Observation was always at the heart of Wu Guanzhong's art. He once told Mr. Szeto Yuan-kit, curator of the painting and calligraphy collection at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, "Being unable to read is terrible, but the inability to appreciate beauty is even worse. Your eyes have to observe before you can really appreciate everything you see, and respond to it with a feeling of gratitude." Observation allows us the certainty that we are in the midst of the surrounding world, yet the relationship between the world we see, and the world that we sense and feel, is never an absolute one. That may be the reason that Wu Guanzhong loved painting scenes from life, and why he loved the lacebark pine: he drew artistic inspiration from the ordinary details of everyday life, but injected them with deeply personal conceptions and feelings.
LINES AND OPPOSING ELEMENTS: MODERNITY IN CHINESE INK PAINTING
Wu Guanzhong was always fond of pines and cypresses. The 1970s were especially significant for his choice of lacebark pines as a subject; during that period he painted many of these tall and stately trees, capturing their strength and vigor, while achieving new maturity in employing a variety of techniques (Fig. 1). A Lacebark Pine (Lot 16) dates from 1984, and like a number of Wu's earlier works, presents its subject in a close-up view while directing our gaze slightly upward. The main trunk of the pine stands at the center of the painting, surrounded by the pattern of winding, curving branches and the open spaces between them; above them, arrayed in a semicircle of inky green tones, appear the 'Wutong leaf dots' of traditional Chinese painting in varied sizes and shades. The leaves, cascading down from the upper middle of the painting, add a sense of verdant green as the great tree almost blocks out the sky. The fluidity of style in Wu's work from the '70s can still be seen in his ink lines: slender and energetic, yet supple and mellow, they are like nature itself, filling the painting with their vivid and lifelike presence.
One truly distinctive element of A Lacebark Pine is the image of the temple in the background, as this is the only one of Wu's Lacebark Pine series to feature such a structure in the near distance (Fig. 2). The temple foreshortens the painting's depth, further augmenting the looming closeness of the tree in this tightly-knit composition, and slightly confounding the normal form that space might take. The richly coloured temple further highlights Wu's deliberate use of empty, white space in the tree trunk and the coloured spots Wu adds to establish opposing relationships between near and far, and between colour and white space.
Wu Guanzhong's greatest contribution undoubtedly lay in his advocacy of 'a national style of oil painting, and a modern style of Chinese ink painting.' The 'modernity' he sought had to do with what could be extracted from the history of Chinese painting, and how it could be made to evolve and grow. The execution of lines to delineate the white tree trunks of the pine tree in A Lacebark Pine is an advance interpretation of outline drawing in ink painting. The pavilion in the background has no contour line; With one single stroke, Wu precisely painted a subject without outline, whereby each brushstroke contains an innate quality of Chinese painting. At the same time, Wu also uses ink to fill in the rocky bases around the bottom of the pine tree, creating rather flat effect reminiscent of colour fields that can commonly be seen in Western modern art. But expressing artistic value depends not just on breakthroughs in artistic forms; the hope is always that new creations will lead to interactions at deeper levels of mind and spirit. Wu Guanzhong possessed a strong sense of innovation and a critical outlook. As a result, during the ten years or so he often revisited his 'lacebark pine' subject, his ink lines and use of opposing elements expanded the mental and emotional reach of his work, producing greater physical and imaginative space, and more richly layered paintings. Wu Guanzhong has said that the paintings of Shitao were the starting point of modern Chinese art. Thus Shitao's ink and brush paintings had, in one sense, already reached a technical and artistic summit. Yet Wu Guanzhong, who always struggled with the structure of his ink and brush motifs and with creating new forms, set a new discourse that other contemporary ink-wash painters may follow.
SOUTHEAST ASIA AND LONDON: EASTERN AESTHETICS TAKE THE STAGE IN THE WEST
Paintings from this lacebark pine series rarely appear on the market, and previously only two such coloured ink paintings have been included, dating respectively from 1976 (Fig. 3) and 1977. A Lacebark Pine is valuable in being the first of such work from the 1980s to appear at sale. It derives from the collection of a leading figure in the world of Malaysian investment banking, Terence F. Mahony, and his wife, Joan Foo Mahony. Joan Mahony heads a publishing house while also being an attorney and author; husband and wife are both well-known philanthropists. Throughout Southeast Asia, and particularly in Indonesia, are many collectors who love Wu Guanzhong's work. The artist himself once visited Indonesia and was moved to see for himself a collection of his works and how well they had been preserved: "I felt very gratified, like when your daughter leaves home to marry, but I sympathize with the loss felt by poor parents everywhere." During his stay in Indonesia, Wu painted a series of rich and densely coloured oils featuring the backdrop of local Indonesian scenes and culture (Fig. 4).
Wu Guanzhong was a silver-haired gentleman of 72 in 1992, the year that the British Museum in London held a solo show for the artist, "Wu Guanzhong: A Twentieth Century Chinese Painter." A Lacebark Pine offered in this season's sale was a featured work in that epoch-making exhibition. The British Museum not only invited Professor Michael Sullivan as co-editor of the exhibition catalog, but also took the unprecedented step, in its 262-year history, of making Wu Guanzhong the first living Chinese artist to be honored with a solo exhibition (Fig. 5).
Three years later, A Lacebark Pine was exhibited at Vision and Revision: Wu Guanzhong, a solo exhibition organized by the Hong Kong Museum of Art. The aesthetic and historical significance of this lot began to manifests itself. When Wu Guanzhong passed away in 2010, Sullivan further wrote an obituary for The Guardian in which he praised Wu Guanzhong's work: 'His landscapes are marked by a delicacy of touch and colour, a purity and fluidity of line, that are very seductive.' Even in the Western world of art, with its primacy of colour and composition, Wu Guanzhong's art possesses a beauty that transcends all national boundaries.