The distinctive painting style of Wu Guanzhong is both Chinese in outlook and modern in conception. Having successfully assimilated Western techniques of abstraction, Wu's paintings have the colour sense and formal principles of Western paintings, but a spirit and tonal variations of ink that are typically Chinese. Natural scenery is abated to its essentials - simple but powerful abstract forms. Throughout the impressive opus of his work, objective representation loses its sway, and the composition is instead overtaken by the beauty of the abstract forms, lines, colours and subtle ink tones.
In the 1950's, Wu returned to China after a period of reflection and study spent in France. The artist began painting a series of oil landscapes as he roved throughout China, vividly presenting the breadth and richness of Chinese landscapes, the mountains and shimmering lakes of the Jiangnan region, and the bold grandeur of the north. By the 1960s and 70s, Wu Guanzhong had begun a series of strikingly beautiful oils, very expressive of the Chinese spirit and aesthetic, which brought his career to its first great creative peak. This season's Evening sale presents a timelessly beautiful work by Wu Guanzhong on such a landscape theme; Reeds by the Li River (Lot 197), painted in 1977. Here, Wu's skillful handling of brushwork in the oil medium imbues the work with the gentle charm of traditional Chinese painting in a scene of steep slopes and lush reed embankments, stony bluffs hovering above the water, and grey peaks rising in the air. Wu Guanzong employs a subtle gray, sky blue and emerald green palette to depict the scenery of the Lijang River. Rows of mountains set in still waters unfold layer upon layer in the distance, their solid forms perfectly balanced by the open spaces of the painting. Among the peaks that spot the region between Guilin and Yangsu, the Lijiang river winds like a bolt of blue silk.
Wu's principal medium in the 70s was oil, and in that medium he insisted that his abstract images be rooted in a natural feeling. He worked in styles alternating between pure oil painting and colored ink modes; his attempts to meld western formal structures with the atmosphere of traditional Chinese styles resulted in a new paradigm that combined the beauty of nature with formal beauty. Wu had studied traditional painting with Pan Tianshou, and his favorites in that genre were Shi Tao, Xu Gu, and Bada Shanren. From Wu Dayu he learned western painting styles, and admired modern art and the Impressionists, in particular Van Gogh and Cezanne. Bada Shanren, he felt, was the classical painter who had explored abstraction more deeply than any other; he produced the pensive but somewhat uneasy atmosphere of his works with nothing more than restless lines and washes of black ink on a white ground. Bada Shanren also deliberately sought images that were unstable as he worked for a sense of flowing motion in his works. In Wu Guanzhong's view, "His boulders look top-heavy, even pointed on the bottom. They're not steady at all: they're rolling-they're about to roll away! He paints birds with claws that won't hold steady either. The claws are represented by a small oval in light tones underneath a larger oval in black that is the bird, and to that he adds their eyes, which together form a pattern of abstract beauty like our Taichi diagrams. Contrary to our normal way of thinking, he paints pine trees that actually narrow toward the bottom so that the tree seems to hover in the air with no base. His lotus flowers stand hovering on their stalks, and the artist's simple lines in light black merely hint at their forms as they wave in the air in their ephemeral and dreamlike world." Elaborating further his ideas on painting, in "An Elderly Artist Talks about Painting," Wu put forward the now well-known kite-and-string analogy: "If we think of the painting as a kite, then we cannot let the kite's string break as it ascends into the air. The string is that deep feeling that connects the work of art with the people who view it, and it joins the work itself with the feelings that inspired its creation. I'm always pushing the boundary where that string is about to break, but I prefer to stop short of where it actually breaks."
One of Wu Guanzhong's concerns was "nationalizing oil painting," which simply meant focusing on ethnic and regional styles and features, and combining them with the simplicity and transparency characteristic of traditional Chinese ink-wash styles. Wu's art receives an accurate assessment in the 1998 essay, "The Painting of Wu Guanzhong," by noted critic Professor James Cahill and Professor Hsing Yuan Tsao: "Wu Guanzhong's art is not in itself especially difficult to understand, for anyone familiar with the difficult progress of art and society in twentieth century China. His works are full of the features most characteristic of Chinese art of this century, features deriving from the meeting and interaction of western and eastern art. As China confronts the rest of the world, her long and rich traditions can sustain her artists, but can also be a heavy burden on their backs. For them, it has been a period of transition: straining, pausing to ponder, and rising with new force. Aware of standing before the whole twentieth-century world, China's artists must address the problem of how to continue in their own tradition while learning from foreign ones, how to fuse western and eastern art into some kind of unity. Among these artists Wu Guanzhong stands out as one of the leaders. He himself exemplifies the unceasing distress and constant searching of recent Chinese painting, and his art is a crystallization of that distress and searching."
Wu's oil painting employed many of the techniques and effects of traditional ink-wash painting. In 'Reeds by the Li River' we see a concise composition with a strong sense of layered depth, and while oils do not possess the same flow as inks, the trunks of Wu's trees are presented here with all the incisiveness that could be achieved with ink. But for Wu Guanzhong, form really was the paramount consideration, one that dominated the "content" of a painting. Wu virtually left "content" out of consideration when analyzing a work: form was simply the division of the space of the canvas and its handling. The composition features a traditional tripartite division of space; its foreground, middle distance, and background are balanced, unified, and interact well with each other, while areas of dense detail or solid form are counterweighted by openness and space. The mountains seem almost to disappear in the distance while the rich depth and brush contrasts of the thick reed embankment add a wonderful enlivening touch to the painting.