Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui) (Lot 1004) was one of the works painted by Wu Guanzhong in 1990, during a trip to Hong Kong with his wife to make arrangements for the themed exhibition Hong Kong Through the Eyes of Wu Guanzhong. At the time the artist was responding to an invitation from the Hong Kong Land Development Corporation to paint scenes from some soon-to-be-demolished sections of the city. Wu Guanzhong recalled, "Mr. Abraham Shek of the Land Development Authority told me that some of Hong Lok Street, Li Chit Street, and Wing On Street commercial areas and Tak Wan Tea House were going to be demolished for development purposes. He felt sorry that some of these places, steeped as they were in local history, were about to be lost, and he asked me, with charm and seriousness, to use my art to capture the enduring style that these areas had." Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui), preserving Wu's impressions of these disappearing scenes, possesses valuable historical meaning, but also displays the abstract formal beauty of Wu's art, here seen particularly in his unique spots of brilliant colour. This work was exhibited in 1992 at the British Museum in London, at Wu Guanzhong: A 20th-Century Chinese Painter exhibition; the museum broke its rule of displaying only ancient artifacts, and for the first time, showed the work of a living Chinese artist. In the eyes of the West, Wu Guanzhong's work had come to represent 20th century Chinese art. A feature story on Wu Guanzhong in the International Herald Tribune lauded the artist as "an emblem of the great changes in Chinese painting," and referred to this master Chinese painter as "one of the most unusual and surprising discoveries of recent decades in painting."
The period just before and after 1990 was one in which Wu Guanzhong enjoyed both frequent and highly successful exhibitions of his work, travelling abroad numerous times for large-scale shows organized by important organizations. Included among these were the trip sponsored by Japan's Seibu Department Stores to travel to Paris and capture its local scenes, after which he held his Tokyo solo show, Paris Moods ; a touring exhibition in five US cities, including San Francisco and Birmingham; a trip in 1990 to Singapore for the Wu Guanzong Watercolour and Gouache Exhibition ; leading a group of Chinese artists to Thailand to participate in the Chinese Contemporary Artists Painting Exhibition ; and the 1991 Wu Guanzhong and Students Exhibition at the Museum of Chinese History in China. Wu painted local scenes during these trips to distant locales, which brought him a broader vision and a greater sense of freedom that were reflected in his work. His subjects expanded from the grand landscapes and colourful scenes of rural China to include urban scenes with a more modern feel, while his brushwork began to show extra character and vigour. Painting directly from life, he focused less on detail and on completing the composition on the spot, as he had in the 70s, and instead recorded the scene in sketches, preserving feelings and impressions that he later transferred to canvas. This produced greater freedom of expression on the final canvas and more attention to using colour expressively. Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui) is a fine example of these trends, and displays the characteristic features of Wu's creative work in this period.
Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui)is a vivid and detailed portrait of Tsim Sha Tsui's thriving commercial district, presenting the spaces of that sector in tightly controlled and close-knit composition. People in the noisy crowds in the foreground appear as bright, multi-coloured spots of pigment. They group in swarms, giving the composition a central focus of colour, then sweep from the near foreground up toward the centre of the market area, disappearing under the awnings of the shop fronts as they do so. Then another wave of colour arrives, spreading more broadly, in spots of larger dimensions and a proliferation of varying brushstrokes-dots, smears, and chapped textural strokes-that cross and converge. The rhythms of these colours, in their tightly packed groupings, continue into the distance, suggesting that the lights have lit up the street and clamorous evening life is about to begin for the denizens of this city. Staggered rows of shops and the slanting rise and fall of their awnings progress in layers deep into the painting in brushwork that captures the viewer's eye with its strong sense of motion. In this section, Wu applies both vertical and horizontal brushstrokes in the greyish-white shades he loved; the result shows a tightly packed jumble of buildings in the market area, along with a sense that this part of the scene resembles the opening act of a stage play in progress as the curtains draw back. This opening leads us directly into the colour changes in the central part of the canvas, where small blocks of bright yellow and fresh green again lead upward, drawing the viewer's gaze onward toward the skyscrapers standing against the night sky, at which point we enter a world of an entirely different colour. Colour and brushwork both evolve along the way, as points lead to lines, and lines change to solid areas in a layered sequence of change. Like instruments and notes in a symphonic performance that weave together in a tightly organized, unified whole, the quick, lilting rhythms of the artist weave this Hong Kong night scene, with its throngs and noisy hubbub, into wonderful painted image.
