Wu Guanzhong: a guide to the artist ‘of feeling rather than fact’

The life of the French-trained artist whose work galvanised Chinese painting in the second-half of the 20th century. Illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

Wu Guanzhong at his exhibition Light within Ink at The Arts House in Singapore, 1988

Wu Guanzhong at his exhibition Light within Ink  at The Arts House in Singapore, 1988. Photo: Chua Soo Bin

Who was Wu Guanzhong?

Born in 1919 in the Jiangsu province of eastern China, Wu Guanzhong went on to become one of the most important Chinese painters of the 20th century. He’s renowned for his landscapes, which fused Western and Asian artistic traditions, and were the result — in part — of three years’ study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris between 1947 and 1950.

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), A Corner of a Garden (By the Lake), 1977. Oil on board. 45.4 x 45.4 cm (17⅞ x 17⅞ in). Sold for HK$14,895,000 on 28 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘A snake swallowing an elephant,’ is how Wu once described himself — the snake symbolising the Chinese artist in him, the elephant representing Western influence.

Why is Wu Guanzhong celebrated?

Wu’s life was as interesting as his art. The son of a village schoolteacher, he studied initially at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, under Lin Fengmian — a painter often called the ‘father of Chinese modernism’.

Then came the move to Paris in 1947, where he was particularly drawn to the work of Camille Pissarro, Cezanne and Van Gogh. Following his return to China in 1950, however, he found himself out of step artistically, the Communist authorities favouring a Social Realist style that featured heroic workers, farmers and soldiers.

In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Wu destroyed many of his oil paintings, for fear of what the Red Guards would make of them if they searched his house. He was right to be fearful: Wu was summarily banned from painting for seven years; denounced as a ‘bourgeois formalist’; and banished from Beijing to the remote countryside to perform manual labour (far from his wife and family).

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), Woods and a Spring. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 136.3 x 67.3 cm (53⅜ x 26½ in). Sold for HK$14,895,000 on 31 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

As the Cultural Revolution eased in the mid-1970s, Wu was allowed to return home and paint again — and over subsequent decades, he’d go on to become one of his country’s most revered artists. The year before his death — aged 90, in 2010 — he received two major retrospectives: one at Shanghai Art Museum, and another at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. In 2012, the Asia Society in New York staged the exhibition Revolutionary Ink: the Paintings of Wu Guanzhong.

What type of art is Wu Guanzhong best known for?

Above all, the landscapes of his homeland. ‘With these remarkable visions, he galvanised Chinese painting,’ says Eric Chang, chairman of 20th/21st Century Art Asia-Pacific at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), Households Alongside the Wu River, 1985. Oil on canvas. 45.8 x 53 cm (18 x 20⅞ in). Sold for HK$7,560,000 on 29 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

It’s often said that Wu combined a sense of colour and composition from Western oil painting with a spirit, lightness of touch and tonal variation of Chinese ink-wash painting.

‘Wu was an artist of feeling rather than fact,’ Chang says. ‘By this I mean his paintings capture an experience more than a sight. They’re the sort of images you think you can enter.

Were there marked developments in Wu’s art over his career?

Broadly speaking, the naturalism of his early landscapes gave way to greater abstraction in the landscapes of his later years. Works like Spring in Full Bloom, from 1991, echo the gestural lines and splashes of colour of Jackson Pollock.

‘With Wu, there’s this wonderful sense of countless different elements making up the whole,’ Chang says, ‘and that if you removed just one of those elements, even the tiniest, the picture would fall apart.

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The market for Wu Guanzhong’s art

‘In China, Wu's work has been very commercially popular for a while,’ says Chang. ‘Especially that from what tends to be considered his peak years, between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s. He’s regarded as having been one of his country’s great modern artists.’

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), The Yulong Mountains after Rain, 1996. Oil on canvas. 91.4 x 65.2 cm (36 x 25⅞ in)

Wu’s stock is also rising among Western collectors. Chang believes this is partly because his work (compared to that of most Chinese painters) is ‘pretty accessible’, and partly because the years since his death have seen a fuller appreciation of his career, with a growing number of international retrospectives globally.

Not that Wu was unknown in the West in his lifetime: in 1992, he became the first living Asian artist to have a solo exhibition at the British Museum.

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