I am absolutely not satisfied with just the visually pleasing effects of pure form. I love the conceptions that inform paintings. But these conceptions are connected with formal beauty, and must first be realized in terms of form before they can be expressed. At the heart of my career as an artist is using my painter's eye to discover the conception associated with an image.
- Wu Guanzhong, 'On Oil Painting, Bitter and Sweet'
In 1936, Wu Guanzhong entered the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou founded by Lin Fengmian, initially studying oil painting under Chang Shuhong, and thereafter learning Chinese traditional painting from Pan Tianshou. In 1947, after excelling in examination, he was admitted to government-funded study in France, where he entered the École nationale des beaux-arts for a three-year course of study. There, he gained a deep understanding of the essence of Western modern art, such as Impressionist colours, post- Impressionist visuality, Fauvist complete unleash of freedom, Cubist new form of expression. Upon his return to China, Wu Guanzhong embarked upon an inspirational fusion of Chinese traditional and Western modern art to create a third way, by employing ink and paper as its carrier, at the same time combining with concepts in Western modern art. In particular, Wu made breakthrough innovation to concepts and techniques and renewed visual language in terms of composition and structure, brushstroke and coloration. In this way, he inherited from and further developed Chinese ink painting, and thereby inaugurated a new era.
Under the political circumstances prevailing in China during the Cultural Revolution, Wu Guanzhong ended up being 'sent down' to the countryside several times for 'reform through labour.' That, however, did not dampen his fervent pursuit of painting, but served instead to focus his attention even more strongly on landscape-themed works. During the hours he spent at farm labour, he came to the realization that any interpretation of beauty must be sought in nature, and further, that one's own thoughts and feelings must become part of the scenes depicted — a realization that helped produce many successful works. The Lu Mountains (Lot 2504), dating from 1974, is Wu Guanzhong's most representative work from the 1970s, when his work in the oil medium was at its peak. In it Wu finds a precise balance between realism and a more freestyle (or xieyi) approach. The work is filled with freestyle brushwork of great abstract beauty, along with bold, solid lines that find a complement in others less distinct. Combined with these is the natural flavour of Wu's simple, earthy colours, while the structural relationships between his colours and lines produces the finely managed sense of space and depth in The Lu Mountains.
In The Lu Mountains, Wu Guanzhong boldly chooses to make trees and branches a dominating presence in the foreground of the work. These he sets out in strong, distinctive, and vivid brushwork, using horizontal strokes to create texture in the tree trunks, while the fine lines of slimmer branches are etched out of the pigment on the canvas. Wu's composition allows viewers to imaginatively enter into the scene, touching their feelings with the sense of glimpsing beautiful scenes in the distance through the branches. This double presentation of close-up branches with more distant vistas adds a wealth of poetic energy to this otherwise realistic scenic presentation. A shift in our viewpoint occurs as our eyes moves from the close foreground toward the white buildings and red-tile roofs in the valley, and then further on to the grand rise of the mountain peak in the distance. The artist guides us as we roam through the landscape: here there are mountain paths to walk, distant peaks at which to gaze, and homes in which to live. Song Dynasty painter Guo Xi once spoke of paintings in which 'there are landscapes with places to walk, vistas to gaze at, paths to roam, and houses in which to live,' and Wu Guanzhong here offers a fresh new interpretation of that view.
The pictorial space of The Lu Mountains is dominated by Wu's strong, expressive lines, somewhere between freestyle abstraction and naturalistic realism, which call to mind the decorative screens produced by Japanese artist Ogata Korin (Fig. 1) or the highly stylized landscape paintings of Gustav Klimt (Fig. 2). Korin eliminated any background in order to highlight his shapes and forms and the appeal of his subject; Klimt, on the other hand, provides a profusion of detail with multitudes of repeated points and lines. Wu Guanzhong's expressive approach is more elegant in its easy, effortless, yet reserved manner, and in this painting, which is lucid and understandable yet invested with deep feeling, he finds magnificent beauty in the ordinary. His brushwork is free and varied but never dense or complicated in the least, and his accurate depiction of the relative sizes, heights, and distances of objects allows the painting to exude a sense of precisely ordered beauty. The expression of rich detail without losing sight of the overarching order bespeaks a certain kind of aesthetic and a mature technique, closely linked to the aesthetic traditions behind Chinese landscape paintings and the grand sweep of their conceptions.
