Early modern Chinese artists took it as their mission to seek the integration and revitalization of Chinese and Western aesthetics. Artists did not limit themselves to the old modes of representation and set off on paths of experimentation and innovations that were limited only by their own imaginations. Among these pilgrims, Wu Guanzhong is one who arrived at a complete and exceptionally profound answer to his search, and this is precisely where his remarkable artistic value and his own historic significance lies. The refinement and coalescence of the quintessence of Chinese and Western art are not only revealed through his artwork, but also through the discourses of aesthetics he purposefully devised. For Wu, Chinese art has a unique capacity to reveal the "vision of paints", which, with a poetic allure embedded in the imagery, touches the chords of its audience. Modern Western art, on the other hand, stresses the artistic expressiveness of form; to visualize the beauty of points, lines, planes and colours is for Wu a disinterment of the artistic profession and aesthetics. A compromise between such entirely distinct artistic foci may seem impossibly ambitious, but the landscapes of Wu manage to be the perfect synthesis of these two worlds. He suffuses his depiction of the modern ethos into a poetics of Chinese traditional landscapes; rich, delicate colours of oils are adroitly maneuvered to create texture and form, which furnish the scenery with vigour and elegance. Being in itself a representation of concrete imagery, his landscapes, intermingled with such structural and expressive elements as points, lines and planes, exude a sense of abstract charm and of philosophical reflection. His landscape is neither a stiff portrayal of reality nor is he captive to absolute formalism. Taking the two modes of expression in stride, Wu seeks for an augmentation of both conception and form. The result has been an artistic expression engulfed with individuality, which set forth a novel, well-formed path for generations of modern Chinese artists to follow, and which has come to epitomize a century of artistic development in Asia.
Landscape is the genre of choice for Wu's aesthetic pursuits. Since the 1950s he has traveled widely all over the China, painting a range of natural landscapes forms to deepen his exploration. "For a long time," he recalled, "I design my picture, and organize it by painting in different spots." The Cultural Revolution obstructed his quest; in the early 70s, while still in college, he was dispatched with his college fellows and teachers to work in a collective farm in Hebei. Only in 1972 was he finally allowed to paint once a week. Such limitation left him with a feeling of despondency and dejection, but also turned out to be an opportunity for the artist to strengthen his creative philosophy. Hence when Wu resumed his artistic endeavor in the late 1970s his creativity was already fully evolved, and, unlike his recuperating contemporaries, he showcased almost immediately a style with remarkable maturity and integrity. These, together with his spate of theories on aesthetic form, brought about the first pinnacle of his creative career. Amidst the Daba Mountains (Lot 1318), painted in 1979, is one of his works from this period, embodying the tenor and idiosyncrasy of the artist's creations in the late 1970s.
"In 1979, at the end of winter, I painted on the Daba Mountains. Coated with drizzle I climbed up the peak, to portray the mirror-like, sleek and gleaming pictures of water I was overlooking. With the drizzling rain the misty mountainous landscape of Sichuan was ever more enthralling."
- Wu Guanzhong, "Roads under the sky", in Renmin Wenxue, 1982, No.10
In tones of brown and greyish white, Amidst the Daba Mountains depicts the distant ranges and the rugged rocks over the mountain. Pigments are blended and applied to give a liquid smoothness to the flowing shapes describing the hazy landscape of Sichuan, wreathed in mist and immense placidity. These primary tones, brown and greyish white, are most beloved by the artist, for they offer a rustic, tranquil style peculiar to the Chinese land with which his own cultivation is identified.
With the brownish grey coatings that overlay each other, tints of emerald green and red are flecked to picture the blossoming of wild flowers amidst the dense shroud of fog after a rain. On both the left and right sides of the composition are interspersed lines that appear to have been drawn with a painter's blade or the hard edge of the brush, shaping with a dynamic rhythm the foliage and plants over the hill. It is a technique that characterizes the artist's works. The tinges of vibrant hues, which almost seem randomly scattered, assume such a disposition that they stand out most appealingly from the lump of grey. Here Wu Guanzhong drifts boldly from the convention of literati painters. Instead of using pastel hues, he employs vivid colours more common to folk costume and culture. These colours are highly symbolic in their own right, conveying a desire for harmony and peace. Green, for example, represents youth and vigor; red is the colour of luck and success. Such associations between colours and culture is indicative of the particular folk attitude of lives and aesthetics, distinct from both the Western theory of comparative and complementary colours, as well as the Chinese style of leisurely grace. Colours of ethnic affinity are selected in exchange for those of the natural world. The elements of life, and the exuberant mood it embodies, are introduced, highlighting the intrepid move of the artist in bringing features atypical of Chinese literati art. Subjective, sentimental expressions balance the otherwise cold tone of the remote landscape. All these are the best representations of Wu's unique fondness for the common and the worldliness of his philosophy.
