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WU GUANZHONG
(1919-2010)
The Hometown of Lu Xun
signed and dated in Chinese (lower left); signed and inscribed in Chinese (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
61 x 72.5 cm (24 x 28 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1985
Provenance
Hefner Galleries, New York, USA
Acquired directly from the above and thence by descent to the present owner
Literature
Shui Tianzhong (eds.), The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong, Vol. III, Hunan Arts Publishing House,Changsha, China, 2007 (illustrated, p. 212).

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Lot Essay

Wu Guanzhong's creative approach varied with his subject. Because different scenes inspired the use of strikingly different brush and ink techniques, he developed an especially broad stylistic scope. The Hometown of Lu Xun (Lot 1010) dates from 1985 and features scenery much loved by Wu from Shaoxing in China's Jiangnan region. Wu had earlier treated the same subject in a similar manner, in a 1977 painting (Fig. 1), but in this 1985 The Hometown of Lu Xun, we find hallmarks of Wu's 1980's style, especially in the marked tendency toward greater simplification of forms and images. Wu's work during this period often approached the boundary between realistic, figurative styles and pure abstraction; he typically employed a subtractive method, and was no longer intent on capturing and projecting all the physical details of the scene. His brushwork became simpler, more fluent, and livelier, while the aesthetic focus shifted from realism to blocks of color and brushwork texture. Abstract elements proliferated as Wu's expressive focus transitioned to the modeling of forms, geometrical shapes, and aesthetically pleasing styles. The Hometown of Lu Xun can be considered a representative work from this period, allowing us a thorough understanding of Wu Guanzhong's goals and achievements at this time.

Shaoxing makes frequent appearances in Lu Xun's writings. His story "Kong Yiji" is set there, while another story, "Hometown," depicts the surroundings and the customs of its people. Lu Xun focused on Shaoxing not just because it was his hometown, but because of its cultural importance. One of China's most famous works of literature and calligraphy, the "Lantingji Xu" ("Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Poems") by Wang Xizhi of the Northern and Southern Dynasty, centers around the Orchid Pavilion, located at Shaoxing; Song poet Lu You makes reference to a Shen Yuan Garden, also located there, and poets of many different eras in Chinese history have sung the praises of Shaoxing in verse. Few places better mirror China's culture and history; it is a virtual microcosm of the larger nation and has retained an aura of simple and unsophisticated humanity. Lu Xun communicated its character in his writing, while Wu Guanzhong conveys the same ambience with the colors, lines and the visual elements of his painting.

Scenic Painting with Abstract Beauty

In The Hometown of Lu Xun, Wu employs a "stage curtain" layout, a compositional style also seen in his Water Towns of the Jiangnan series. Structures on the left and right crowd closely toward the center, like curtains drawn apart to reveal a theater stage, leading the eye toward the shimmering reflections on the water and the human figures painted in simple dots and strokes of color. Here Wu employs a Western, single-point type of perspective in presenting this Chinese scene, as he often did in his Water Towns series. Wu's 1992 waterways (Fig. 2) provides another clear example of this compositional approach.

Examining this compostion, Wu's sharp awareness of the modeling of its forms becomes very clear, and his intent to derive a uniquely stylish beauty from the objective forms he saw. Black tiles, white walls, doors and windows, reflections on the water-all are simplified and generalized into larger or smaller geometric shapes, which are contrasted and overlapped to form structural relationships. Each geometric block of color has its own dynamic; far from being static, square blocks, they lean slightly sideways, or, undergoing subtle twisting or distortion, emerge in unusual shapes. It is as if views of these shapes from various perspectives-direct frontal views, side views, closeups, distant views, or downward-looking perspectives-had been cut out and pasted together. These forms, juxtaposed and interlaced, push against and displace each other to form layered depth and spatial relationships, confirming Wu Guanzhong's view that "ranks of simple geometric forms can produce an infinitely rich beauty of form." But amid these geometrical blocks of color, Wu inserts linear forms such as tree trunks and branches, curving and stretching among them, interrupting the smooth continuity of space and introducing change and variation. Here, the elements that create this beauty of form, and the structural relationships between the painted forms, become the focus of artistic expression in the work. In this it becomes similar in concept to the abstract expressionist works of artists such as El Lissitzky (Fig. 3) or Lyonel Feininger (Fig. 4). In Feininger's work, these geometric shapes penetrate through the view of his city for an interesting mixture of realism and abstract expressionism. Wu Guanzhong's The Hometown of Lu Xun, in its own way, combines realism and expressionism-presenting his view of a genuine Jiangnan scene, with its Eastern flavor and the harmonies of its local culture, while exploring the beauty of form hidden beneath the objective scene. Wu's brilliant success at transforming a scenic painting such as this and raising it to the level of abstract expressionism constitutes his unique, personal contribution to the genre. In creating this abstract, formal beauty, Wu integrates Eastern and Western styles to a high degree, his geometric blocks of color inspired by Western aesthetics, while his lines, spots of color, and the "chapped" textures of his white-streaked brushstrokes, are drawn from the Eastern traditions of painting and calligraphy. Under Wu's gifted brush, these varied styles cooperate and complement each other to take on new and deeper meaning.
"Black and White is Abstraction"-Eastern Ambience in Western Oils

In its ink-and-brush style and coloristic expressions, The Hometown of Lu Xun reveals Wu Guanzhong making an even sharper turn in the direction of abstraction. Wu departs from the style of some earlier works such as City Overlooks the Yangtze River, with its thick, intense layers of pigments and dense buildup of short brushstrokes, and instead adopts methods more akin to those of ink-wash painting. There are large, flat blocks of color, broad horizontal strokes, and light, nimble brushstrokes whose streaked textures reveal the direction of their application. Each of these effects, which help convey the pure, classical, picturesque beauty of the scene, appeared after Wu turned his attention to ink-wash painting in the '80s and afterwards. This also relates to Wu's choice of a primarily black, white, and grey palette during this period, which reflects his desire to continue exploring ink-wash effects in the oil medium (and the reverse), and to explore the various shadings of black tones possible in the oil medium. But it was also an aspect of Wu's minimalist and abstract tendencies that urged him to present landscapes in the most simple, pure, and minimal color palette possible; this allowed him to go beyond color and convey the forms and outlines of the scene, and its essential spirit, with great clarity. Wu Guanzhong noted that "to paint in black and white is in itself an abstraction, because the natural world has color, and black and white is an abstraction from that." Under Wu Guanzhong's inspired brush, the Western oil medium here exhibits an Eastern ink-wash ambience and a quiet, elegant poetry, a reflection of the flavor of life in the peaceful Jiangnan region. In paintings such as this, Wu Guanzhong's work in the oil medium seems to acquire an intensely regional character and to gain new expressive potentials as a result, all of which are a part of Wu's exploration into creating a "national" art in oil.

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