In studying Wu Guanzhong's artistic career, one finds that 1970s was a crucial period of transition for the artist. The works of this period are indicative of essential aspects of his approach and help us understand the value of his art and the phases of his development. This period produced clear breakthroughs in expressive means as the artist moved from representational to semi-abstract work, while his works began to reveal hidden geometrical and colour aesthetics within their images of natural scenes. Wu's 1975 Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace (Lot 1003) embodies many significant aspects of this transitional period, showing a more unique handling of colour and compositional effects that creates visual beauty beyond mere realistic representation. Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace presents us with a mature individual style, one that combines representation with abstraction and pure aesthetic pleasure. Moreover, the subjects of this painting, lacebark pines and the Imperial Palace, held special appeal to the artist and would appear numerous times in his works during the 1970s.
1970s Works Featuring the Imperial Palace and Lacebark Pines
Wu Guanzhong's path of creation was temporarily halted during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, but gradually resumed after 1972. Although the Cultural Revolution period was stifling and oppressive, it gave Wu an opportunity to reflect and deepen his creative ideas. Unlike some of his contemporaries, it took Wu no time to rediscover his creativity when he returned to painting after moving to Beijing in 1973, hence creating many outstanding works. Wu lived near Beihai Park, and would often take outdoor walks to enjoy the scenery and discover new subject matters for his paintings. Behai Park borders the Imperial Gardens and Jingshan Park, so that when turning west, Wu immediately came upon the Purple Bamboo Bridge and Purple Bamboo Park, which was to become some of his favorite subjects. It is through the lacebark pines of the Imperial Palace that one can see the importance of this subject in the artist's creative thinking. Wu produced three paintings of the pines at the Imperial Palace between 1975 and 1976. The current lot is published in The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong as Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace (II) , and illustrated along with two different approaches to this themed series, numbered '(I)' and '(III)' (Fig. 1 and 2). Signed and inscribed "Imperial Gardens" on its reverse, the present title of this work corresponds to the artist's inscription as well as the entry in Complete Works, and distinguishes it from the other works of the series.
A Close-Up Composition and Upward-looking Vantage Point
Of significance are the differences one sees in the three works of the Lacebark Pine series, particularly in terms of their compositions. All three paintings share Wu's compositional technique of placing a tree in the foreground against a building as background. In Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace , the composition is an especially terse one with a sense of dizzying heights. Wu places the main trunk and branches of the pine in the centre as foreground where they occupy the bulk of the picture space. He further juxtaposes the composition in a partial near-view perspective that further highlights the texture of the pine and the rock, such that the Imperial Pavilion and its protuding eaves can just be glimpsed from the top of the rock at the very periphery of the painting. The way the tree and the rock dominate the composition imparts to them a towering presence within this closely-packed and commanding scene. All these features distinguish this Lacebark Pines from the other two of the series. Perhaps unexpectedly, Wu chooses to present his subject from an upward-looking vantage point rather than the level view he often employed during this period. Here our gaze is directed through the scene in a lofty, upward direction, along with the rock that curves upward and toward the Imperial Pavilion which seems to stand above and look down upon the entire vista. Of the three Lacebark Pines compositions, Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace presents the perspective from the closest distance, but at the same time manifests the greatest sense of a towering and imposing spectacle with intense visual imagery. Beyond the tree, the rock and the pavilion dominate the picture space, we catch glimpses of the sky and the emptiness distantly beyond the leaves and branches at the treetop. Precisely because the thick branches extend to the edges of the painting, the vitality and the sense of verticality and extension they produce, along with the flying eaves of the pavilion, extend the picture plane outward, suggesting an imaginary space beyond which a further grand vista can be seen and sensed. This creates a composition in which the seemingly contradictory elements are subtly and logically resolved to create a unified whole. What is portrayed is largely in the foreground, yet with a strong hint of distance; the fine and close details of the veins and texture do not narrow our focus but instead produce an attractive sense of space and imposing energy. The elements of the painting create closely partitioned and interrelated spaces, illustrating Wu Guanzhong's maxim that "you should avoid wasting even an inch of the canvas,". Pines reveals an especially intense structural beauty and a meticulously structured composition not often seen during this period.
Deriving Geometric Beauty from Natural Objects
Compositions of exagerrated and enlarged scenic objects appear frequently in Wu Guanzhong's work in the '70s, an important indication of his transition from purely representational works toward Abstract Expressionism. In Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace, Wu exaggerates and enlarges specific objects, attracting viewer's attention to the rough, craggy textures on the dented and uneven surface of the pine and the rock behind; at the same time, the viewer will note the subtle variations in the brown, grey, black, and white tones of those areas and the interwoven application of dots, washes of colour, and textural strokes.
"In the Imperial Gardens there are many lacebark pines like splendid pines, Imperial pines, that had imperial stipends provided for their care. What I saw was the beauty in their spots, and the way the rocks set off the branches - did Klee have the same feeling?"
"I love lacebark pines. I love the full, weighty beauty of their forms, the beautiful twisting of their limbs, and the colourful flecks and spots that spread over its entire length." - Quote of the artist from The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong
The bark of the lacebark pine sheds and peels in irregular pattern creating a visually striking patchwork of shades of white, brown, and other colours. Wu Guanzhong teased out the lines and colours of natural objects and highlighted their geometrical and colourful beauty as he painted natural scenes. Branches that reach upward and crisscross therefore became lines in flowing motion, and new leaves become varying patterns of dots, while the textures of the bark are transformed into appealing patterns. These elements inject his landscapes a vital energy and a uniquely rhythmic feel. Colour and line both leap into our field of vision as focal points of the painting. His images carry a magnetic visual beauty that reinterpret and celebrate natural forms to create pure experience of visual pleasure and beauty.
