Wu Guanzhong’s artistic exploration was forcibly put on hold during the Cultural Revolution in the ‘70s when he was sent to work in Hebei’s farming villages along with the other teachers and students at the academy; it was not until 1972 that he was permitted to paint just one day a week. Because of his limited access to resources, Wu mainly painted on cardboard or scraps of wooden plank salvaged from small blackboards, and he would save the canvas that he had access to for his most spectacular works and the compositions he felt mostconfident about. Spring Shoots Among Bamboos from 1975 is therefore an exceptional work from this period. A review of auction records and the catalogue raisonne of Wu’s works will reveal that the artist only produced thirty works of oil paint on canvas during this period, and Spring Shoots Among Bamboos is larger in size than half of those works. Wu experimented numerous times with painting bamboo forests during the 70s to the 90s in both ink wash and oil paint, and among them, this work is an outstanding example thanks to its holistic composition as well as masterful control over colour.
Wu was born in the city of Yixing in China’s Jiangsu province, which has the moniker of “Eastern China’s Number One Bamboo Ocean” thanks to its famous attraction of expansive bamboo forests. Perhaps because of homesickness, Wu reveals a special affinity towards bamboo in his paintings – not only did he hike far and wide in search of spring shoots with his painting gear, he also imitated the ink wash bamboo paintings of Chinese masters Wen Tong and Zheng Xie extensively. However, Wu was not content with the ancients’ portrayal of bamboo as “just” a graceful and noble plant. He said, “I use oil paint to paint bamboo forests and work hard to present their richness, fluffiness, dynamism, and the dense little worlds created among branches and shoots. …bamboo forests do seem to be a wash of green at first and are seen by some painters from the Western school to be too plain to be painted, but they have always enraptured me.”
Wu also said that “surface area is the most important capital in painting, and every millimetre must be fought for”, which means that painters cannot give up even a square inch on the canvas. Because paintings are two-dimensional, techniques such as layering and combinations are frequently used to add depth and complexity. Spring Shoots Among Bamboos features the artist’s favourite composition of “trees in front, house in the back”, with the foreground filled with dense layers of soaring emerald bamboos, and the middle distance dotted with dark brown spring shoots to break up the monotony of the forest. While both bamboos and shoots develop vertically, their varying lengths and orders create a rhythm in much the same way that long and short lyrics do in songs. In the distance, a handful of residences lean against the thicket of bamboos, adding yet an additional layer of finesse and cadence.
Wu is a strong proponent of Shi Tao’s philosophy that painters should create paintings that authentically present their feelings, which also means that each painting should have a different presentation because the painter’s feelings would change every time. As a result, Wu’s painting process does not emphasise realism like naturalist painters who endeavour to record daily scenes without embellishment. Instead he strove to break away from the constraints of a representational approach and sought to develop form and idea separately, which resulted in his unique and personal artistic style. In Spring Shoots Among Bamboos, Wu used pointillism, dyeing, dry-brushing, and rubbing to present the beauty of dots, lines, planes, and colours, such that the crisscrossing bamboos form flowing lines, new and falling leaves become dispersing dots, and the texture of the spring shoots become downy blocks of dark brown in a scene that is filled with a distinctive rhythm and liveliness. Colours and lines are thus elevated to become subjects in their own right, deeply impressing the viewer with their unique aesthetic.
Qi Baishi claimed that “those who copy me, die”, and Wu very much agreed with the master. Regardless of how much he admired Matisse’s use of colour or Monet’s control over light, he was determined to return to China after his time in France to drive the “Sinofication of oil paintings” and the “modernisation of Chinese paintings” and create his own artistic style. His landscape paintings are not rigidly representational, nor are they bound by the absolutes of formalism. Instead, he traverses between the two levels and defined for generations of Chinese painters after him a brand new and complete creative direction and became a profound symbol of the development of Asian art over the past century.