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WU DAYU (1903-1988) Untitled No. 21 oil on canvas, mounted on paper board 52.7 x 37.4 cm. (20 3/4 x 14 3/4 in.)
Private Collection, Asia
Lin & Keng Gallery Inc., Wu Dayu, Taipei, Taiwan, 2006 (illustrated, p. 119).

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Lot Essay

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 artist to participate in the exchange. Exposed to Fauvism, Impressionism, Cubism and the Paris School and Nabis in France, and greatly influenced by Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse, Wu returned to China and devoted himself to teaching, reforming and cultivating modern Chinese art together with 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 aesthetics. Wu idealized to liberate the rigid country with art by breaking traditional ideological limitations and stressing on exploring the fundamental nature of art. Nevertheless, he embraced the practice of Confucianism and Daoism and integrated it with Western philosophy in his endeavour to introduce modern art from the West and develop new school of paintings for China.

Wu had a deep, personal response to nature as he believed that "painting is the artist's response to nature and is a fleeting glimpse of the truth of the universe.". Observing his environment and nature's mood, Wu transferred them onto his canvas in stylistic innovation of colour aesthetics. Investigating colour theory, the complementary palette and the juxtaposition of it, Wu illustrated the feeling of spontaneity and emotional intensity of Abstract Expressionism, consciously grounding himself by pertaining to the theoretical imperative of Cubism (Fig. 1) by analyzing, re-assembling objects in abstracted form to cultivate his Daoist principles as the foundation of his artistic creation.

Untitled No. 21 (Lot 1023) and Untitled No. 23 's (Lot 1024) foundation palette are of earthy tones, perhaps indicative of their similar period of production. These warm and grounded hues prompt our sensory experience into differentiating the aesthetics of the two paintings, the colour combination and the level of its depth and appliance. The complexity of the paint and imagery induce layers of Wu's personal philosophy but also simultaneously liberate the canvas for the viewer's subjective interpretation but still imposing on the initial emotion and mood of the painting. Although devoid of narrative content, his works are formed in unexpected but calculated simplicity with his balance in extracting the essence of the subject and relaxing its contours to match the vitality and character of it. Wu utilizes his deepest and most universal human emotions to respond to a subject, characterizing them in his unfettered brushwork and focused on portraying the soul of the subjects over its figurative shape, a quality that emulates Chinese ink paintings - shui mo hua. He utilized Western medium but controlled his brush with Chinese ink painting's force by varying its tonalities from sparsely applied paint to immensely concentrated areas of thick paint to create a sense of spatial dimension of foreground, background and centre; every brush stroke is applied with meaning and purpose. An artist with firm self belief and deep intellect, Wu cultivates his mind and emotion as the foundation of his creation; it is the absolute understanding of himself that clears and determines his aesthetic vision in his deliberate analogy to Daoist ideas that through awareness of one self, man gains knowledge of the universe. Continuing to meditate on its principles, hidden aspects of the effortless effort, naturalness, vitality, spontaneity and receptiveness are integrated under the comparable facade of Western abstraction.

Whilst retaining the Eastern philosophy for humanity and the cosmos, the artist aesthetically quotes from Georges Braque by compressing and breaking up the natural forms into geometrical simplifications; and from Wassily Kandinsky (Fig. 2) for his wistful poetry in colour as "colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul." Wu's synthesis of East and West, and strong senses for colours combined with bold, vigorous brushworks heighten the drama and emotion of the paintings, theatrically representing the world of elemental forces and the wonders of nature. Untitled No. 21, presumably painted before Untitled No. 23, is permeated with fiercely dragged brush strokes and colour focused in the middle. Structural composition is clear with feathered textures of blue surrounding edges of the canvas to climax into a rich lode of dark hues of navy blue, black and orange. The accumulation of pigment surfaces in whirlwind motion, its cursive strokes and casual angles together with eventful interactions of colours evoking a sense of constant visual shift in zig-zag, backwards and forwards motion. The warmth of orange appears lively yet agitated, flashing erratically along the middle, shaking the overall temper of the canvas. The yellow is cornered with a strong contrast of black blocking its dispersion, but the glimpse of yellow subtly seeps through the dominating shades of black and blue. Here, the pool of yellow in the corner is a crucial function in liberating Untitled No. 21; this unpredictable colour placement opens up the canvas space, breaking what could have been a static composition of solid mass of colours in the centre with mundane framing of dry and wispy blue brushstrokes. In Untitled No. 23 Wu instills his canvas background with balance of densely encrusted brown and deep Prussian blue, clearly distinguishing foreground and background but in different mannerism than of Untitled No. 21 . If Untitled No. 21 's compositional arrangement was clear with commanding form in front against a comparably empty background, Untitled No. 23 is infused with solid colours in both its foreground and background, deliberately exploring the coexistence and interaction between the cool degree of white against the warmth of the soil brown; an outcome that is beautifully daring and breathtaking, exemplifying Wu's poise for uncontrolled freedom and conscious control over his paintings. Both pictures echo earnestness, crowding the surface with complex textures and interweaving of paint, symbolic of the contemplative and questioning nature of the artist.

Throughout his life Wu Dayu sought tirelessly the experience of an expression of beauty. His creation displays an enlightened understanding extending from the exterior surface to its inner essence. In retrospect, in tracing the development of Chinese modern art, we are obliged to find Wu Dayu in a pioneering position unique in the field, for he set forth his quest for pure colour aesthetic in beauty and abstraction before the epoch would allow, and his works, with their marks of modernism, and aestheticism, echoed remotely with the Western waves of Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism, laying, by means of guidance, a solid foundation for the development of Chinese Modern art.

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