Abstract beauty lies at the heart of formal beauty, and people instinctively love both formal beauty and abstract beauty. People sense beauty in nature; beauty hides within, and is part of, concrete objects. The artist who portrays such objects in his pursuit of beauty preserves the essentials and eliminates what is unimportant, and in so doing discovers the laws that govern the constitution of beauty itself. Based the experience of those who came before, the elements or prerequisites beauty can be defined as: contrast, harmony, undulating movement, rhythm, and diversity within an overarching unity.
Like a passage from a beautiful composition, Wu Guanzhong's Parrots, dating from 1994, possesses its own special musicality. Wu Guanzhong once said that the elements of beauty were contrast, harmony, undulating movement, rhythm, and diversity within an overarching unity. The birds he depicts Parrots cock their heads charmingly in a wide variety of poses, gazing either up or down, or leaning or turning to one side; some are simply relaxed and at ease, while others are more alert, heads up, standing erect on their branches. The result is a wealth of pleasing rhythm and movement. Wu Guanzhong stressed harmonious structures in his work; his arrangements of points and lines can often be seen, in his paintings from the '90s, to produce a fine balance between lightness and heaviness, along with flowing lines with undulating rhythms. In Parrots, his flowing lines become the gracefully swaying branches and sprigs of this tree, winding and stretching out beyond the canvas; they provide the musical staves for the composition, while parrots rest on the branches like notes dancing through the score. The variety in their poses, and similarity in their forms, allows us to find the kind of diversity and variation within the painting's overall unity that is so appealing, and which creates the music that flows through the canvas.
Wu Guanzhong customarily produced a number of different works on the same theme, but in different mediums. Another Parrots from 1990 shows him choosing the same theme in an ink and color work with a similar composition (Fig. 1). Even a brief study of the differences between these works and their mediums illustrates Wu Guanzhong's great success in mastering both Eastern and Western forms of art. In Chinese ink-wash painting what has always been sought is depth of conception, which has meant abandoning the kind of painting logic that includes scientific perspective and instead taking pains to highlight the humanistic philosophy behind the work. Wu's 1994 Parrots shows the artist working in the oil medium, but continuing to employ a brushwork style borrowed from ink-wash painting. By contrast with the earlier ink and color work, this later Parrots gives greater emphasis to physical volume and weight, along with a heightened sense of movement; it seems as if a repeating, circular musical theme is being performed throughout the painting. The work also reflects Wu's insight into Western creative methods. Another difference between this and the more impressionistic Chinese ink-wash style of painting is the way in which Wu Guanzhong's considered use of color causes the viewer to perceive contrasts, harmony, undulating movement, and rhythm in way almost impossible to achieve in the ink-wash medium. He also creates localized flat regions of space in this canvas by means of color, color having the power to suggest both expansion and contraction, and when these multiple flat regions are juxtaposed, it immediately produces the spatial depth that informs the entire work. In the 1930s, American abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman evolved his own incisive interpretations of the idea that color could push outward or pull inward (Fig. 2). Wu Guanzhong thus utilized combinations of Eastern and Western techniques that would further heighten the effects he wanted in his works; it was one of the things that made him a master painter, one who knew so well how to create his own unique, individual style.
It was around the 1950s that Western art seemed to reverse course, as advocates of Abstract Expressionism began developing entirely new art by borrowing from the freehand, lyrical structures of Eastern calligraphy. One of the leading proponents of Abstract Expressionism, Franz Kline, explored structure and form purely through the use of black lines on canvas (Fig. 3). The forms and structures of Wu Guanzhong's paintings, however, are concealed within their images; the swaying branches are expressed by both dry brush and wet brush, the dry brush conveying movement, the wet brush, weighty stillness. If we could take only the branches from Parrots and let the parrots fade away, we could better understand some of Wu Guanzhong's concepts. Specifically, his idea that "people sense beauty in nature; beauty hides within and is part of concrete objects. The artist who portrays such objects in his pursuit of beauty preserves the essentials and eliminates what is unimportant, and in so doing discovers the laws that govern the constitution of beauty itself," and how that idea is always consonant with his idea that "abstract beauty is the heart of formal beauty." Similarly, if we removed the branches and left only the parrots, we would see how Wu cleverly arranges the parrots in rings, creating the visual effect of a continuous, cyclical movement around a circle. To this he adds the complementary shades of red, blue, and yellow that create visual tension through gradations of color depth. Op artist Larry Poons mechanistically limits the movement of his colored spots to two directions only, which creates an illusion of movement (Fig. 4). Wu Guanzhong, however, distills the beauty he finds in nature; the concrete images of his painting utilize his deep familiarity with color and formal structures, and initiate this dialogue between East and West.
The large strings sing like thunder, the small ones hum in soft whispers; thunder and whispers interweave, like large pearls and small pearls falling on a jade plate; a warbling canary appears in the flowers, a spring gushes out onto the sands; then the spring freezes, the strings grow quiet, the water stops; notes die away into a depth of sorrow, and silence speaks much louder than sound.
—Bai Juyi, Song of the Pipa
The Russian artist Kandinsky once said that in his creative work he "listened to painting, but painted music. (Fig 5)." In Wu Guanzhong's painting, where a score or more of parrots alight together in the trees, a new musical phrase seems to emerge with each brushstroke, and with both our vision and our hearing we sense its contrasts, its harmonies, its undulating movement, and its rhythms. In it we hear "thunder and whispers interweave, like large pearls and small pearls falling on a jade plate; a warbling canary appears in the flowers, a spring gushes out onto the sands; then the spring freezes, the pipa strings grow quiet, the water stops; notes die away into a depth of sorrow." Wu Guanzhong's Parrots condenses the activity of a single moment in time, and its silence entrances even more than sound.