Wu Guanzhong had a unique point of view with regard to scenic paintings. First, he believed the focus of the painting should have nothing to do with creating a real semblance of the scene, but that the artist should try to find and tease out the various forms hidden within the objective, observed scene and to present the beauty of those elements. Line and colour, "their proportions, their harmony, their rise and fall, their rhythmic motion, and the unity of their diversity...these create the conditions or elements for the beauty of form that becomes the key player in your creation." Secondly, Wu emphasized the importance of the artist's conception, and demanded that an artist portraying a scene should be able to imbue it with feeling, so that "feeling will be hidden within your forms." Wu's Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui) embodies each of these aesthetic ideas. He transforms the vertically towering high-rises and the patchwork horizontals of the streets into lines and geometrical blocks, bringing out a basic structural beauty inherent within the cityscape, not unlike the lines, checks, and squares of Piet Mondrian's New York in Broadway Boogie Woogie. Beyond that, Wu distills the noisy clamor of Hong Kong into a fresh new vision, turning its buildings and streets into vibrant dashes of colours, lines, and layered, overlapping blocks of various hues that show yet another side of the life and beauty of this city.
Expressive dots of colour-Wu Guanzhong and Hong Kong
Around 1990, Wu Guanzhong travelled to several famous cities of the world to paint their cityscapes. In addition to Hong Kong, he painted nighttime scenes in Tokyo and Paris; looking at two other works (Fig. 1 and 2) painted in those cities during this period serves to highlight the unique aspects of Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui). In this painting, spots of colour are sprinkled liberally and freely across the canvas, making the nighttime city an entirely abstract collection of lines and spots of colour; the figurative aspects of the painting recede while abstract colour comes to the fore. This kind of ink and brush approach first took shape first during his 1970s paintings; we can see its source in a work such as his Lacebark Pine in the Imperial Palace, and it is even more richly expressed here in Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui). Why is it that Wu Guanzhong, in depicting this Hong Kong evening scene, chose to use these spots of colour so liberally, and in such rich and vivid shades, rather than restricting himself to colours he usually favoured such as greyishwhite and brown-black, as he tended to do in his scenes from Paris and Tokyo (Fig. 1 and 2). One reason can be found in the scene being portrayed: Hong Kong has one of the most beautiful nighttime vistas of any city in the world, ranked in the top three along with Naples, Italy and Hakodate, Japan. When its lights, sparkle in brilliant clusters against the deep blue night sky, their brilliant and beautiful colours provide lovely vistas at every turn. As Wu Guanzhong painted the scene, he naturally captured "the feeling of those ever-changing, vivid colours that appear and disappear in an instant,"as part of his aesthetic of extracting an abstract beauty of form while observing real, living scenes.
Another reason could be that, as Wu Guanzhong painted this Hong Kong scene, his bold, free use of colour derived from his mood during the creative process, and reflected his love for the city of Hong Kong. In interviews, the artist himself mentioned Hong Kong more often than any other city except Paris as a city he genuinely enjoyed. His connection with the city began in 1940; he revisited it in 1985, and could only say, when viewing the new vistas of the city, that "more than 30 years later, Hong Kong is a different world." Thereafter he continued to accept invitations for lectures and solo shows there, and in 1995, 2002, and 2010, he held large-scale retrospective exhibitions at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. He donated one of his most classic and representative works, Two Swallows, to the museum, an indication of love and respect he felt for the city. It would only be natural then, that his personal feelings would be projected into the canvas as he was portraying the city and its people. The origins of Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui) had to do with the Hong Kong Land Development Corporation and its wish that the artist could help preserve scenes of the city that were about to be lost in the process of development, as those places had all played their part in their local history. It is for this reason that Wu Guanzhong's Hong Kong in the Night (Tsim Sha Tsui) does more than just presenting the beauty of a modernized Hong Kong; it also bears the imprint of Wu Guanzhong's friendship with the city and his deep affection for it, manifested in part through those rich and beautiful spots of colour that he applied so freely. Intriguingly, Hong Kong and Wu Guanzhong share at least one point in common. Hong Kong is a city poised between East and West, a meeting point for the two, economically and culturally; it is an open and liberal city where the best of East and West merge together. The art of Wu Guanzhong also brings together Eastern and Western traditions. He is one of the few figures in modern Chinese art loved by people from both the East and the West, and who can truly appeal to the aesthetic standards of collectors from a broad variety of cultural backgrounds. This too matches in many ways the multicultural characteristic of Hong Kong, a significant fact to ponder in connection with the artist's great portrait of the city.