I love lacebark pines. I love the full, weighty beauty of the body of the tree; I love the twisting beauty of their branches, and I love the mottled spots of color that cover them everywhere.
—Excerpt from artist's commentary, The Art of Wu Guanzhong, 1990
Wu Guanzhong had a special feeling for lacebark pines. Everything about them, their colors, shapes, and the distribution of their branches, had for him a kind of artistic beauty that made them an ideal subject for painting. He once gave a detailed description of their beauty: “The lacebark pine stands out in its brightness, but with mottled colorations on its trunk and branches. Those are mostly light pastel green in color, but occasionally you see a light red, or suddenly, in certain places a few brushstrokes of inky black flash by. Those are in the broken, dead branches, which only set off the others and make them even brighter.... Their branches spread with graceful ease, twisting outwardly in different rhythms and cadences, yet dispersed evenly and loosely, filtering for us the light of sun and stars as they swirl and sway gracefully.” Yet only a handful of lacebark pine paintings by Wu Guanzhong remain extant; according to The Art of Wu Guanzhong, only five oil paintings feature that subject, painted between the years 1972 and 1976, while lacebark works on paper number only four, one of which is this Lacebark Pine of the Jing Mountains from 1976. This is one of the earliest of Wu's lacebark pine works on paper, and the only one in which he used gouache; the artistic strength and intensity he expressed on the paper and the shift in his techniques are all clearly on view here. As a strong, representative work dating from one of Wu's artistic peaks during the '70s, when he worked in both oils and colored inks, the value of this Lacebark Pine becomes even more apparent.
Wu Guanzhong believed that Bada Shanren was 'the one traditional Chinese painter who explored the realm of abstract beauty most deeply.' That artist's works show a search for the indefinite aspects of an image, through which he could express 'beauty in passing,' and what Wu Guanzhong sought was similarly a kind of 'beauty of life.' Lacebark Pine of the Jing Mountains adopts a close-up view of the tree that sends our gaze traveling aloft. The tree's trunk fills the center of the painting with its towering, grand presence, while in the smaller branches that fill about two-thirds of the painting we see Wu Guanzhong's exceptional skill with lines in the ink medium. Whether fine and taut or full and soft, his lines have a natural, unforced quality, and his sweeps of color with a dry brush likewise add their liveliness to the work. The tree trunk splits the painting in two along its central axis; the viewer's gaze follows to find Wu sketching out in simple brushwork groups of climbers in twos and threes in the background along with several gazebos. Beyond the enhanced appeal they lend to the painting, these details serve to further highlight the imposing height and grandeur of this particular pine.
The bark of this type of pine peels from its trunk in irregular patches, producing a mottled pattern of white and brown of exceptional beauty. Their trunks are lovely, tall, and straight, with branches that criss-cross as they spread their greenery. Whereas Van Gogh, influenced by Japan's ukiyo-e paintings, tended in his later works to find sharp contrasts between his dark-colored outlines and brighter blocks of color, Wu Guanzhong distilled his lines and colors from their sources in nature, and when painting a scene, would highlight the aesthetic beauty of these geometric elements and colors. Wu Guanzhong's interpretation of the beauty of form he found in such subjects as lacebark pines and mountain boulders became special, infectious images in his work with their unusual visual appeal. His further embellishment, in this Pine, of some figures in the distance with just a few simple brushstrokes adds a fresh note to its lively and pleasing atmosphere.
Lacebark Pine of the Jing Mountains reveals the formation and development of a kind of artistic form by Wu Guanzhong. The artist from this point is clearly no longer limiting his artistic expression to capturing a 'likeness' or 'imitation' of what he sees, but instead, is refining and distilling from nature a kind of beauty composed of colors, spaces, and lines. He has now begun to express the vitality and the hidden character within the scenes he presents, as he journeys into new realms filled with countless beautiful views.