Wu Guanzhong observed, "Stretched across the middle of the painting, the wall dominates the pure white paper with her majestic presence. Black in horizontals and verticals apportion the surface. This is a territory which Mondrian explored, but the thrill of watching two swallows alight on an oriental dwelling was something that he had not experienced." (Quoted from Wu Guanzhong: A Retrospective, p. 64)
Similar to the famous painting of the same theme at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (see illustrated), Spring Calling is a picture that plays on Wu's struggle of the use of black and white, the mastery of his use of lines and empty space, as well as the pureness and cleanliness of his restraint. Wu's painting show this richly minimalistic rendition of a wall that evokes feelings of tranquility, peace and beauty. Black and white feature predominantly in many of his works -Wu saw these two extremes locked in a perpetual wrestle. Furthermore, Wu professed his fondness for walls, "I particularly love old walls, those naked brick structures denuded of whitewash. Bricks are laid in seemingly orderly courses, but there are subtle varieties which form a network of lines and dots. The pitting and discoloration of the surface brought on the passing of time and decay endow the bricks with endless visual interest. In and around courtyards, there are often expanses of white wall inviting painters to wield their brushes, but the chances are that the masters of these houses, being men of good taste, would rather keep those precious surfaces and not allow people to deface them." ( Wu Guanzhong: A Retrospective, p. 156)
Wu Guanzhong was a man of many contradictions. He was not the first to criticise the demise of the Chinese painting genre and demand a change in the development of it, nor was he the first to meld East and West in the creation of art, yet what he created was a unique genre of Chinese modern 20th art with a universal appeal, containing strong undertones of his love for his country and culture. And whilst rebelling against the old masters of Chinese painting, his themes and subject matter consistently express a deep sense of patriotism and loyalty.
Wu endeavored to assimilate modernist aesthetics into his paintings, incorporating Western-style formal beauty with Eastern spirituality, all the while sustaining the differentiation between his mode of painting and that of his Western counterparts. In creating something new, "to Sinicize oil painting and to modernize Chinese painting", Wu stressed the importance of grounding his work firmly in the root of his culture, like a 'kite with an unbroken string'.
Wu's artistic career is closely and inevitably intertwined with the important events that happened in the year of his birth - on January 18th, 1919, the negotiation for a peace treaty to end the First World War began amongst the Allied Powers and Germany in France; on May 4th,1919, a student demonstration in Beijing to protect against the Chinese government's policy towards Japan escalated into what is now known as the May Fourth movement, regarded as one of the most culturally significant events in the history of Modern China. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles meant the restoration of peace in Europe, which directly affected the ease in which Chinese artists could travel to Europe. This enabled Wu's predecessors such as Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian, one of Wu's future mentors, to travel to France in order to unearth new dynamics from Western concepts and blend them into traditional Chinese painting,
The May Fourth movement instigated a great surge in the re-evaluation of traditional Chinese ethics, customs, literature, history, philosophy, religion and social and political institutions. This sociopolitical phenomenon impacted the criteria by which art had been evaluated for over 2,000 years, as ideas from the West were perceived as new and better.
Born in an era filled with concepts of self-strengthening and the need for change, Wu emerged from this atmosphere of 'embracing the new' by learning both forms of painting simultaneously and independently. In the Hangzhou Art Academy, Wu learnt from Pan Tianshou the art of Chinese painting, copying masters as a means to adopt the style of traditional grand masters. On the other hand, Wu learnt Western painting techniques from Chang Shuhong and Guan Liang, mainly the styles of Van Gogh and Gauguin.
Wu later travelled to France, and learnt Western painting under the leadership of Professor Souverbie. Despite finding an affinity and passion for European masters, Wu felt a deep need to return to his homeland and grow on the foundation of his ancestors. China at the time had been hurled in a fury of political disorder, yet Wu believed that being in China would infuse him with genuine emotions and fulfill his ambitions in art, So, he returned to teach and develop his own artistic style.
This group of 19 paintings displays the wide range of subject matter, style and technique of Wu Guanzhong, as well as his aesthetic development from painting nature to verging towards pure abstraction. Wu Guanzhong's work is not about precision but the distillation of objects so that only their essence remains, pouring life onto paper and giving motion to ink - everything fades into a cacophony of colour and yet that chaos exposes years of training, or restraint, control, planning and creativity.
Wu's early sketches served as an impetus for his later compositions, such as Yi Folk Dance, created in 1963. In Wu's middle years he finally decided on a style which fused the xieyi (idea-writing) style of traditional ink painting with contemporary expressionism of Western painting. This style imbued his paintings with a lucid and lively modernity, infused with the quietude and lyricism of Chinese painting.
Wu Guanzhong's initial master plan was to create dramatic works of significant social importance, works whose tragic subject matter would stir the hearts of the people and move them. Such an ambition was hindered by the strict laws that were imposed during the Cultural Revolution. With such unspeakable emotional burden, Wu turned to landscapes instead, and focused heavily on the blending of Western painting techniques with traditional Chinese landscape compositions.
From a sketch of the monumental Yellow Mountain A Clear Day in Huangshan to a small lotus pond Lotus, Wu's paintings celebrate the beauty of nature. They encapsulate his vision of beauty and hint at his training in abstraction and Western modes of perception. Travelling around China and abroad gave further inspiration to his landscape paintings. In the 80's, Wu travelled as far as the U.S.A. (New York, San Francisco) , attended his own exhibitions in Japan (Tokyo, Fukuoka, Sapporo) and the UK (Birmingham) . Wu's travels around China inspired him to create pictures such as his sketches of Buddhist sculptures at Longmen Grotto and the rushing waters of Jiu Zhaigou in The Waterfalls of Jiu Zhaigou. Large scale works, such as Roar and Yulong Mountain under Moonlight fully encapsulate Wu's appreciation of the beautiful and expansive landscapes in China.
Instead of using the principles of proportion in Chinese painting, Wu chose to segment the tree as a means of showing its size in Pine Trees on Mount E'mei and E'mei Under Li Bai's Moonlight. Wu contrasts the greatness of nature in relation to man's work on stone in Confucian Forest, while Mountain Village depicts a natural amalgamation of man with nature. Suzhou Pavilion sees man's attempts to recreate this natural oasis of harmony between the environment and man. The rocks at Suzhou Pavilion differ greatly from the great rock that stands in solitude in Rock by the Sea. Supporting a single tree with mountains in the distance, Wu's playful use of colour and light ink washes lend credence to his formulation of combining image and idea, and his pursuit of beauty of form in painting.
Wu's duties as a teacher and academic strengthened his aspirations to change the face of the Chinese painting tradition. He continued to revolutionize through his writings: from About Abstract Beauty, published in 1980, A Kite with an Unbroken Thread, published in 1985 by Sichuan Art Press, until 2000, when he was 81 years of age, lecturing on Starting from Painting being Nothing. Throughout the different periods of creation, Wu's works transformed from being strongly inked and specific in the 70's to moving to being lightly inked and more abstract, which can be witnessed in varying degrees through his depiction of houses and landscapes in this unique and treasured collection.