Amidst the Daba Mountains is particular in its reflection of the artist's heightened sensitivity to colours and his exquisite use of layers. The canvas is composed of a monochromic tone of coldness - brown and greyish white being the primary colours - but every minute alteration of cold and warm tones enrich the monochromic layers through each, however slight, transfiguration. The deep valley, the centerpiece of this work, is depicted by a varied palette, from brownish black to a greyish white, and to the scattering of distinct dark green and bright yellow. The variations of colours, their layering and intermingling, give the composition a unique vibrancy. The painting has an abstract, almost humble, charm, while at the same time its geometric shapes and masses of the rugged terrain evokes the grandeur of the undulating, towering mountains and majestic structure of Fan Kuan's Travelers Amid Mountains and Streams of the Northern Song dynasty (Fig. 1).
Wu Guanzhong, traveled widely and always painted on his journeys, seeking different visual experiences to trigger his thoughts on the combination of colours and lines, which incur infinite possibilities befitting varying patterns of rhythm, prosody and space. This aesthetic pervades the whole of Wu's creative career, and can be found again in a work from 1989, created when the artist toured Paris. That year, at the invitation of Yamazaki Mitsuo, the president of the Tokyo Seibu Group, Wu took a trip to Paris as part of an artistic exchange and for his own development. It was for Wu a great revelation, to visit the place where he had studied forty years prior, that it soon marked a change in style of his works. The landscapes of Paris were a sharp contrast to the desert lands and misty ambience found in the northern and southern China. A change in form engendered a fresh sensation and inspiration, and works painted in this creative period of the artist are characterized by heightened abstraction orientation and more formal aesthetics. A Monument in the Street Corner (Lot 1319) is one of them. Painted in the summer of 1989, it was immediately put on exhibition in September, in Tokyo. With its unique theme, the work reveals an aesthetic value singular among the whole arc of the artist's career.
A Monument in the Street Corner depicts a spot of the restful Paris with a touch of Oriental taciturnity. Two aspects of the work embody the distinct expressiveness of Wu Guanzhong. The first is the dome-shaped architecture on the top of the canvas. The structure and the shape of the chapel, with its dome, are simplified into a pure expression of points, lines and planes. Drawing from the traditional Chinese compositional structure of employing "blank space" in his arrangement, leaving the walls of the building almost blank and with the form barely insinuated, in which the towering chapel stands upright, and a few interspersing tints of hues that provide the spatial relationship. This principle is one inherent to Chinese painting and calligraphy: to mark by unmarking, to "arrange the whites as if they are blacks", so that the abstract points and lines and planes combine to form a spatial relationship. The second crucial aspect of Wu's work is the monument in the center, which exudes both formal and abstract aesthetics. It is an exceptionally innovative and bold artistic attempt for Wu to represent the monument with a block of white. It requires consummate skills in handling the infinite variations of monochromic colour to avoid the work being dragged into dullness and vacuity. The artist, again, exhibits such skills to perfection, especially in his use of grey and white. With close examination we can observe that it is impasto and textual strokes that form the layers, varying in thickness, of the white block. To the amusement of the audience, the brushwork, too, creates a rhythm with rich variations. Brushing from different angles and directions, the greyish white planes assume diverse positions and shapes, whereas the alternating combinations of planes, following the movement of lines of the embossed monument, extract the shadow of the statue, highlighting dimensionality. The composite of colour blocks, which draw and impel each other, are of such dynamic rhythm that exemplifies Wu's notion, "they are beautiful, and beautiful because they are compact, unordered and irregular." The attractive grey lines on the white wall succinctly outline the shape of the relief, in a manner that is similar to Wu Yuanzhi's rendering of Landscape of the Red Cliffs (Fig. 2). This work is a flamboyant display of the quality of oils, not least in its expressiveness unmatched by water ink.
Wu Guanzhong is masterful and dexterous in his use of colours. Once he reminded his students: "When mixing colour, one little drop of other pigments will alter the whole tone. For grey the effect is particularly striking and you need to be very meticulous. The colour changes even if you mix a pigment, the size of millet, with a nib. You need to be exact to make it just right." His critical analysis of colour contributes to the unequalled aesthetic rigor of his works, allowing the audience to appreciate not just the thematic scene, the colours of each and every fragment of the monument. Within the greyish white hues are the successive changes of rhythm and relationship; the aesthetic of it is abstract and independent. Another series of Wu's creation, in which interspersing blocks of greyish white are used to depict the compact rows of houses in the Jiangnan water town, offers enlightening counterpoints to A Monument in the Street Corner.
For the expressive arrangement of points, lines and planes, and the adept use colour and spatial structure, A Monument in the Street Corner amply demonstrates Wu Guanzhong's creative philosophy: "I strive to make full use of the characteristics of oils, such as the variation of colours, the shaping of blocks, the lavish layers of space, that is, the various factors that make formal aesthetic as it is in modern art. So long as all the virtues of oils remain intact, I exert myself to introduce the romantic, literary aura of traditional Chinese composition, as well as those affable images that delight modern man, into my works." His formal aesthetics does not detach itself from mood and imageries; instead, they supplement and augment each other. It realizes a Chinese style marked with a strong sense of time, thus gaining "the applause of experts and the assent of people".