PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
Wu Guanzhong was born in Jiangsu Province, in 1919. His friendship with Chu Teh-Chun has brought about Wu's decision to study painting at the Hangzhou Academy of Arts. In 1947, Wu travelled to Paris to further his studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Upon his return in 1950, Wu has taken expansive trips around China, in search for a certain artistic expression to ‘nationalize oil painting’ and ‘modernize Chinese painting’; undoubtedly, Wu is considered a leading master in the 20th century Chinese art scene. As the Cultural Revolution eased in 1972, the artist re-emerged from the days when he was barred from painting; continued to be inspired by the rural land, his brushstrokes became increasingly dexterous and minimalistic. Subsequently, Wu has integrated the formalist method and aesthetic, to create a cultured landscape that is the vision of his pastoral ideal.
Wu had demonstrated, with By the Side of the Li River (1) (Lot 15) painted in 1977, his mature proficiency through an explicit pictorial language; the picture is composed of mountains and waters, with occasional folk houses weaving between, which fuses the natural scenery to portray a humanistic worldview. The scenic focal point draws to the great summit; fetching cliffs and peaks turn toward the hills, and soon they are descending to a winding horizon. The textural buildup of pigments, defines the contours of the awe-inspiring mountain rocks. In the foreground, rolling cliffs come straight down to the edge of tranquil waters, as the Li River is wading out the lush forest to fade easily into the mist. Such mutating visual sensation has implicated elapsed time. In the distance, we can see feathery strokes of muted greens, giving off high luster and translucency. As a whole, the unrivalled scenery of Guilin is commenced through Wu Guanzhong’s distinct compositions, untrammelled lines, and vivid colours rich with sentiment.
The bold arrangement of Wu Guanzhong’s paintings, is ensued from his acute observation and deep understanding of nature; his landscapes have displayed of the consideration on formalism and the social grounding of art, in recognizing his revolutionary paths to ‘nationalize oil painting’ and ‘modernize Chinese painting’. Wu has retained the temperament of Chinese literati traditions, for the artist would depict what he sees on his excursions; his subjects are often generated from multiple viewpoints, to combine and abstract an overall impression of the landscape. In a style reminiscent of the Impressionist painters, Wu has emphasized the spontaneous act of painting on the spot, in order to capture ‘the fleeting nature of light and colour’; yet to Wu, the Impressionist’s approach to seeing was not sophisticated enough. Such as The Petite Creuse River (Fig. 1), Monet has rendered the rising shoreline with curving boulders, smoothed by the motion of waters coursing through the picture plane; intensely coloured strokes skip across the canvas with flickering light. However, the painting adhered itself to a linear perspective, has betrayed the specific appearance of a given landscape. Supposing a solution to this matter, Wu has made an analogy between ‘painting and steelmaking’, as he would suggest the simultaneous process of extracting raw material and alloying for efficiency. In the essay “On Landscape Painting” published in 1962, Wu had expressed his notions on scenic paintings:
‘My work originates in painting from life, and I observe by travelling the landscape, I compose my images as I move along; to capture the very spirit of the land, I would examine the scene from every angle…. the immediacy of painting on spot injects deeper sentiment into the work; in the studio it is difficult to recreate such deftly colours, luminous in a way that is to convey as if you're seeing them in real life. To paint outdoor one must pay attention to the transitory effects of atmosphere and movement, in discovering natural forms and structures too complex to be invented, we are to work at the same time on the mastery of light and point of view.’
By the Side of the Li River (1) presents of an aerial view; the tiny settlement of a village diminishes in the sublimity of its surrounding, where a succession of lofty cliffs erect against the trees being brought to the fore; without a hint of contrivance, Wu’s application of multiple perspectives manifested a forceful sense of vitality. His art is elevated from a genuine appreciation of nature, as well as a dynamic method of layering arrangement; a prototype of this unique composition can be found in Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (fig. 2) by Fan Kuan. Wu has also grasped the techniques of patching colours to represent object surfaces, along with the textural buildup of pigments to redefine the abstract form in an Eastern aesthetics (Fig. 3). To Wu Guanzhong’s advice, an artist should ‘stand in an equivalent relationship to his present reality’. Although Wu’s academic background is rooted in the great age of Chinese landscape, he would realize the lack of innovation as the decline of Qing literati painting (Fig. 4); both coming forth the genre evolution, Wu Guanzhong and Li Keran (Fig. 5) have taken on different approaches to their artistic expressions. Wu’s vision is one that blends the Expressionist techniques and perspectives with Chinese poetic Lyricism, in this way, Wu Guanzhong has painted By the Side of the Li River (1) in a new structure of art uniquely his own.
To compare with an artist working in the same genre, Caspar David Friedrich has infused the bewildered landscape with his emotional and spiritual assumptions; the artist has conveyed dramatic intensity, in the expressive manner of Romanticism and the waning classical ideal; the mood was melancholic and paramount, as his paintings were often seen as nationalist statements of German mysticism (Fig. 6). In contrast to the Chinese painting, the Western landscapes of the 19th century, namely that of Romanticism, Naturalism and Impressionism, refer to experiments through the alternation of darkness and light. Paul Cézanne has abandoned the precise shaping of objects for the contrasts between colours and tones, to construct a sense of volume and the harmonious relationship of spatial depth (Fig. 7). This approach recalls to the Eastern painting, which makes use of the special aura of ink creating in scenes of mountains and waters; what is presented in Wu’s art, as the result of seeking greater depth in the modeling of his subjects and his formalist approach, would have passed beyond the reckoning of the modernist masters reduced to the extreme geometric forms. By the Side of the Li River (1) alludes to the mysteries of Chinese landscape art, transcending the tradition of western oil techniques, to articulate the artist’s novel formulation in painting.
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
By the Side of the Li River (I)
signed and dated in Chinese (lower right)
WU GUANZHONG (CHINA, 1919-2010)
People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Wu Guan Zhong – Connisseur’s Choice I, China, 2003 (illustrated, plate 37, p. 99)
Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. III, Changsha, China, 2007 (illustrated, p. 105).
Sin Hua Gallery, Singapore
Private Collection, Asia (acquired from the above by the present owner)