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. - James Cahill, Styles and Methods in the Painting of Wu Guanzhong
Wu Guanzhong was born in 1919 in a rural village in Yixing, Jiangsu Province. Exposed to art as a youth through his acquaintance with Chu Teh-Chun, he fell in love with it immediately and passed the entrance exam for the Hangzhou Academy of Arts, where he studied under the guidance of Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu, and Pan Tianshou. In 1947, Wu traveled to Paris to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. Returning to China in 1950, he travelled throughout his homeland, engaging in creative exploration and working at his ideals of 'nationalizing oil painting' and 'modernizing Chinese painting.' He became one of the most influential figures in the development of modern painting in 20th century China. During the Cultural Revolution, he was 'sent down' to the countryside for a number of years, and only in 1972 he was allowed to return to painting. He drew inspiration from his rural experience, developing a simpler and more elemental style, and he embodied his pursuit of beauty and form in depictions of nature and humanistic scenes.
Golden Field (Lot 8), painted in 1977, depicts the brilliant yellow flowers of a broad, rolling field of canola in bloom in early spring in southern China. The painting's aura of warm, fresh colour is visually compelling, without hindering the natural charm of his realistic presentation. The beauty of the countryside is the work's underlying theme, its basic visual structure formed from the overlays of vertical and horizontal lines and blocks of colour. Wu's lyrical, free brushwork outlines this poetic scene of his homeland with an ideal balance between concentration and openness, as pleasing variation emerges even in his compact and concentrated style. Golden Field embodies the vividness and flavour always sought in traditional Chinese painting, while taking the challenge to create innovative forms of expression in modern Western oil painting, with its points, lines, planes, and planar forms.
Golden Field is much more than a simple scene painted from life. It fully displays the ways in which Wu Guanzhong, without departing from the basic techniques of realism, and in a framework of Western perspective, still embraced elements of the multi-point perspective of Chinese landscapes along with a more intuitive and overall kind of natural perception. The slightly elevated horizon line in his composition emphasizes the breadth of the land; the sky and the high mountain chain form the background, which Wu embellishes with the white walls and black-tiled roofs of houses in freehand brushwork. With just a few simple strokes he presents the relaxed and graceful figures that walk through the fields, succinctly capping off the work with a rich sense of the flavour of life in the Jiangnan region of China and its special scenery. The rich yellows of the canola fields occupy the middle ground and foreground, while seven tall, slim poplars thread their way through the flat space of the painting. The rich variety and character of their lines recalls the manner of Gong Xian, the painter who was first among 'the eight masters of Jinling' (Fig. 1). Wu produces the fence in the very near foreground by using the sharp edge of his palette knife to scrape out its lines in the thick impasto of his warm, yellow-brown pigments; its lines echo the nimble lines of the fine tree branches that grow toward the top of the painting. The pleasing patterns of these lines add a rhythmic feel, helping express the vigorous energies of life and perhaps hinting further at a staunch and uncompromising kind of spirit.
Wu Guanzhong's works from the '70s (Fig. 2) feature a formal beauty often derived from their strong, rhythmic lines, which weave together with his strongly textured blocks of colour to produce their spatial structures. These elements increase the richness and variety of their layering and add depth to their conceptions, while the highly simplified and summary approach of Wu's painting vocabulary, along with his genius at deploying scenic objects, also display an aesthetic sense strongly rooted in the East. In The Three Gorges of the Yangtze and Lu Xun's Home — A Creative Memoir , Wu said, 'I love the realistic vividness of images and colours, and I'm not satisfied with limiting myself to a pretty little scene in some odd place. Instead, even in painting from life, I work at "grafting flowers onto trees" and "moving the mountains and draining the sea" — that's a rough picture of my more than 30 years of painting from life.' That is to say, Wu Guanzhong put his greatest efforts into managing his compositional layouts; it was what allowed him to discover an overall form within natural scenery, and to find a natural focal point within the form for his painting. It also helped him overcome ossified concepts and rules, to aid his important goals of 'nationalizing oil painting' and 'modernizing Chinese painting.'
The eye-catching yellows of Golden Field also evoke thoughts of the wheat fields so often seen in the works of Vincent van Gogh whom Wu Guanzhong tremendously admired. Wheat fields also suggested an artist who was returning to the land and planting deep roots, and they complement the living energy of Wu's image of canola fields. Wheat fields were also once a subject of Wu Guanzhong's own painting (Fig. 3). In Van Gogh's Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon (fig. 4), we see his concern with composition and how his precise division of fields of colour emphasizes the flatness of the canvas; Golden Fields , however, projects a stronger sense of depth, developed from the imagistic spaces of Chinese ink-wash paintings, that guides the viewer's eye from the foreground to the far distance. Also different from the restless, urgent lines, bright colour contrasts, and the unique, undulating fervor of Van Gogh's landscapes is Wu Guanzhong's visual emphasis on nature's overall balance and its harmonious rhythms, and the solid, simple vigor of style that results.
Standing between the two poles of modern European painting and Chinese landscape, with the vastly different aesthetic experiences and concepts they represented, Wu Guanzhong saw an opportunity to move beyond painting mediums, the traditions of the times, and any differences in culture. With his vigorous, optimistic spirit, he forged ahead to produce the brilliant, outstanding styles and structures we see in his work.