Beyond its finely managed composition, The Lu Mountains also features rich colour and meticulous layering. In the trees and mountains, Wu employs alternating areas of cool and warm tones in pigments which have the same kind of bright, saturated colours and earthy textures seen in natural minerals. From the broad perspective of art history, the jumbled blocks of colours in The Lu Mountains could perhaps be seen as inspired by Cezanne, though Wu moves beyond the purely formal beauty of Cezanne's work. Cezanne simplified and then reconstructed his scenery, emphasizing vertical and horizontal spatial extension in tightly structured compositions that can seem slightly confined (Fig. 3). Wu Guanzhong, however, by means of brushstrokes and colours that vary from dense to diffuse, expresses depth, distance, and openness within the flat spatial structure of the canvas. He injects a natural, intuitive sensibility into the work, and his feel for the resilient life force of the land conveys its flourishing vitality to the viewer. Wu Guanzhong surmounts the restrictions of the flat canvas through his precise grasp of line, colour, and structure, and in each minute area of the painting we find spaces where the imagination can roam. His brushstrokes in oil seem to possess a concentrated power that adds body and life, making real the relationships between scenic objects, as if there were another hidden dimension beyond his flat canvas. Brushstrokes are vivid and lifelike, and small touches of abstract beauty can be found within larger areas of figurative depiction. But these smaller sections carry traces that suggest the whole, while the whole exists in an overall unity within each of its parts. Wu Guanzhong thus reaches the highest summit of this kind of freestyle aesthetic, echoing the English poet William Blake's famous line about imagination: 'to see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.' The Lu Mountains reflects Wu Guanzhong's marvellous ability to find an image encompassing all of nature within some corner of its scenery, unrestricted by the size of his canvas. The Lu Mountains further reveals both his deep insights, and his ability to realize those insights in exciting ways, in terms of the mutual relationships between freestyle aesthetics and the shaping of forms, or in other terms, between abstraction and figuration in nature. The Lu Mountains displays all the elements that made Wu Guanzhong's art great.
Wu Guanzhong's pursuit of 'beauty of form' clearly differs from the modern formalism of the West; it is part of a more Eastern cultural vocabulary, closely tied to national sentiments. It is also deeply rooted in the perceptions of beauty gained during his rural life, from which evolved his unique and innovative creative vocabulary. Such a vocabulary served to present in art his actual experiences of the time, but also drew on the essence of the Chinese landscape painting tradition, a tradition not limited by the distinctions made in the West between abstraction and figuration. As he once wrote, 'In oil landscapes there are mountains, rivers, trees, houses....expressing these concrete images is not too difficult. But it is the abstract forms of the organizing structural relationships between these concrete objects— that is, the upward or downward motion they produce, the squares, circles, curves, and straight lines, and warm or cool colors—and their responses to each other, their degree of concentration or expansion, and so on, that are actually crucial in determining whether a work is beautiful or not, or whether its conception succeeds.' If Wu Guanzhong's work is understood on this basis, then figuration and abstraction are simply two sides of the same coin, and the key lies in whether the artist's forms and ideas are capable of expressing a conception that will touch the viewer. Put another way, what matters is whether technique and materials, through the shaping and structuring of the artist, can communicate the experience of the spirit. The poet Su Shi once wrote about the Lu Mountains that 'viewed from a distance, they seem a mountain range; from the side, a single peak,' reflecting the way in which the same mountain presents vastly different aspects from different viewpoints. This metaphorically describes the challenge faced by modern Chinese artists as they brought their Eastern aesthetic viewpoint into their work in a new medium. Wu Guanzhong's The Lu Mountains shows just how capable he was at solving this problem.
The Lu Mountains makes absolutely clear that in the history of Chinese art, Wu Guanzhong enjoyed magnificent success in two important areas: creating works that reflected a national spirit, and developing innovative new approaches to painting.