A guide to the French-trained artist credited with galvanising Chinese painting in the 20th century, illustrated with standout works sold by and upcoming at Christie’s
Who was Wu Guanzhong?
Born in 1919 in the Jiangsu province of eastern China, Wu Guanzhong went on to become one of the most important Chinese painters of the 20th century. He’s renowned for his landscapes, which fused Western and Oriental artistic traditions, and were the result — in part — of three years’ study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris between 1947 and 1950.
‘A snake swallowing an elephant,’ is how Wu once described himself — the snake symbolising the Chinese artist in him, the elephant representing Western influence.
Why is Wu Guanzhong celebrated?
In many ways, Wu’s life was as interesting as his art. The son of a village schoolteacher, he studied initially at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, under Lin Fengmian — a painter often called the ‘father of Chinese modernism’.
Then came the move to Paris in 1947, where he was particularly drawn to the work of Pissarro, Cézanne and Van Gogh. Following his return to China in 1950, however, he found himself out of step artistically, the Communist authorities favouring a Social Realist style that featured heroic workers, farmers and soldiers.
In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Wu destroyed many of his oil paintings, for fear of what the Red Guards would make of them if they searched his house. He was right to be fearful: Wu was summarily banned for seven years from painting; denounced as a ‘bourgeois formalist’; and banished from Beijing to the remote countryside to perform manual labour (far from his wife and family).
As the Cultural Revolution eased in the mid-1970s, Wu was allowed to return home and paint again — and over subsequent decades, he’d go on to become one of his country’s most revered artists. The year before his death — aged 90, in 2010 — he received two major retrospectives: one at Shanghai Art Museum, and another at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. In 2012, the Asia Society in New York staged the exhibition Revolutionary Ink: the Paintings of Wu Guanzhong.
What type of art is Wu Guanzhong best known for?
Above all, the landscapes of his homeland. ‘With these remarkable visions, he galvanised Chinese painting,’ says Eric Chang, International Director of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art at Christie’s Hong Kong.
It’s often said that Wu combined a sense of colour and composition from Western oil painting with a spirit, lightness of touch and tonal variation of Chinese ink-wash painting.
‘Wu was an artist of feeling rather than fact,’ Chang says. ‘By this I mean his paintings capture an experience more than a sight. They’re the sort of images you think you can enter.
‘In The Lu Mountains (1974), for example, we’re immediately confronted by the presence of a bare tree trunk and branches in the foreground — through which we get to glimpse, first, the white buildings with red-tile roofs in the valley behind; and then the beautiful, mountainside vista in the distance beyond.’
Were there marked developments in Wu’s art over his career?
Broadly speaking, the naturalism of his early landscapes gave way to greater abstraction in the landscapes of his later years, which, in extreme cases, such as 1997’s The Yulong Mountains at Sunset (now in the National Gallery Singapore), boasted swirling lines and splashes of colour reminiscent of Jackson Pollock.
‘With Wu, there’s this wonderful sense of countless different elements making up the whole,’ Chang says, ‘and that if you removed just one of those elements, even the tiniest, the picture would fall apart. An obvious example is the handful of red dots representing people in By the Side of the Li River (I), above.
‘Likewise, the superb swathes of grey that make up the roofs of houses in Fuyang, A Riverside City, (above). Wu was a real master of coalescence.’
Is the market strong for Wu Guanzhong’s art?
‘In China, Wu's work has been very commercially popular for a while,’ says Chang. ‘Especially that from what tends to be considered his peak years, between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s. He’s regarded as having been one of his country’s great modern artists.’
Wu’s stock is also rising among Western collectors. Chang believes this is partly because his work (compared to that of most Chinese painters) is ‘pretty accessible’, and partly because the years since his death have seen a fuller appreciation of his career, with successful shows at venues like the Asia Society in New York.
Not that Wu was unknown in the West in his lifetime: in 1992, he became the first living Asian artist to have a solo exhibition at the British Museum.