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. Exposed to Fauvism, Impressionism, Cubism and the Paris School and Nabis in France, and personally greatly influenced by Paul C?zanne, Pablo Picasso and Henri 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's ideal was to liberate the rigid aesthetic traditions of the nation by a fundamental exploration into the nature of art. Despite his seeming rejection of his cultural legacy, he embraced the practice of Confucianism and Daoism, and integrated it successfully with Western philosophy and art making 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 a stylistically innovative approach to colour aesthetics. Investigating colour theory, the complementary palette, Wu illustrated the feeling of spontaneity and emotional intensity of Abstract Expressionism, consciously grounding himself by pertaining to the theoretical imperative of Cubism by analyzing, re-assembling objects in abstracted form to cultivate his Daoist principles as the foundation of his artistic creation. In this manner, Wu integrated the Western and Asian ideologies.
Reflecting on his period in France, Wu stated, "I was studying at the time, and was very interested in all those that came after Impressionism, because everything before that has been concluded by others. As for post-Impressionism, things are still under development. One must maintain one's art in a drifting state, and constantly develop it. I admire Picasso, Matisse. They were ceaseless in their creation. They never enjoy remaining at their own standard, they are the springboard for their followers."
While Rhythm 34 (Lot 2121) reveals Wu's upholding of the Eastern way of living and cosmology, he adopted Picasso's aesthetic view in which he compressed the objects and natural forms and divided them into simple geometrical shapes. Under his rich brushwork, enlivened lines and interwoven colour patches, the upper portion of Rhythm 34 seems to have hidden a person's face. As with French artist, Fernand Leger's Naked Model in the Workshop (Fig 1), the female nude is represented by geometrical shapes of colour surfaces, and thick black lines. Wu was courageous enough to study the topic of colour, an area that is not commonly discussed within Chinese traditional ink art. In Chinese paintings, there is a theory of the five basic colours of ink. Within an ink painting, even though only a single ink colour was applied, changes in colours can still be created to perfectly represent the objects. "Ink in five basic colours" stands for "dry, wet, dense, light and charred". If we add in "white", there are already six shades of colour. Wu merged the traditional Chinese way of applying ink with the Western colour theory. Western artists treat colours as elements that can express independent qualities. For example, Wassily Kandinsky has once said, "Colours directly touched the human soul." Western paints were used in Rhythm 34 , yet the way the paint has been applied carried the force commonly used in Chinese ink painting. The artist brushes across the surface with large paintbrush, allowing the paint to present different layers and texture such as thick, thin, heavy and light. Although the work uses black, white and blue as his dominant palette, different shades of blue are produced that includes greyish, vivid and light blue tones. The effect is unpredictable between the scattered brushstrokes and the dense overlay, creating a spatial setting that is akin to having a foreground, background and main body. Wu deliberately added in the "white" mentioned in the six shades of colour. At first, it has the implication of "leaving blank", yet Wu added in heavy layers of white colour patches. As he left different areas of white around the painting, he creates gradation in light and shades within the painting. 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 a distinctly Chinese Modern art.