The infusion of western form and colour, with the naturalistic nuances of oriental rhyme, is the extension and augmentation of the artistic trail of expression that Wu Dayu has blazed for 20th century art. Wu Dayu was among the first generation of artists who were trained in oil painting in France in the early Republican era. The painting style of Cezanne was widely circulated, dominating the French art world and inevitably inspiring young Chinese artists who studied in France at the time. In addition to Cezanne's influence, Picasso and Matisse's techniques furthermore nurtured Wu Dayu, who had studied and was greatly inspired by modern Western art. After returning to China, Wu Dayu, Lin Fengmian and other significant artists co-founded the Hangzhou National Art Institute. Appointed as the director of the Western Painting division, he actively participated in the introduction of Western art and reconstitution of Chinese art, hoping to balance and combine the two artistic traditions to produce modern Chinese art.
During China's revolutionary era, many artists including Wu Dayu and his contemporaries (Lin Wenzheng, Lin Fengmian, etc.) advocated the idea of utilizing art as a way to save the country. When liberalism and individualism were at its peak, Wu Dayu had already abandoned traditional ideological limitations, and was instead searching for the essence of art, the intrinsic colour value which he believed to last forever. He devoted himself to the studies of colour, line, dynamics, and form. Wu's experimentation with these modern artistic qualities contributed to the distinctive visual elements seen in his later works. Wu Dayu was among the few young artists who not only wholeheartedly accepted modern Western art during their studies in the West, but also insisted in pursuing Western realism after returning to China. Wu was perceived as the finest among this minority group.
Wu Dayu was a man of high achievement in traditional Chinese culture. He had not only explored the origins of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism but he also had a vested interest in Western philosophy. He once remarked that "Eastern and Western arts are the same; there should be no division between them. What they have in common is not the technique or the way of seeing, but more readily the highest virtue embodied by the arts from the two traditions, in which leads to an enlightenment." His comment summarizes the vital potential of the traditional Chinese ink tradition when catalyzed by the introduction of Western modern paintings.
'Rhymes of Beijing Opera' (Lot 195) spectacularly illustrates Wu Dayu's distinctive use of heavy colours and forceful brushstrokes, whilst simultaneously the vigorously brushed blue-tones convey the artist's strong personality and his mastery of colours. His brushstrokes are profoundly emotive and recall the traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy's emphasis on the use of bone structure and the pursuit of spiritual resonance. Wu Dayu constantly stressed the importance in incorporating Chinese aesthetic standards such as priority on calligraphic brushstrokes into Western oil paintings, which enriched the appeal of his abstract works. In addition, he mentioned that "painting is an artist's reflection on nature, and it is also the reality of the universe being caught by the artist at the fleeting moment." Therefore, the more abstract the painting, the better it could represent the artist's true self with less restraint. By using simple yet energetic abstract lines with pure colours, Wu Dayu dissolves both nature and his very self-essence into his paintings, hence achieving a state where the object and self co-exist, maximizing aesthetic sensation and expanding his imaginative realm.
'Rhymes of Beijing Opera' is at once a soothing work yet one that portrays great depth and passionate emotional expression. The symphony of the myriad blue hues create a calm complexity while the bold and wild brushworks are reminiscent of Fauvist works, but still bear resemblance to cursive script of Chinese calligraphy. The demure flecks of pale pink, burnt umber and warm ochre lighten the mergence of the deeply ruminative blues tones and create a more joyful semblance of the palette. Dark blue, black and yellow were Wu Dayu's most favoured colours of expression, which here perfectly compliment the composition while adding the effects of shadow and light. Indeed, the marriage of colours in strong combination with the vibrant brushworks creates the rhythmical feel in his work, evoking a pure expression of elemental energy and lyricism.
Wu Dayu's representative inspiration for this work, the Beijing opera, is readily expressed in the theatrical flamboyancy and distinctive brush swirls and patterns. If we look closely, we can envisage the wooden boards of a theatre stage expressed to the lower left corner of the painting. This is the most tangible feature of the emotional abstraction that comprises the work. In regard of Wu's choice of colours, each tone has a specific meaning in Chinese opera (fig.1). Colour played a key role in both extravagant clothing and face painting, so-called 'Lianpu'; an art which is formed through the colorful dressing on actors' faces. By using transformative and exaggerated figures, spectators would easily tell the characteristic of a role, as such, it is called 'the picture of hearts'.
In the colour connotations, red symbolises loyalty, such as Guanyu, a great general during Three Kingdoms Period. Black signifies honesty and frankness, such as Lord Bao, a righteous official during Northern Song Dynasty, or abruptness and impertinence, such as Likui, an important figure in the famous Chinese ancient novel 'All Men Are Brothers'. White stands for cattiness and cunning, with Caocao as its representative, a famous politician in the late Eastern Han Dynasty.
The colour blue, most dominant in 'Rhymes of a Beijing Opera' is symbolic of a wild and free nature, and of a character gifted with courage. The Beijing opera has existed for over 200 years and is widely regarded as the highest expression of Chinese culture, yet during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing Opera suffered along with other kinds of theatrical arts in China and all the traditional pieces reflecting the Old Societies were banned from performance. Wu Dayu's creation of this piece, most likely during the time of the Cultural Revolution, is therefore symbolic of his nostalgia and longing for a past tradition. The extensive use of the colour blue is indicative of Wu Dayu's bravery and free-spirited approach to evoking a work that is based on and inspired by a banned art. The concrete, representational elements within his abstract art set clearly Wu Dayu apart from other abstract artists. To Wu Dayu, colours act as the expression of his heart. As he once remarked to Chu Teh-Chun, "painting is an artist's reflection on nature, and it is also the reality of the universe being caught by the artist at that fleeting moment."
Wu Dayu confessed that returning to basic elements of painting like simple colours, lines and composition help him to better express his profound inner feelings. He once said "what painting requires is perception, not painterly skills. Do not portray the outward appearance, but allow it to transcend." Transcendence for the artist means the use of abstraction, the liberation from restraints imposed by realistic representation, to go beyond the appearance, and to illustrate the artist's inner image and profound feelings.