WU GUANZHONG (1919-2010)
WU GUANZHONG (1919-2010)
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PROPERTY FROM A Private american COLLECTION (LOTs 1261-1262)
WU GUANZHONG (1919-2010)

The Grand Canyon

WU GUANZHONG (1919-2010)
The Grand Canyon
Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper
123.3 x 170 cm. (48 ½ x 66 7/8 in.)
Entitled, inscribed and signed, with two seals of the artist
Dated 1989
Acquired from Zee Stone Gallery, Hong Kong in 1996 by the present owner.
Wu Guanzhong-A Twentieth Century Chinese Painter, British Museum Press, London, March 1992, pl.21.
The Collection of Wu Guanzhongs Work, Beijing Crafts and Arts Publishing House, Beijing, July 2003, p.35.
London, British Museum, Wu Guanzhong-A Twentieth Century Chinese Painter, March 1992.
Further details
Considered the founder of modern Chinese painting, French-trained Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) combined a sense of colour and composition from European oil paintings with a spirit, lightness of touch and tonal variation of Chinese ink-wash painting.
Born in Jiangsu province in 1919, Wu originally attended a technical school in Hangzhou. Upon meeting Chu Teh-chun who was then a student at the National Academy of Art, Wu had the opportunity to visit the academy and in 1936 he transferred to become a student there, hence embarking on a life-changing journey in art. Having begun his training at the academy in the mid-1930s under the tutelage of Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), Wu then went onto study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the late-1940s (fig. 2), where he became interested in the work of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). The two experiences impacted Wu deeply and the young artist found himself at a crossroads between eastern and western traditions. Unwilling to give up either, Wu began to “sinicise oil painting and to modernise Chinese painting”.
Upon returning to China in 1950, Wu realized his contemporaries were unsympathetic to his cause. Unwilling to conform to the popularized Socialist Realist style of figure painting, Wu decided to paint landscapes. Travelling to several scenic places across China, Wu made sketches of the sights he saw. The artist wrote that “(t)hrough painting landscapes I have grown to love my motherland even more and wish to be forever intoxicated in her embrace.”
Although there was a brief stint during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), in which the artist was unable to teach, write or paint, by the early-1980s Wu began to appear in a flurry of exhibitions and publications. This continued throughout the rest of his life and most notably, London’s British Museum staged a groundbreaking exhibition for the artist in 1992 (fig. 3). This was the first time the museum broke its rule of displaying only ancient artifacts and showed the work of a living Chinese artist. A work from this exhibition, The Grand Canyon, dated 1989, is featured in the auction (Lot 1262).
Wu Guanzhong has always maintained a special relationship with Hong Kong. He first visited the city in 1950 on his way to return to China from Paris. In the next few decades he would come to Hong Kong again and again for numerous exhibitions and lectures, during which he would tirelessly visit streets of Hong Kong to do sketches. Hong Kong also provided Wu an open door to international museums and commercial galleries. In 1988 the Hong Kong Museum of Art collected its first work by the artist, entitled Tree Roots, and throughout the late 1980s to early 2000s Wu worked with a few galleries in Hong Kong holding many exhibitions to showcase his new works. Two works from this auction, Residents at Riverbank (Lot 1263) and An Old Mans Envy of a Rushing Stream (Lot 1264) were both acquired by European collectors in the 1980s through Wu’s gallery exhibitions in Hong Kong.
From the Hong Kong through the Eyes of Wu Guanzhong exhibition organised by Land Development Corporation of Hong Kong in 1991 to the artist’s retrospective at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2002 (fig. 1), Wu always welcomed any opportunities to exhibit in the city. In commemoration of this friendship and the artist’s centennial birthday, the Hong Kong Museum of Art will open a permanent “Wu Guanzhong Art Gallery” later this year following a generous donation of works made by Wu’s family. Wu’s work Tsim Sha Tsui (Lot 1261), dated 1990, again demonstrates Wu’s fondness of this city, and how its urbanity contrasts with Wu’s tranquil landscape of Jiangnan.
Today, Wu is internationally recognised and many of his works are held in museum and private collections across the world. When describing his artistic journey throughout the turbulence of twentieth-century China, Wu likened it to flying a kite against the wind with an unbroken string. For the artist, a kite’s resilience against the wind allowed it to soar higher and an unbroken string enabled it to remain attached to its original source of inspiration. Remaining true to this metaphor, Wu rendered his paintings with a touch of modernity through his pursuit of a national spirit. This is the historical significance of Wu Guanzhong.

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Lot Essay

When one is dealing with the vastness of the Grand Canyon, or the length of the Great Wall, in painting from nature or from photography, there is no way that one can accommodate the vast objective landscape within the limited format of the picture. I have made several versions of the Grand Canyon. This version concentrates on capturing its boundless energy. In order to represent the world-famous Grand Canyon of the West, I have used the untrammeled power of the East’s brush and ink. This is both an experiment and struggle.”-Wu Guanzhong, Quoted from Anne Farrer, Wu Guanzhong A twentieth-century Chinese Painter
The Grand Canyon (1989) was part of the British Museum’s groundbreaking 1992 exhibition, Wu Guanzhong: a twentieth-century Chinese painter. The magnificent large-scale painting was produced as a result of the artist’s 1989 trip to the United States, where he was attending the opening of his exhibition at the Chinese Cultural Centre in San Francisco. Wu has only painted three known versions of the Grand Canyon and in this awe-inspiring panorama the artist wrote that he “concentrate(d) on capturing its boundless energy” by using the “untrammeled power of the East’s brush and ink”.
The late-1980’s and early-1990’s was a pivotal time for Wu Guanzhong. The artist was finally gaining the keen attention of the international art world through an outpour of exhibitions and publications. The artist wrote that “in (his) seventies, (he) seem(ed) to have regained (his) youthful days. (He has) become arrogant, bold and unrestrained and willful again.”
In The Grand Canyon, the artist’s newfound vitality is demonstrated through a myriad of complex lines. From thin meandering lines, to lines applied with a broad brush, to lines of varying tone and length, the artist skillfully captures the beauty of the vast American landscape. Effortlessly moving between two styles, Wu embraces both the free-flowing line of early-Qing artist Gong Xian and the rapid brushstrokes of Post-Impressionist Henri Matisse. The multiplying and tangling of different brush lines epitomises Wu’s distress between two contradictory styles, which ultimately drove his pursuit of a completely new artistic language. Another important stylistic feature of Wu’s work is the spots of diffusing ink, which allows the line to pause and create moments of quiet contemplation. Some dots appear randomly, as if they were casually splattered across the paper, others are deliberate, with unmuddied bright colours marking the rugged terrain. Thus, The Grand Canyon is a perfect illustration of Wu’s skill in exceeding the traditional textures of ink strokes and demonstrating a blend of unique lines, dots, and brushwork. Creating an abstract, yet equally powerful portrait of the Grand Canyon, Wu’s rendering of the majestic landscape takes on a different perspective, especially when compared to Thomas Moran’s more hyper-realistic portrayal.

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