centuries. Few westerners, however, can name a single Chinese painter or painting. ABODE OF ILLUSION is a film which explores the life and art of painter Chang Dai-chien, an artist who symbolizes a bridge between China's past and present, as well as between East and West. Chang was the first Chinese artist who achieved international recognition both through his original paintings and through his skills at emulating, and forging, past masters. His vision and courage to embrace the past and to re-legitimize art traditions which had fallen out of favor made him a landmark figure in Chinese painting.
Chang Dai-chien was born in 1899 to a merchant family of modest means in the town of Neijiang, Sichuan province. The name Dai-chien was not given to him by his family, but by a Buddhist abbot during his brief attempt at Buddhist monkhood as a young adult. "Dai-chien" comes from the notion of the boundless world of the Buddhist spirit, described in scriptures as "three thousand times infinity."

The first impetus behind Chang's artistic development came from his mother, a locally-known painter and embroidery designer. Later in his youth, Chang settled in the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, where he studied under two famous calligraphers who were also known for their poetry and paintings. This experience provided Chang with an important base in the traditions and sensibilities of Chinese art.

Following the traditional belief that a learned person must "travel ten thousand miles and read ten thousand books," Chang travelled extensively throughout China, following in the footsteps of artists of past ages. By the 1930's and 40's, he had established himself as a preeminent figure in the art circles of Beijing and Shanghai.

In 1948, due to political upheavals, Chang left the Chinese mainland, never to return. After living three decades in Brazil and the United States, Chang settled in Taiwan in 1978. There, he built an elaborate estate and garden for himself which he dubbed "The Abode of Illusion," derived, like his name, from Buddhist scripture. Chang died in 1983 at the age of eighty-four.

Chang Dai-chien embarked on his artistic career at a time when artists in China were experiencing a crisis generated both from within the Chinese tradition itself and from the challenge of the West. Many artists responded by adopting, wholesale, Western techniques and sensibilities. Chang Dai-chien, however, insisted on drawing inspiration for his paintings from within the Chinese tradition, searching the entire past of Chinese art in order to find his own voice.

The aspect of Chang Dai-chien's artistic career which generates the most controversy is his role as a forger of old master paintings. Chang's forgeries in themselves represent an impressive collection of art, spanning a thousand years of Chinese tradition. ABODE OF ILLUSION provides different perspectives on the issues of quality versus authenticity, and on how the market influences our evaluations of art. For example, a rather unconventional perspective is offered by art dealer Hugh Moss, who sees the forger in Chang Dai-chien as a medium capable of contacting the past and a spiritual reincarnation of the great masters of old. Moss points out that the marketplace tends to guide our questions about art, but, in the end, is only one aspect of the art. Moss suggests that if we can divorce ourselves from the marketplace and deal simply with the spiritual quality of the art, then many of Chang Dai-chien's paintings are going to turn out to be the masterpieces of the future, whether they bear an old master's name, or Chang's own.

ABODE OF ILLUSION presents Chang Dai-chien's life and art principally from a Chinese perspective - through the reminiscences of people who bore witness to his art as well as his character. Some of them are important historical figures in their own right. Chang Hsueh-liang (Zhang Xueliang), son of the northern warlord Zhang Zuolin, became known as "the Young Marshall" after he took command of his father's army in Manchuria. Zhang kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in December 1936 (the Xian incident) to force Chiang into joining an united front against the Japanese. During the 1930's, Chang Hsueh-liang was a prominent collector of Chinese art. Among his most valued old master works were forgeries by his good friend Chang Dai-chien. Another friend, Long Chin-san (who was 100 years old when he was interviewed for the film), is considered the father of Chinese photography. Independent of western photographic practices, Long developed a style of composite photography inspired by Chinese landscape painting, and shared many of Chang Dai-chien's artistic sensibilities.

Others in the film were people whose lives were radically influenced by Chang Dai-chien's art. As a young student, Duan Wenjie was so moved by an exhibition of Chang's copies of the Dunhuang murals that he spent the rest of his life researching and studying the art in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang, where he now heads a major research institute. Qiu Xiaoqiu saw Chang's paintings as a child and was so impressed that Chang became a lifelong obsession - so much so that Qiu later wrote a play in homage to Chang's career and memory. Arnold Chang (now a Vice President at Sotheby's) was nine years old when he first saw Chang Dai-chien's paintings in a New York exhibition. This had a profound impact on his sense of identity as a Chinese American and triggered a lifetime pursuit of Chinese art.

As with their past work, the filmmakers of ABODE OF ILLUSION approach filmmaking as a process of discovery rather than that of simply finding illustrations for a pre-written script. As they collect materials and interview subjects for the film, a structure is revealed. In ABODE OF ILLUSION, several locations provide the main structural fabric through which the story of Chang Dai-chien's life and some issues of art history are interwoven. For example, shots of the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan) provide the context to discuss Chinese ideas about nature and art; cosmopolitan Hong Kong serves as a backdrop to explore some aspects of the art marketplace and Chang's stature within that arena.

The filmmaking process also influences the weight given to particular episodes of Chang's life in the film. As they traced Chang's travels, the filmmakers gained further appreciation for his dedication to the pursuit of artistic inspiration. An overland trip along the ancient silk road to Dunhuang, for example, still presents difficulties despite modern transportation. Chang not only went there in 1941, but also stayed for over two years under harsh conditions. Seeing the brilliant paintings of Dunhuang at the end of such a journey further underscored for the filmmakers the importance of the role Chang played in reintroducing styles which had fallen into disfavor and in opening up new options and possibilities for Chinese art.

ABODE OF ILLUSION does not intend to be a definitive statement on Chang Dai-chien as an artist, but rather raises questions and challenges assumptions about how we understand art, such as the relationship between originality and tradition and between abstraction and representation. Chang's life and work provide a vehicle by which we can examine these issues from a fresh perspective.
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