As a pioneer of modern Chinese art, Wu Dayu went to France in the mid-1920s on a work study program initiated by the Chinese government. He was among the first artists to participate in this cultural exchange. There he gained exposure to important movements within modern art, including Fauvism, Impressionism, and Cubism. He was deeply influenced by artists such as as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. After his studies abroad, Wu returned to China and devoted himself to teaching and reforming modern Chinese art with his students, who like Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-Ki, and Chu Teh-Chun, would go on to become the second generation of eminent artists who shattered the boundaries between Chinese and Western aesthetics, creating a genre of modernism that was completely their own. Wu Dayu’s considerable artistic innovations, however, did not guarantee him an easy life. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the western abstract art he admired was denounced as “counterrevolutionary,” and thus he was subjected to unjust treatement and criticsim. Many of his manuscripts, documents, and paintings were confiscated. However, the artist persisted in his work, moving to a tiny garret where he continued to paint compositions whose smaller size made them easier to stow away in his drawers out of sight; at just over a half meter in height, Wu Dayu’s Colour Rhymes-29 (Lot 30) fits into this category.
Inhabiting the boundary between representation and abstraction, Wu Dayu’s Colour Rhymes-29 is austerely beautiful in its loose and deconstructed representation of form. The palette is composed of wistful washes of yellow that at times coalesce into shocks of goldenrod, enlivening the otherwise cool tones of the composition. These bright points are contrasted against poetic variations of blue that dance across the surface of the canvas, in some moments with regimented control and balance, and in others with a surging spontaneity. Besides the visual appeal of these contrasting tones playing off one another, Wu’s choice of colour conveys his cultural roots, yellow and blue being the colours of immortality, nature, renewal, and vitality, long prized by China’s emperors. (Fig. 1)
While the composition is decidedly abstract, Wu firmly maintains his integrity and identity within the swirling, textural strokes that fly across the canvas. The cerulean strokes on right side of composition catch the eye for a moment, running parallel like panes of a window which frame the expansive world that lies beyond, just as Henri Matisse did in his painting Tangiers: Landscape seen through a Window . (Fig. 2) Their orderly application provides a refuge from the frenetic energy that dominates the left side of the canvas. Bold pools of velvet inky black blossom amidst frenzied ‘dry strokes’ which expose the white surface of the canvas behind. Multi-layered shading forms within Wu’s blocks of colour, as various tones overlap, coalesce, break apart, and strive vehemently to lay claim to their place within the composition. The result is a visual tension that, even within the small dimensions of this canvas, bursts with musical energy, rhythm and dance-like movement. Wisps of yellow and gossamer blue flutter between these areas of solid and void, giving the painting a sense of depth and perspective. The coexistence of these two realms within one work, amplify the respective exuberance and tranquility of each.
In examining Colour Rhymes-29 , it is easy to see the deep impression that Cubism left upon Wu. Through breaking down the long held convention of representing a subject from a single angle, masters of Cubism such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso presented aspects of their subjects that could not be conveyed from a direct frontal view. (Fig. 3 & 4) Wu Dayu likewise segmented his subjects, pushing the boundary even further by reorganzing and deconstructing the subject repeatedly to create a composition that leaves the comfort of recognizable representation just slightly beyond the viewer’s grasp. While Wu Dayu and his modern Western counterparts shed the restrictions of their traditional academic training, they fell into a convention of their own; each artist seemed to favor painting still-life arrangements—perhaps a vestage of their formal training—in front of an open window, orderly panes of glass framing the world beyond. This perhaps spoke to their collective desire to transcend canons of representation that had been laid down before them and venture forth into the boundless abyss beyond.
While he took influence from western modernism, Wu Dayu also embraced the practice of Confucianism and Daoism, successfully integrating both philosophies with Western schools of thought and media. While Western artists treat colour as elements that can express independent qualities, Wu’s contemplations on colour were quite novel in that it was a topic that was not commonly discussed within traditional Chinese painting. In traditional ink painting, there is considered to be a theory of the five basic colours, all created with the same black ink— these are described as dry, wet, dense, light, and charred. Within a traditional painting, even though only a single ink colour was applied, changes within the density and application of the ink could allow for perfect representation of objects and scenery. Classical painters could use the same black ink to convey both the immediacy of craggy branches in the foreground and the mist covered peaks in the distance within a landscape. (Fig. 5) Wu merged the traditional Chinese way of applying ink with western colour theory, not only through limiting his colour palate, but also through the varying textures and nearly calligraphic, directional force with which he applied his paint to the surface of the canvas.
Although devoid of narrative content, Wu Dayu’s paintings brought their subjects to life through unexpected but calculated simplicity. Rather than merely reproducing his subject’s figurative shape, Wu Dayu utilizes his deepest and most universal human emotions to respond the subject, masterfully extracting its essence and relaxing contours, to portray its soul. This treatment is a quality that emulates both Chinese ink paintings and Western modernism. He utilized the Western medium of oil on canvas, exercising a control on the movement and pressure of the brush that derives from Chinese ink painting so that every brush stroke is applied with meaning and purpose. An artist with firm selfbelief and deep intellect, Wu Dayu cultivates his mind and emotion as the foundation of his creation.
Art is always tortuous—so tortuous that its perplexity is apparent not only in its existence in the course of artistic creation, but also in the way artists receive proper evaluation and earn the status they deserve. It depends on time and the insights of art historians; but for truly outstanding artists— their achievement being unjustly overlooked for reasons obscure— due recognition will always be accorded in the fullness of time. Of these artists, Wu Dayu was a perfect example. Born in an epoch of ignorance, he had been “trying to reap a harvest from an arid land,” and was sadly “forgotten” as Wu Guanzhong bemoaned. For this Zao Wou-ki longed for a “restoration to [Wu’s] rightful status.” 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. The significance of Wu Dayu's works, both in their aesthetical and historical value, ought to be recognized and revealed.