The Sea of Potted Landscapes

The Sea of Potted Landscapes
ink and colour on paper
97 x 180 cm. (38 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1986
two seals of the artist
Private Collection, Asia (acquired directly from the artist)
Artist Book Centre, The Selected Works of Wu Guanzhong, Hong Kong, China (illustrated, p. 5)
Chen Yu Chen (eds.), The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong, Chit Fung Enterprise Co., Taipei, Taiwan, 1990 (illustrated, p. 81).
Joint Publishing, The Landscape of Life II: Wu Guanzhong’s Album in Art, Beijing, China, 2003 (illustrated, p.214-215).
Shan Dong Hua Bao Chu Ban She, Hua Wai Yin, Wu Guanzhong, Shan Dong, China, 2005 (illustrated, p.252).
Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. VI, Changsha, China, 2007 (illustrated, p. 93)
Jiang Xi Mei Shu Chu Ban She, Wu Guanzhong Volume I, Beijing, China, 2008 (illustrated, p. 114-115).

Brought to you by

Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

“Among the styles of painting, ink reigns supreme. It begins with the essence of nature, and attains the deeds of creation.” In his “Mnemonic on Mountains and Water”, Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei defined the spirit of ink wash paintings in Chinese aesthetics. As a leader of China’s modern art movement, Wu Guanzhong was intimately familiar with the ways of ink, and he also worked to evolve the genre and helped it find its place in the new age. The Sea of Potted Landscapes (Lot 20) sets its scene with the scenic riverbanks of Jiuzhaigou and uses Wu’s perfected concepts and innovative techniques to carry on the ideals of the poetries from the East and West.

“There is a broad expanse of water, sprinkled with countless little “islands”, wild trees and pines and willows crowded on these islands, leaning on each other for scare space on the earth, sparse, dense, recumbent, prostrate, in a thousand poses like a diversified potted plant, which people call a potted bank or a sea of potted landscapes, what audacity!”
-Wu Guanzhong, “Jiuzhaigou the metropolis in the deep mountains” “Additional notes on painting”

The Sea of Potted Landscapes takes as its framework an impressionist representation of actual scenery, and is executed in a freehand style that captures the sense of “streams that extend beyond infinity, while mountains fade in and out of sight”. In particular, the use of white space and segmented strokes to present the shape of water perfectly encapsulates Wu’s artistic ideal: “black and white is in itself abstract, because nature is filled with colour, so in presenting it in black and white you are basically being abstract.” Fine ink lines in the picture are used to suggest shallow rivers and delicate mists, translucent ink is used to hint at mountain ranges and waterfalls, white space is used to insinuate a “sense of the beyond”–in particular on the upper left side of the painting; this use of white space and lines reminds one of Mi Youren’s Snow Mountains. In the front, Wu’s lines are detached and connected in places, and with just these few curves he established a hazy and foggy mood, not unlike Hasegawa Tōhaku’s Pine Trees / left hand screen . With the lines and white space intersecting and echoing each other, Wu also showed how he had clearly mastered the Chinese painting concept of “white as black”. The freehand broken lines bring out the depth in this work, and connects with the distant scenery; the lines in the distance also connect with blocks and strokes of translucent ink, letting the viewer decide for themselves whether the bold strokes in the distance represent grand mountain ranges, or towering waterfalls, or even another world entirely.

“Many masterpieces from Chinese history are imbued with the tastes and style that modern aesthetics are after. I think Bada Shanren’s grasped well how the representational and the abstract fit together, making him the classical Chinese painter who had gone the farthest in exploring the realm of abstract beauty. I gleaned my composition from Chinese paintings – that is, combining many scenes into a big setting – combined the merits of traditional and oil paintings, to realise a picture that is more emotive, colourful, spacious, and grand.”
-Wu Guanzhong

On the subject of spatial and compositional treatment for ink wash landscapes, Wu’s work during and prior to the 1970s followed the traditional theory in classical Chinese landscapes, to seek variation from three perspectives, “the view from above, the view to the back, and the view far away”. At the height of his experimental period during the 1980s, his works toed the line between the representational and the abstract, and resulted in more intriguing compositions – The Jiuzhai Gully is one such interpretation. From the 1990s and onwards, the hierarchy between his works’ subjects and setting became more nebulous, wild brushstrokes invaded the paper, and marked his highly abstract period, as see in Windows of the East. The Sea of Potted Landscapes was finished in 1986, between his periods of tradition and revolution; the insertion of unique perspectives gave rise to infinite possibilities for viewers to imagine their own place in the scene. On one hand, there is a sense of a bird’s eye view in the painting given the panoramic perspective encompassing the mountains and rivers and the remarkable sight of the “potted riverbanks”. At the same time, the spatial composition can also be interpreted as a visual journey from near to far: viewers first look outward from the undergrowth down-centre of the painting; then they enter the scene in the centre among the streams and ancient rocks; finally, they can imagine themselves as part of the distant vista, [lost among the scenery.] [losing themselves in Jia Dao’s contemplation of “who have I been traveling with, I have always been among ancient trees”.]

Wu placed many focal points in this painting, which viewers can enjoy independently as well as in conjunction as a panoramic landscape, in a style that harkens back to Zhao Mengfu’s Autumn Colours on the Que and Hua Mountains from the Yuan Dynasty. Look closely and notice how each individual subject stands on its own in the grand landscape, where any tree can be a point of focus; each tree, scene, and detail varying in countless ways. The artist also fused the disparate foci into a holistic scene, with the scattered trees and islands finding order among each other. Across the whole scene, the stances and bearings of the trees complement and contrast with each other, which fill one’s mind with the contemporary impressionism of Christian Boltanski’s 7 Bougies - les ombres. Therefore, each individual forms a part of the whole, and each representational tree scene forms part of the broader abstract panorama. Wu used the contrasts between black and white, large and small to present the hierarchical relationships among the subjects or scenes. Viewers must understand the overall view by disentangling the space described among the trees, rocks, water, and mountains – they need to interpolate their own imaginings to understand the relationship between the trees, rocks, water, and mountains, to extrapolate the actual scenery from them behind the disproportionate and monochromatic representation. The use of this freehand style to mould the representational scene and to create a sense of abstraction in the painting shows Wu’s extraction of the modern from the classical, and his distillation of the daring innovations in painting in 20th century China.

The Sea of Potted Landscapes carries on the essence of traditional Chinese paintings in its imagery, brushstrokes, composition, and conceptions and reforms it with the bold and modern innovations from Western art. In doing so, it realises Wu’s ground-breaking contributions to the development of Eastern art amidst the vast landscape of art history.

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