Instead of covering large areas with the heavily textured strokes as he frequently did in the past, here Wu makes use of short and swift brushstrokes. The patterns created by fine and short brushstrokes delicately bring about subtle colour effects and rich layering within the surface of the rock. Lacebark Pine thus becomes a work with a finely-knit rhythmic structure and provides a vivid, lively feel. Wu's fine textural strokes, applied in different directions and angles, follow the undulating surface of the stone, expressing its areas of light and shade and its dimensionality. These reflect Wu's observation that "beauty lies precisely within these fine and close patterns and the variations and irregularities within them." Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace is a fine and rare example of a mature work among the paintings of Wu Guanzhong's early period.
The tree limbs, rock, and pavilion are all painted with the same basic palette. They unify the painting's tonality, possess still clearly defined spatial layering- a quality that is attributed to Wu's skillful use of line. When Wu Guanzhong took up ink painting once again in 1973, his masterly application of line in the inkwash medium found their way into his work in oil. Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace is a work that exemplifies this development and the new expressive effects it introduced. Use of thick black lines serves to outline and define the tree limbs and set them apart from the texture and the blocky massiveness of the rock. The flowing, gracefully applied lines here echo those of traditional Chinese ink paintings, but with greater layering effects, texture, and weight. The interlacing branches in the upper part of the painting show most clearly the expressive effects of these lines, which are thick and full yet still agile and detailed.
In this painting one sees spots of red, yellow, and green, making it one of the earliest works by Wu Guanzhong to incorporate these decorative, expressive dots of colour. The artist applies them boldly and freely, spotting the canvas with lively and precise strokes of organized and vivid patterns creating an unique kind of rhythm in colour Wu's spots of colour no longer serve the purpose of realism or scene painting, they exude an independent beauty of their own. While the traditional literati painters sought tranquil elegance, Wu boldly injects hues of fresh, brilliant colours of traditional folk apparel and decorative objects of the home. These dots of colour often appear in Wu Guanzhong's later works and became part of his unique ink-painting style. In 1977, when Wu approached the same subject in the coloured-ink medium, he introduced an even greater profusion of these coloured dots. Among Wu's works after 2000, such as the Red Leaves painted in 2001 (Fig. 3), these dots, which now form a welter of free-flowing colours across the canvas, have become a central theme that energizes the entire painting. The trees have morphed into almost entirely abstract lines and spots of colour, as the representational aspects of the painting fade into the background and its abstract colours become ever more dominant. Looking at the three works side by side presents us with
a clear and complete picture of Wu's developing style in this regard.
Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace combines expressive and abstract lines and colours, while maintaining fairly strong representational and narrative elements and presenting a concrete view of the pines in the Imperial Palace. In this respect Lacebark Pine remains close to the landscape paintings from Wu's earlier career, illustrating again the transitional nature of this work and the inclusion of disparate stylistic elements. The elements that create formal beauty do not overwhelm the visual images of pine and rock nor their natural scenic atmosphere. Instead the two are closely linked in a way that illustrates Wu's famous analogy of "the unbroken kite string," by which he meant that the viewer's connection to real objects within a scene, like the string of a kite, must never be broken. Wu bases this work in a realistic scenic view, then transcends from the representational elements, and return to it in the end.
"If a painting contains no abstraction nor impressionistic elements, it is a kite that will never fly. But if the painting completely breaks the connection between human feeling and the object portrayed, the kite string has been broken. I try to keep the line unbroken." - Wu Guanzhong
Scene and Circumstance Melded Into One
Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace remains a highly accessible portrayal of landscape, but is at the same time permeated by the artist's personal reflections on the passage of time. The purely scenic elements symbolize a set of emotions and circumstances of literary character making the current piece one of the few works works by the artist to possess such qualities. Wu mentioned his love for painting trees that, "Old trees have passed through days and nights uncounted, yet will never witness the end of day's passage into night." Long-lived pines stand as silent witnesses to the passing eras of the human world and the vicissitudes of its ever-changing history. As for the pines in the Imperial Palace, they were once "pines of the Imperial court, their care provided for with an imperial allowance." But the demise of the imperial court and its undertakings have long since vanished, and the palace is now only a historical site referred to as the "ancient palace". Wu encompasses such literary and philosophical elements and deep sentiments in this work which speaks to the viewer, making it "a scenic painting that embodies a sense of one's personal circumstances and realizations in life." Art critics have praised Wu Guanzhong's landscape works as "scenery of life", and Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace is a concrete representation of the meaning behind this very phrase.
Wu Guanzhong's creative approach underwent great changes from the time of Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace of 1975, to the Lacebark Pine in coloured ink of 1977, and even further in Red Leaves of 2001, yet consistent aspects of that style are clearly visible. As we are astonished by the rich colours of Wu Guanzhong's later abstract works, Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace allows us to trace the origin back to the inspiration from the beginning of his creative exploration. Wu's subtle shift away from figurative or representational style toward greater abstraction the development of his new style coming into being. During this transitional phase, the artist left behind strict concerns with 'likenesses' or 'mimicry' of the world things. Instead, he derived from nature a pure beauty of colour, space, and line, and he expressed the living energy and the atmosphere in every natural scene he portrayed. From this point on, Wu Guanzhong had entered a magnificent new realm of artistic creation.