A human form in the setting sun
Whoever sees this, just watch this old man dance again
For more than a decade, after entering the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1936 and continuing through his study of modern Western oil painting at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris from 1947 to 1950, Wu Guanzhong focused primarily on the genre of the nude, delving into his work and searching for his own artistic path (Wu Guanzhong, The Human Form in the Sunset').
After his return to China in 1950, Wu Guanzhong fervently hoped to create a path for a new kind of modern, nationalistic art—to develop Chinese painting through the use of modern, Western aesthetic ideas. This, however, was completely at odds with the prevailing official policy of 'art that serves political needs.' Following several waves of political criticism in China, Wu's attitude toward art became a public target and he was subjected to criticism and persecution. Unwilling to abandon his ideals or his creative work, he instead turned in another direction. For over 40 years, he gave up painting nudes and turned to landscape painting as his chief subject, until the end of the Cultural Revolution ushered in a new springtime for creative work. And all the nudes he had previously done—in oils, as drawings or sketches, and even photographs of such works—were all destroyed in the havoc of the Cultural Revolution, a fact that often caused Wu Guanzhong to sigh with regret.
In the summer of 1990, when Wu Guanzhong was already in his 70s, he decided to once again explore the genre of the nude, to 'learn new things through review of the old.' Thus in 1992 he held a solo show, 'The Human Form in the Sunset,' at the Singapore Museum, at which time he published his only catalog of nudes. Wu's unusual artistic achievements during this period hold great value for the study of his art. Employing both oil and ink as mediums, he revisited the nude genre, exploring his own original concept of 'recognizing and understanding the beauty of things, and analysing and mastering the forms that constitute such beauty.'
In his oils, Wu was primarily interested in painting from life, and in placing his human subjects in a specific setting. But his ink works would be painted only after first finishing a version in oil, and in them, he gave himself creative freedom even while remaining faithful to the original sketch. Wu explained it this way: 'I cycle between oils and inks, making my way along a zig-zag course between colored pigments and ink.' Speaking of the process involved in ink painting, he said, 'Painting with inks requires lightness and quickness of motion, yet there are rigorous requirements in depicting the human form, which leads to frequent contradictions. Being rigorous in shaping forms is more than just accurately portraying an objective image, but at the same time, just casually painting in a free manner does not mean you have created a lyrical image (Wu Guanzhong, 'In Ink').' In his combined practice in oils and inks, Wu Guanzhong hoped to make use of modern Western painting concepts, with technical and conceptual innovations in terms of modeling, structure, color application, and brushwork. In so doing, he hoped to both continue and to further develop the Chinese art of ink painting, and in fact, to develop a new ink-painting style that would be 'suitable for this era.' He also hoped that, by virtue of using a traditional Chinese ink-painting style, he could try to move beyond merely depicting the figurative surface features of his subject and offer a new interpretation of the nude.
The Sea (Figure) (Lot 47) is a classic example of the way in which Wu Guanzhong would first produce an oil on canvas, then reinterpret the same composition in the ink medium. In ink, his basic shaping of forms follows the oil work closely, yet the lines of his brush, his ink and color, and the felt ambience of the work diverge from it and take a different direction. Wu outlines the model's form in grey, reinforcing those lines with light black ink to enhance the sense of solid physicality and strength in the forms. Much of his subject's form remains blank white space, however, with only touches of light ink that fill in shadows and convey the elastic quality of her torso and the fullness and supple warmth of her curves. Wu depicts the rippling sands and the rhythmic energy of the waves in the background in washes of light ink, making her body an element of the painting's emotional language; he also introduces a semi-abstract element in his handling of the ambient space in the painting, an ingenious touch that imbues this work with the same kind of appeal as the literati painters of old. By contrast with the oil version of the work, Wu here downplays any depiction of her facial features, thus eliminating her particularity as a subject; at the same time, the proportioning of her arms and legs is somewhat distorted, their lines somewhat softened, a slight softening that further heightens the freely lyrical aspect of the painting.
In Wu Guanzhong's composition and his conception of the work, the nude has been liberated from simple direct depiction and becomes instead a part of the surrounding scenery. Specific imagery is removed and sublimated in his conception, through which he offers an imaginative space where man and nature are one—and that is a precise description of the creative process in which Wu Guanzhong engaged over the long span of his 50 year artistic. 'Looking back over my career as a painter, in the '90s I once again began painting nudes, revisiting the dreams of my youth. But we can no longer step into the same stream which washed over us in previous days. The water has flowed on; I have aged; and what I have seen and felt I have put down in my paintings. Whoever sees them, just watch this old man dancing again! (Wu Guanzhong, The Human Form in the Sunset').