Wu Guanzhong created most of his oil paintings from life. He would assign a specific setting to his subject of portrayal and simplify the scenery of nature, using only a few distinct strokes and natural colors to capture its essence. During the 1990s, Wu, then in his seventies, returned to painting portraits of women. In 1992, Wu held his solo exhibition at the Singapore Museum, The Human Form in the Sunset, and published his only catalog of nude works. When painting portraits, Wu used two mediums, oil and ink, to explore his unique artistic ideology, which as he once stated was “'recognizing and understanding the aesthetics of things and to analyze and master the forms that constitute beauty.”
In the painting Manners of Indonesia (Lot 395), two women with sharply different skin colour and clothes sit in the foreground. The joys of sitting by an Indonesian beach is palpable as vivid colours stream across their bodies. When looking at the lower fringes of the of the two lovely female figures, one sees the colours of aquamarine and russet that Wu uses frequently in his Chinese paintings. These colours echo with the emerald green hat donned by the darkly-skinned woman, forming a diagonal and triangular framework across the tableau and thus results in a steady composition. Following the gaze of the two women, the viewer’s sight is brought to the background of the painting, where people on the beach are represented by precious few brushstrokes. This method can also be seen in A Scene in Yunnan (Fig. 1), Wu’s work from 1993. In both paintings, the countenances and bodies of the figures are vague and nearly indistinguishable, yet the concise use of brushstrokes prove more than enough to express their state and activities. Figures who occupy the foreground are painted vividly and the fullness of their appearances is captured in a concrete manner, while the abstract quality derived from the genre of Chinese ink art remains untrammeled. The background is neatly divided into three blocks of colors, with frolicking people dispersed on the right, clamorous enough to catch the viewer’s attention, but not so much to overwhelm the main subject.
In his composition and the expression of his creative concept, Wu paints women in a way that transcends how one paints a portrait. He merges figures with scenery and creates a space of sublimated imagination in which the objective imagery has been disengaged — and this is the perfect portrayal of Wu’s creative career that spanned half a century. During his solo exhibition, The Human Form in the Sunset, Wu once said, “Looking back on my career as a painter, I returned to painting human figures in the 90s to relive the dreams of my youthful years. Yet, I will never set foot in the river I once bathed in. The water ran past me, as did my youth. I turn what I have seen and felt into paintings . . . but who watches as this old man dances!” He created Manners of Indonesia during the Chinese New Year of 1995. The figures are perfectly balanced with the background and foreground, constituting Wu’s distinctly clean and fresh aesthetics; this work, created in his later years, is truly a delightful and consummate work.
1 Singapore Museum, Wu Guanzhong - The Human Form in the Sunset, Singapore, 1992