"Eastern and Western arts are the same; there should be no division between them. What they have in common is not the technique or the way of seeing, but more readily the highest virtue embodied by the arts from the two traditions, in which leads to an enlightenment."
In the mid-1920s, Chinese-born Wu Dayu went to France on a work-study program initiated by the Chinese government, making him among the first artists to participate in the exchange. Upon his return, he devoted himself to teaching, reforming and developing modern Chinese art together with artists like Lin Fengmian and Pan Tianshou. While his artwork holds a lasting place in history, Wu himself was also a great influence on his students who, like Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun, would become the second generation of eminent artists notable for synthesizing Chinese and Western asethetics. Wu's early works, large romantic narratives, are regrettably lost to history due to the instability of the first half of the 20th Century. Only a few small oil paintings remain to the present day, produced in the middle and late periods of his career; only through these works can we experience and appreciate the way Wu integrated oriental abstraction and occidental expressionism with his own special character. The Evening Sale highlights two of these works in oil medium, Flourishing (Lot 1014) and Flower Rhymes-19 (Lot 1015). Together they register the artist's unique path of stylistic development, from semi-figuration to abstraction, and thereby serve as valuable references for the analysis and exploration of Wu's method of creation.
The observation of the same object can elicit disparate responses among Chinese and Western painters; the resulting creative endeavors can vary widely. Through close observation of the figural features of an object, Chinese traditional flower-and-bird paintings captured the temperament and aura of the subject, whereas Western still-lifes draw from the nature the material object and its external appearance. Chinese Confucian and Taoist philosophies suggested that "nature" and human life were dynamically interwined; as Zhuangzi contended, "heaven and earth live with me in symbiosis, and everything in nature comes as a whole" . Flowers and birds became the medium through which Chinese literati artists reflected on their lives and aspirations. Constrained by the circumstance of his time, Wu Dayu likewise conceived the motifs of his works from his environment, and employed these "still-life" elements to express his thoughts on life and his abiding love for art. As such, the vase of flowers that appears in Flourishing is not so much the subject Western modern art than the medium through which Wu chose to channel his emotions and doldrums in times of hardship.
In Flourishing, the compositional elements such as points, lines and planes is enhanced by the manipulation of colour. Emerging from the structure are the bold colours of red and black, revealing the themes of the painting, and which are not commonly found in the artist's works. The varying tones of green that flow through the canvas exude a sense of vitality with its rich layers and rhythm. While the oblique straight lines on the top of the canvas shape the windowsill, a counter-tension is also formed; the arc directs the viewer to follow its running curves. The centerpiece, a cone-shaped black vase and its bright red flowers, serves to stabilize the whole frame. The figurative imagery is transformed on the canvas into shapes of squares and circles, variously concrete, explicit, tense and complete, while at the same time abstract, implicit, loose and impartial, the seeming penetration of light intimates a weighty three-dimensional space. Oil paints are used, but the smooth and swift brushstrokes the artist applies on the blank canvas offer the work a candid character, which resembles more the flower-and-bird paintings for the decisive penning. The artist, fusing thick oils with dry, hollow strokes, creates within the subjective colour of Western Expressionism a more profound imagery. Compared with the nearly-Cubist, colour-inked still-lifes from Lin Fengmian, Wu's work exhibits a different creative way of integrating Chinese and Western arts.
In Enlightened Soul - Reminiscences of Wu Dayu, the Progenitor of Chinese Oils , Min Xiwen, a student of Wu, recalled the life of his teacher in Shanghai where he lived by himself. Min wrote, "Since then he was in solitude, giving the whole of himself to painting. When Tu Ke and I visited him, however, he seldom talked about pictures or creations. Instead he told us about philosophies, those of Buddhism and Taoism, and especially the teachings of Zhuangzi. He always spoke about his understanding of 'nothingness', 'void', 'emptiness' and 'awakening', though he was not a Buddhist." Following his apprehension of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, Wu Dayu came to transfigure his art, proceeding from the realistic narration of objective imagery to the expression of the essential beauty and perfection of his subjects. The artist's own emotions were more restrained and instead he sought the simple, harmonic existence of, and interaction within, the natural world with a pure heart. In the almost entirely abstract Flower Rhymes-19, a sharp and liberal brushwork is employed to pattern the interspersion of shapes and colours. A faint shape suggesting a yellowish white flower seems to have sprung out against the primary tone of Prussian blue, the artist's most-favoured colour, and producing a jovial mood for the exotic floral bloom.
The Magnolia Bank, a poem of the Tang literati Wang Wei, reads: "The floret on high hibiscus boughs blossoms in red over the mountain besides the gully stands an empty hovel for no one the flowers bloom and wither. " With peace of mind the poet accepts all changes of nature as they are, and the blossoming and withering of flowers mean nothing sorrowful but the moment of resplendence when the hibiscus blooms. Wu Dayu himself said, "painting is an artist's reflection on nature, and it is also the reality of the universe being caught by the artist at that fleeting moment." In his hands, the Flower Rhymes-19 is transfigured; through the artist's refinement and simplification, the work expresses a sentiment of its own. The "reality" on the canvas is neither an imitation of the image nor a mere visualization by means of colours, lines and structure, but evidence of the lasting value Wu Dayu extracted from life - "to see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a petal of flower." The fragile, insignificant existence of everything in the world is made eternal, in the form of a joy of living, through artistic creation.
In the past century, generations of artists have pondered the development of Chinese ink painting and the synthesis of Chinese and Western arts. From Flourishing and Flower Rhymes-19 we can see the shift of aesthetic focus in Wu Dayu's treatment of subject and object. His creations display an enlightened understanding extending from the exterior surface to its inner essence. Flourishing is a continuation of the flower-and-bird art in which the consciousness of the artist is attached to the formal elements of the work; sentiment gains its strength through the ebullient brushwork and the subjective colouring. Flower Rhymes-19, on the other hand, obliterates the form, showcasing the way the artist moves back to an objective position in examining life and nature. The objects and the artist communicate in progressive levels, and the artwork becomes an extension of the artist's spirit and disposition. Any remnant of the dejected reality the artist experienced is wiped away. Only his loving care and affection for life and nature is retained, finally, as a gift to the posterity.