The Pursuit of Colour Aesthetic
Throughout his life Wu Dayu sought tirelessly the experience and expression of beauty. The famous remark that "Beauty is to the sky banks of cloud" held special importance for the artist and his own aesthetic philosophy; that the clouds exude a sense of beauty not so much for what they resemble, but for how they hold in themselves colours that manifest distinct perceptions of light and shape, amid the diverse beams of sunlight and lingering mist. Art to Wu Dayu is, like banks of cloud, free from any factual narratives and themes; it is representation through the use of colour, light, and line. "The shaping of form prevents the grasp of it. Beauty is between the form and the perception of form", Wu Dayu said. For the rigorous aesthetic of colour Wu established, Lin Fengmian to speak so highly of him, that he is "an uniquely brilliant colour painter", and that his use of colour "is of a magnificent creativity". While some of Wu's early oil paintings in the 1930s still embodied representational forms, human figures and social realism, even then he was overtly attentive to representing the peculiar aesthetic and expressiveness of such artistic elements as pure colour. Audiences of these works were immensely impressed, for his colours are rich, intense and pulsating with vigor, his brushstrokes full of irresistible momentum and racing all over the canvas, which, in contrast to the lyricism of Lin Fengmian, evince more of a world of colourized sensitivity in which hues settle into robust motion and intricate rhythm. The middle and late periods of his career saw a complete relinquishment of narration and form, at which time he focused more squarely on the use of pure artistic elements, such as colour, line, light and the layering and composition of hues, to reveal and explore the quintessence of beauty, and to express, in more tangible terms, his theory of colour aesthetic.
Wu Dayu's Colour Rhymes series epitomizes the artist's colour aesthetic. Available records indicate that there are only two works titled Colour Rhymes, one of which awarded Honor Prize in the 6th National Artworks Exhibition held in December 1984, is now in the collection of the National Art Museum of China (Fig. 1). Wu Guanzhong after viewing Colour Rhymes in 1984 exclaimed his admiration commented "There on the table is a vase of flowers, but are they flowers, or are they straws? The colour is flowing, the sharp cavorting, the image soars through the window into the boundless world." These words describe just the inspirational qualities of Wu Dayu's works. In his portrayal of quotidian ambiance he transcends the limit of pictorial form and delivers colour of its own accord, and in such way, he exhibits most intensely the dynamic abstraction of colour and form. The other Colour Rhymes (Lot 1011), held until now in a private collection, is among the highlights of this evening sale. Colour is the focal element of Colour Rhymes, constituting the theme, structure, composition and mood of the work. The abstraction and expressiveness in the representation of colour approaches a realm of artistic purity, where the vibrant, fully dynamic colours instantaneously enfold the audience, inspiring the imagination in an instant of time.
Colour Rhymes displays a more intricate motif, both in its theme and composition, than the one in the National Art Museum and other typical works of Wu Dayu. Whereas the contours of subjects in his works, be it florae or torrential downpour, almost always dissolves to the rolling motion of colours, Lot 1011 retains an unobtrusive outline of the subject and shows a deliberate arrangement of spatial perspectives. On the left the curled line in brown, alluding to a mirror frame, the blue surface of it, at the same time typing in with the yellow background on the right to invoke an atmosphere of a bright, pristine room. Together they are off-set against the zestful bloom of the florae in the foreground, forming a three-dimensional space with a quasi-perspectival composition. The luminous and graceful solitude of the still-life is imbued with the aura of the literati, a poetic remarkably rare among Wu Dayu's works. The light green strokes in the center, visually appealing and vivacious, texturize the roughness of foliage and bud, and at the same time enrich the intertwining layers of mottled leaves. The whole composition, while tightly organized, emerges through the simplistic use of colours, lines and form. The artist does not confine colour to the representation of mere three-dimensionality and perspective, but avails it to emanate the visual appeal and abstract expressiveness of its own, enabling viewers, with the insistent rhythm of the work, to appreciate it in a purely abstract and artistic way.
Unlike most of Wu Dayu's works which center on lush racing blue, this singular Colour Rhymes, composed of the less-used yellow and light blue, producing instead a sense of tenderness and repose. The frequent use of dry brushes in painting vertical and horizontal strokes brings about relatively bright layers of colour, enhancing transparency and the penetrating power of the work. But the characteristics of Wu's oils are intact: with the incredibly vivid yellow harmoniously matching dark green, the resulting broad spectrum of colour is highly vibrant, dense and intense. Wu Dayu's bold use of colour is especially evident when compared with that of his contemporaries in Chinese painting; he confers on colour the power to evince emotion and motion. Each stroke 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 colour 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, rhythm and dance-like movement, comparable to what the artist called "images of impulse" with the power of colour, reflecting his own free spirit and audacious vision in the midst of the rhythmically moving colour fields.
Colour Rhymes is an exceptional canvas through which to observe Wu's theory and use of colour: at times he utilized the piling of colour blocks to create visual motion, in which colours seem to draw and impel each other, parting and uniting, as in the background where the colours, albeit highly concentrated, appear to be integrating and dispersing at one and the same time. Ultimately, Wu Dayu resorted to the presentation of colour through his unfettered brushwork, resembling the conceptualized lines in Chinese calligraphy, as in the florae and foliage on the foreground, finally surpassing Chinese calligraphy in his lines that embody more sculptural touch and transformation of light. This use of lines not only enhances the texture and the mass of colours, but also exemplifies how Wu Dayu enriched the Chinese art of depicting lines of conception by blending in it Western techniques of expression. While the use of Chinese calligraphic style in representing colour and abstraction reflects Wu's sinicized artistic expression, his incorporation of Western abstractionism and elements of representation closely combined to demonstrate a unique artistic style that contains formidable character and thriving yet subtly reflective colours. His disposition to fusing East and West was carried to the present time in disparate ways by his students such as Zao Wouki, Zhu Dequn and Wu Guanzhong.
Art is always tortuous, so tortuous that its perplexity is apparent not only find its existence in the course of artistic creation, but also in the way artists receive proper evaluation and earn the status they deserve. It depends on time and the insights of art historians; but for truly outstanding artists - their achievement being unjustly overlooked for reasons obscure - due recognition will always be accorded in the fullness of time. Of these artists Wu Dayu was a perfect example. Born in an epoch of ignorance, he had been "trying to reap a harvest from an arid land", and was sadly "forgotten", as Wu Guanzhong bewailed. For this Zao Wou-ki longed for a "restoration to his rightful status". In retrospect, in tracing the development of Chinese modern art, we are obliged to find Wu Dayu in a pioneering position unique in the field, for he set forth his quest for pure colour aesthetic in beauty and abstraction before the epoch would allow, and his works, with their marks of modernism and aestheticism, echoed remotely with the Western waves of Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism, laying, by means of guidance, a solid foundation for the development of Chinese modern art. The significance of Wu Dayu's works, both in their aesthetical and historical value, ought to be recognized and revealed.