Wu Guanzhong's first major change of direction stylistically came in the early 1970s. Earlier works, such as the still life in Fig. 1, had often emphasized the rich textures and dense colors of the oil medium. But from 1973 on, when Wu once again began working in the ink medium, the richness of color in his oil work gradually gave way to an emphasis on the flowing lines typical of ink work, along with lighter and more delicate color and washes of paint. These changes culminated in his "Shaoxing" series of works from the Jiangnan region of China, and Wu's City Overlooks the Yangtze River (Lot 1009) derives from this period of stylistic transition. It retains some of the dense colors of earlier works, along with realistically detailed portrayal of the scene, but at the same time Wu begins to handle his oils in a manner similar to ink-wash modes of painting. This imparts to the oils a markedly different kind of texture and achieves effects like the blending of ink and color in Chinese ink paintings, for a work that marks the beginning of Wu's quest to stamp oil painting with a uniquely Chinese "national" character.
In 1974, Wu Guanzhong and three other artists, including Huang Yongyu, were commissioned by the Beijing Grand Hotel to produce the giant mural, Ten Thousand Kilometers on the Yangtze. In order to paint directly from life, the four of them traveled upriver from Shanghai, traversing Suzhou, Wuyang, Nanjing, and Wuhan, and arriving finally in Chongqing. In their last stop at Chongqing, however, they encountered the political movement to "denounce black paintings," and the hotel mural project had to be aborted. But the trip stimulated Wu's desire paint scenes along the riverside, and among the paintings that resulted is the City Overlooks the Yangtze River presented in this spring's Evening Sale. This oil work has been owned formerly by Dr. K.S. Lo. After spending more than 40 years as a part of two private collections, Christie's is now able to present City Overlooks the Yangtze River for its first-ever appearance on the auction market.
Ink-and-Brush Style With Post-Impressionist Appeal
The jumble of buildings climbing up the hillside is a central focus of City Overlooks the Yangtze River . Wu sets out these structures with short, heavy brushstrokes applied quickly, a technique seldom seen in his work. Whereas in his later work, where such subjects tended to feature vertical and horizontal strokes only, here there are curving strokes that rise and fall, with pigments applied in varying directions, leaving layers of color that curve, run straight, zigzag, or loop back on themselves. Blocks of color in this work tend form as hues cluster or group together, rather than appearing as neatly laid out rows or layers. Wu builds up ample layers of pigment that highlight the thick, dense textures of oils, and the canvas projects an atmosphere heavy with dense mists to capture an impression of Chongqing, a hillside city constantly shrouded in layers of cloud. Wu further tends to obscure the outlines of the buildings, bringing out even more the fine and staggered interlacing of colors to create the closely woven visual textures apparent here. The visual appeal and coloristic beauty of this depiction reflects Wu's observation that "beauty lies precisely within these fine and close patterns and the variations and irregularities in them." Wu first developed this type of ink-and-brush form in other works in early 1970, also when depicting the buildings in a hillside town. This painting, however, with its rich, tapestry-like feel and dense detail, is also strongly flavored with a Western Post-Impressionist feel. Wu's brushwork has some of the seeming looseness found in Cezanne's later work (Fig. 2); its strong and impetuousness character also gives it a directness and liveliness akin to Van Gogh's brushwork, and provides us with a rare glimpse of Wu Guanzhong's admiration for that artist.
Toward a Completely New Style, a "Blend of Ink and Color"
"Can the color and richness of oils and the flow and harmony of Chinese ink work together in a complementary way? Yes, I think they can, but there are all kinds of contradictions. How do you resolve them? Only by working at it continually, and learning from the frustrations and the rewards!"
Wu Guanzhong, from a talk on "Nationalizing Oil Painting"
While City Overlooks the Yangtze River displays the layered brushstrokes and beautiful color of the Post-Impressionists, its brushwork style also conceals the dots, slashes, falling strokes, and pressure strokes of Chinese calligraphy, used here for painterly effect. With Wu's ever-changing brushwork and his judicious addition of slightly warmer or cooler tones, the principal groupings of browns, blacks, greys, and greens in the same color series undergo subtle changes. Visual effects from Chinese ink-wash painting, such as subtly varied shades of black and spreading washes of ink, have been transformed for the oil medium, so that colors are layered on the canvas much as layered effects are created by spreading inks on Chinese xuan paper. If we compare City Overlooks the Yangtze River with two colored-ink paintings by Wu from the same year, View of Chongqing on the River (Fig. 3) and an ink work also titled City Overlooks the Yangtze River (Fig. 4), we can see even more clearly the changes in Wu's brushwork and these ink-like effects. From works such as these he derived features of his oil painting style that are similar to the "blend of ink and color" sought in ink painting. City Overlooks the Yangtze River concretely embodies Wu's concept of "nationalizing" Western oil painting, signaling as it does the features of Wu's changing style in the '70s; in it he takes advantage of the rich color of the oil medium but also explores how to inject into it the atmosphere of Chinese ink-wash styles. Many works by Wu Guanzhong show that he sometimes painted two versions of the same subject and the same composition, once in colored ink and once in oil. His ink works were inflected with the rich color of oil, while the reverse was also true as he used ink-like washes of color in his oil works. Western artists have been known to treat the same subjects in both oils and in prints, but their endeavors involve different media that nevertheless derive from the same culture. Wu Guanzhong's experiments, however, involved crossing over between different cultures and aesthetic traditions, and transplanting ideas and techniques from one into the other. The results were even more original and helped enrich the expressive vocabularies of both styles of painting.
