Today, viewing the few extant oil paintings by Wu Dayu against the background of his harshly difficult life and career serves to remind us all the more of their preciousness. Wu Dayu was an artist who numbered among his students such figures as Wu Guanzhong, Chu Teh-chun, and Zao Wou-ki; these great artists have praised his genius and his philosophical ideals, pointing out "the number of advances and discoveries to be found in his paintings, and the exceptional talent they exude." In the words of Zao Wou-ki, Wu Dayu "should be restored to his rightful status." According to Wu Guanzhong, Wu Dayu was limited by "trying to reap a harvest from an arid land," and as an artist, "has been forgotten." Wu Dayu encouraged artists such as Chu Teh-chun and Zao Wou-ki to become familiar with the concepts of Cezanne and the Fauves; he was one of the first generation of Chinese artists to study abroad, and upon his return, to take up teaching as an accomplished master of the oil medium; and, along with Lin Fengmian, he founded the Hangzhou Academy of Art. In short, Wu Dayu was one of the great standard-bearers in the development of oil painting in China, and in that medium in particular made great contributions to its art history. But fate was less than kind to Wu Dayu; he lived in a difficult era that that brought frustration and hardship, and because complete fulfillment of his talent was obstructed by objective conditions, relatively few works are now left to us. Aside from a few years during the '30s when he could create in relative peace, Wu passed his life in distressing circumstances, sometimes destitute, and later, as a victim of struggle sessions and political reform during the Cultural Revolution. During that period, his family of four lived in a small, 20- meter-square room with no space or facilities for painting, and by the time the Cultural Revolution had ended, Wu was an old man. His eyes were filled with cataracts, and after an operation, precious little time or energy remained for painting. Those who saw his early paintings from the '30s have spoken of their impressive originality. The compositions had breadth and scale, featuring human figures and non-abstract forms, with brushstrokes that flew in all directions across the canvas to create beautiful and intense patterns of color. Where Lin Fengmian exhibited lyricism and tactful reserve, Wu displayed a world filled with rich color and feeling, drawing on all the hues of his palette to create soaring and harmonious rhythms. Unfortunately, Wu Dayu's works from this earlier period were either lost or destroyed during wartime, and during the last decade of his life, as his spirits and his physical energy were fading, Wu Dayu produced only a few small-scale works. Yet small scale though they are, we are fortunate that these works contain the distilled thought and experience of a lifetime spent honing his abilities and perceptions. They convey both breadth of vision and the artist's exceptional success in exploring abstract lines and rich color in the oil medium.
Untitled No. 16 (Lot 525) and Untitled No. 37 (Lot 526) respectively exhibit just those qualities of color and line over which Wu Dayu had such mastery. In the twisting and intertwined lines of Untitled No. 16, faces seem to emerge indistinctly, as if two figures in Beijing opera makeup were whirling and dancing within the lines, recalling Wu's series of paintings on Beijing opera themes, Composing Rhymes. In Untitled No. 16, Wu Dayu uses a broad range of brilliant and beautiful colors high in both density and intensity. The composition is built up from the opposition of dark greens, Prussian blues, and coal black tones. Each stroke of color glows and pulsates with radiance, as if the painting itself were a living entity striving to call our attention to its beauty. Multilayered shadings form within Wu's blocks of individual color as various bright tones overlap, coalesce, break apart, conflict, and strive vehemently for their place in the composition, which in the process, create the many layerings and spatial relationships within the canvas. The result is an enticing visual tension, even within the small dimensions of this canvas, that bursts with musical energy and rhythm and dancelike movement. With the most fundamental elements at his command-lines, colors, geometric shapes-the artist creates a pure aesthetic world that immediately enfolds the viewer within its shifting and mutating shapes and its brilliant and beautiful color, evoking instantaneous impressions of images and feelings.
Wu's Untitled No. 37 is an unusual work in being both larger than most of his oils and longer in its vertical dimension. The resulting composition features a number of powerful vertical lines coursing through it, and the viewer senses that, beyond his special way with color, the artist is using line to express the same graceful energy of brush and the atmosphere of Chinese calligraphy. While the composition has great freedom and energy, it also has a tightly controlled organization, deriving first from several straight lines from the center, bringing coherence to the work, while the thick, vigorous lines in coal black curve to intersect with horizontal lines and planes in red and brown in the lower corners. The lines and planes of color pull at each other, almost merging then dispersing in different directions, in what the artist called "images of impulse" with the power of color, reflecting his own free spirit and audacious vision in the midst of the rhythmically moving color fields. This work also features the Prussian blue hues that Wu Dayu was so partial to, applied here, in jagged and splashing strokes. Very few other artists have favored this color to the same degree; the depth and intensity of its coloring power and its quick drying characteristic, making revision difficult. But Wu Dayu already had well-formed compositions in mind before setting to work, and given his ability to use the most intense colors in their expression, his special worlds of color exploded into existence, the instant he set his brush in motion. The works of his middle and late periods display an awareness of color and its dynamics that could only be realized through long periods of observation and discovery; there was little need for careful shaping of forms when the artist's feelings could be channeled so directly through a continuous sweep of the brush into a finished work of this kind of highly developed and integral color harmony. Wu Dayu's abstract painting is founded on his sense of the expressive powers of color and line, and in its own way seems akin to the great representatives of the abstract expressionist school, Willem de Kooning (1904 - 1997) and Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956). But Wu Dayu infused line and color with the charm of Chinese calligraphy, just as in the busy, sprawling whirl of lines in a calligraphy work by Zhang Xu; they first communicate energy and vitality, but on closer examination, every curve can be seen falling gracefully into place with a beauty of feeling that never becomes brash or uncontrolled.