“Mr. Yamazaki may not expect that his idea resonates deeply with me. I studied in Paris when I was young, yearningly absorbed nutrition from Western Arts and indulged in it… Forty years have gone by, and I have grown old. The meaning of revisiting and painting the new Paris with my Eastern eyes and hands has surpassed merely painting matters, making me quite emotional. I accepted Mr. Yamazaki’s suggestion and arrived in Paris in chilly early spring this year.”
“I firstly ran to Montmartre, the place that is captured in Utrillo’s paintings of Paris and the Mecca for artists around the world. The glories of the narrow, sinuous upslope paths and staggered doors and windows remain. Seeing assortment of tourists in various styles of clothing and of different skin colours wondering about the area ignites the dream of travellers.”
Wu Guanzhong “Notes of Paris”
Created in 1989, Montmartre of Paris (V) was inspired by Wu Guanzhong’s trip to Paris at the beginning of the year. Wu painted the same scene in oil twice, with the current work being the larger and more finished one of the two. After over a decade working extensively in Chinese ink painting, Wu had demonstrated with this work his virtuosity of synthesizing aesthetics and techniques of Western and Chinese paintings. Captured in the painting is the famous the Montmartre district in Paris on a clear and less-crowded day. Through control and balance of composition, Wu presents to viewers what he considered as the spirits of this neighbourhood—Le Consulat Café and Sacré-Cœur Basilica as the focal points of the painting. Montmartre of Paris (V) offers us a unique opportunity to appreciate Paris through the lens of Wu, who bid his farewell to the city with his paintings, which at the same time demonstrate his artistic triumph after a decade of explorations in bridging east and west through his unique painting method and style.
The painting is a poignant example of Wu’s statement of “technique is only a means that serves the artist in the expressions of his emotions.” The 1989 Paris trip was truly bittersweet for Wu Guanzhong. On one hand, he was beyond excited to return to Paris at the invitation of Seibu Department Stores to create a series of landscape paintings for the company's Paris-themed exposition in Tokyo. On the other hand, not knowing his return to Paris in 1993, the artist thought that this trip was his farewell to “the hometown of his artistry”. Wu went to study at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1947 and visited Montmartre for its reputation of being the area where acclaimed artists and writers gather. Wu’s admiration for the area escalated after he went back to China in 1950, as he mentioned in the notes of his 1989 trip that upon arrival, he “firstly ran to Montmartre, the place that is captured in Utrillo’s paintings of Paris and the Mecca for artists around the world”. Utrillo refers to French Impressionist painter Maurice Utrillo, who painted mostly streetscapes of the Montmartre district during his life. The viewpoint of this painting calls to mind that of Utrillo’s 1910 La Rue Norvins à Montmartre. Through depicting the historic Le Consulat Café, which is well-known for having been visited by renowned painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, and Monet, Wu payed homage to the artists who were associated with this neighbourhood.
Employing expressive and spontaneous brushstrokes, Wu showcased in this painting his masterful control and balance of composition to illuminate the focal points of the painting—the café and the basilica. Opening the scene are two houses in the foreground, rendered with few lines and colours of subtle tonal variations, flanking both sides of the picture plane. The bend of the road at the beginning of the scene visually narrow the space between the two buildings, which is in contrast to the sense of openness conveyed in the back. The juxtaposition creates a theatrical effect as if the architectures at the front were stage curtains that are being drawn apart, revealing the presentations on stage. The tree is rendered with strong and expressive lines, and the trunk twines upwards and rightwards, imparting an impression that it also reaches back into the pictorial space. Following the extension of the tree, the viewer’s eyes land on the protagonists of the scene—a grey-roofed house painted in ivory, with the writing “Le Consulat Café” on the front, and parts of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica rising in the background. The illusion of depth is established when one roams into the pictorial space following the winding path, and this effect is further enhanced with subtle shadings on the architectures in the middle ground and background. Compared to the architectures in the foreground, the café, its connecting houses, and the basilica are delineated with much more details. Vertically alternating red and green stripes of the café canopy and vibrant colours that represents the figures, both adeptly delivered by short strokes and dots, resonate with the dotted colours on the roof of the café, mapping out a route for viewers’ eyes to roam along. The floating clouds compositionally balance off the tree in the foreground while echoing the dome and the café right beneath them. Every element in the pictorial plane works harmoniously and effectively in guiding beholders’ attentions to the intended centre of the scene, reflecting what the artist thought to be the essence of Montmartre.
The painting is an emblem of the quintessential style of Wu Guanzhong featuring the artist’s choice of juxtaposing abstractions and painterly delineations. Wu painted the same scene for three times: one sketch in watercolour and two paintings in oil. Montmartre of Paris (V) being the more detailed and finished one of the two oil paintings, displays abstractions in some areas when compared to the sketch. The tiles on the road are replaced by washes of varying shades of grey, and the curve of the road is noticeably more pronounced in the present example, which enhances the illusion of spatial depth. The delineations of the two houses in the foreground on both sides of the painting have been reduced to seemingly freehandedly rendered outlines and colours. Details of some architectures, such as rooftops and few doors facing the street, were also minimalised to only outlines and colours. Amidst semi-abstract forms of the houses in the lower left corner, Wu added a series of green fences that creates colour continuity from the fences to the vibrant café canopy, and to the colourful figures and doors depicted in the middle ground. All the arrangements of reductions and addition serve to set off the café and the basilica, which are rendered not only in detail, but also with a sense of monumentality. The sizes of the figures in the current painting are nearly half of the sizes than those in the sketch; the disproportionally large size of the café in contrast to the figures projects an elevated effect of monumentality of the central architectures.
The artist’s pioneering exploration of introducing multiple perspective technique that is indigenous to Chinese landscape painting to Western oil painting, has turned an otherwise ubiquitous streetscape into a masterpiece that displays his dexterous coordination of perspective. To further enhance the idea of monumentality, Wu blends in nuanced perspective to the visual representations. The multiple perspectives technique is the artistic invention of Northern Song painter Guo Xi, who created this method to set free the static view of the viewer from a single perspective. In the current painting, the house in the lower left corner is moved further to the left, making more space for the delineations in the centre of scene. The café looks wider and larger compared to that in the sketch, and minor adjustments on the layout of the domes and bell tower of the basilica complex to make them appear taller and closer to the viewer.
In addition to vantage point, the colour palette of this work also testifies to the Wu’s effort of bridging east and west. The colour scheme of the painting brings to mind Wu’s Jiangnan series where black, grey and white dominate the pictorial surface. This colour combination made its way to Wu’s oil paintings after he reinitiated his practice in Chinese ink painting, then worked extensively in the medium since 1970s. The ability to draw on elements from different artistic traditions and reinterpret them into a distinct style of painting characterises Wu’s creativity and artistry.
Wu’s playful arrangements of colour plates of the café canopy and the figures, as well as the colour dots scattered on the exterior of the houses creates pictorial rhythm on the painting surface that recalls the works by Kazimir Malevich. The latter delved into the realm formalism, exploring the relationships of colourful geometric patterns, which also generate visual rhythm. Drawing on the idea of formalism, Wu emphasized with his practice the equal importance of both form and content, and arrived at his signature style that blurs the line of formal abstraction and figurative representation.
Underneath what seems to be spontaneous renderings by Wu Guanzhong are carefully planned and effortlessly executed composition that leads the audiences to see what the artist thinks as beautiful and captivating. Wu’s ingenuity of fusing the techniques and aesthetics of Chinese ink paintings and Western oil paintings to formulate the repertoire of his pictorial language establishes his status of being the father of Modern Chinese Painting.