Art & the Artist

A Collector’s Guide to Fine Chinese Paintings

Christie’s Asian Art specialist Elizabeth Hammer offers expert advice on collecting fine Chinese paintings, whether traditional or contemporary

This month, Asian Art Week kicks off at Christies New York. Among the highlights is the Fine Chinese Paintings sale on March 16, offering more than 70 works from the 15th through 20th centuries. To mark the event, Elizabeth Hammer, Christie’s Senior Specialist and Head of Sale in New York, provides expert guidance for those looking to start a collection of their own.

One of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated civilizations, China’s is a rich and multifaceted culture. Of all the art forms borne out of this diverse cultural landscape, the Chinese consider painting and calligraphy to be the finest. And according to Christie’s specialist Elizabeth Hammer, it is because these works “incorporate so many levels of beauty and interest.”

This complex category must first be understood. Hammer explains: “Within the realm of traditional paintings and calligraphy, classical works refer to those created during China’s dynastic period, in other words before the Qing dynasty fell in 1911. Modern works are those made during the 20th century, and Chinese Contemporary Ink refers to the experimental ink movement that began around the 1980s.”

Modern and Contemporary Ink derive from classical themes, techniques, materials, and aesthetics but reflect concerns and tastes of the recent period, as well as an interest in moving the tradition forward. While classical paintings are revered for their antiquity and refinement, many more buyers today collect modern and contemporary Chinese paintings. “Not only do these newer works reflect the artistic sensibilities of our own age,” Hammer notes, “but the connoisseurship needed to evaluate them is more straightforward.”  

In China, painting and calligraphy were considered the finest art forms, as they incorporate so many levels of beauty and interest.

Chinese classical paintings are broadly divided into two traditions, that of the scholar-officials and that of professional artists. Hammer explains that “while there has always been much overlap between the two, they can help to define personal preferences.” The paintings of the literati or scholar-officials, such as the Wu School artists Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), and Tang Yin (1470-1523), were, she says, “motivated by a desire for self-expression and communication with like-minded individuals. These paintings emphasize expressive brushwork, are often complemented with an inscription (known as the “Three Perfections” of painting, calligraphy, and poetry), and are made by amateurs.” 

“Because of the influential position they held in Chinese society, collectors historically prized the art of the scholar-officials much more highly than the work of professionals, a preference that continues today,” she adds. Professional artists are typically associated with more visually decorative paintings, technically skillful brushwork (called “gongbi”), and emphasize the interests of the buyer rather than expressing the artist’s personality.

While classical paintings are revered for their antiquity and refinement, many more buyers today collect modern and contemporary Chinese paintings.

“The themes painted in China are landscapes, figures, and bird and flower paintings.  Each can be on silk or paper and in color or ink monochrome,” however, Hammer also asserts that “literati painters tended to favor paper, which is highly and quickly responsive to brushstrokes and ink.  Seeking more visually sumptuous effects, professional artists were often inclined to employ colors and use silk.”

The modern and contemporary market is much larger than for classical. “By far and away the most popular Chinese modern painter is Zhang Daqian,” says Hammer. “A prolific artist, dozens of his paintings and calligraphy appear on the market each season, and they consistently meet with keen demand.” Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) was a highly versatile artist who painted meticulous “gongbi” figures and bird-and-flower paintings, as well as landscapes in the literati tradition. She adds, “He was also an innovator and developed a highly expressive splashed-ink style of painting. One of his paintings, Temple at the Mountain Peak, sold for HK$61, 140,000 (US$7,908,227) at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2010.

“The problem of forgeries is often seen as the biggest hindrance in this field,” warns Hammer, because “on the one hand, it has long been customary to learn to paint by copying the work of earlier masters, while on the other, forgers have long been quick to copy the styles of popular artists.” What compounds the issue of forgeries further is that there is no scientific test that can verify the age or authenticity of a work, which invariably leads specialists to disagree with each other’s assessments. She reassuringly adds that there are ways to avoid forgery entirely: “In the modern and contemporary period, of course, it is possible to obtain a work from an artist directly and thus sidestep this dilemma.”

The advantages of collecting Chinese paintings and calligraphy are indeed manifold. According to Hammer, such works incorporate many layers of enjoyment: “One can enjoy a work’s visual beauty, imagine oneself wandering through the landscape, analyze the meaning of any symbolic images, respond to the expressive brushwork, consider the kind of person the artist was, investigate the historical context in which the work was made, read any inscriptions that enhance the work, and investigate its relationship with earlier art works. Each person can enjoy as many layers as available to them at a given time.  And with time and learning, of the Chinese language or historical background, for example, one can delve deeper and deeper into a Chinese painting.”

Elizabeth Hammer is Christie’s Senior Specialist and Head of Sale of Fine Chinese Paintings in New York.