Chinese Handscroll-Style Composition
City Overlooks the Yangtze River is also unique in its compositional style and spatial arrangement. While it is a scenic oil painting, one aspect of the melding of Eastern and Western styles found during this creative period is found in the way it draws on compositional approaches from traditional Chinese landscape painting. Wu does not employ typical Western methods of perspective in his composition, nor does he deliberately seek to enhance depth. Instead, he places the entire bulk of the mountain and city at the painting's center, where they fill nearly the whole picture space. Within the view he presents, Wu deliberately flattens the layering, the sense of distance, and internal relationships, drawing the eye to focus even more on the layered rise and fall of buildings along the hillside. Wu in fact adopts here a panoramic landscape style prevalent since the Song and Yuan dynasties, as seen in works such as Travelers Among Mountains and Streams by the Northern Song's Fan Kuan, or The Red Cliff by the Jin Dynasty's Wu Yuanzhi (Fig. 5). Just as in these works, City Overlooks the Yangtze River brings the distant background into the middle ground of the composition, and furthermore enlarges it to dominate the picture space, highlighting even more the sense of a grand spectacle in the city on the mountainside.
Perhaps even more closely related to Chinese landscape paintings is Wu's emphasis on breadth rather than depth, as his main compositional elements expand horizontally. Some space is left on the far left side of the canvas, where a small remaining patch of water is painted in pale, diaphanous hues. The misty reaches of this grey haze hint at the rolling clouds and mists and the nebulous distances of traditional Chinese landscapes, and it is the subtlety with which the sense of distance and of rolling waters stretching away beyond the city are implied that relates this aspect of the work to the hazy expanses so often seen in Eastern art. The riverboats at the painting's edge add a dynamic sense of movement and development to the composition; they seem as if they have sailed from a great distance and are just now coming within view to dock at the riverbank below the city. The spatial arrangement of the composition unfolds laterally, much as it does in a handscroll painting, as the center of visual focus is pulled outward so strongly that there is an implied extension even beyond the borders of the canvas. The Chinese handscroll style of composition is basically unknown in Western art; the idea behind handscroll design was to allow the viewer to hold the scroll in one hand and gradually unroll it with the other, enjoying details of the scene that slowly unfolded from right to left. As the scroll opens, the viewer's eyes must shift to follow, so that the view takes on a kind of cinematic sweep and movement, and is dynamic rather than static. The continuous, unending panorama of handscroll paintings implies the passage of time as well, allowing scenes viewed at different times to be incorporated into essentially a single visual space. By adopting a composition that suggests the layout of a Chinese handscroll City Overlooks the Yangtze River also incorporates the unique cosmology of Chinese culture and gives concrete expression to its aesthetic outlook. Such a composition likewise also hints at the gradual passage of time, which helps inject the work with its strong sense of historical occasion and the slow, sweeping passage of time City Overlooks the Yangtze River is somewhat rare among Wu Guanzhong works for its presentation of such a broad and grand prospect; it has an epic character that looks back to the past and forward to the present, and by contrast with Wu's still lifes from the same period, represents an expansion into new territory for the artist.
The Yangtze River holds great cultural significance for the Chinese, stretching as it does across great swaths of Chinese territory, where it witnessed the advances and declines of dynasties and human affairs throughout China's long history. The great poets of the Tang and Song traveled along the Yangtze, viewing the craggy cliffs and scarps along its length and sensing the river's unending flow throughout history, which called to mind for them the tragic shortness of their own lives. Through his presentation of this one scene, Wu Guanzhong conveys much about Chinese culture, the scenes often depicted in its ballads, and its philosophical outlook. City Overlooks the Yangtze River also represents Wu exploring the oil medium more deeply, making new discoveries, and moving it further toward his ideal of incorporating elements of Chinese aesthetics.