Ineffable, Intuitive—the Painting of Wu Guanzhong
I am still working to achieve this, to relate practical principles to concepts of abstract beauty. Whether in artificial rock sculpture or calligraphy, or in a piece of marble or the scoring of pumice, I try to distinguish the independent principles behind the beauty of abstraction and the beauty of form, and I do this cautiously, with a definite regard for Chinese aesthetics. I try to move toward the elements that give the object its beauty, to extract from it an independent language of form, from which to construct the aesthetic of the painting. Regardless of whether my mode is abstract or a representational, what’s important is to find that implicit ordering concept. Take a work of art as a kite: the string cannot break as the kite ascends into the air. The string here is that line of feeling between the viewer and the work, the line that connects the work and the subject that provided its inspiration. I’m always on the borderline where that string is about to break, though my standpoint is to stop short of actually letting it break.
—Wu Guan Zhong
In his journey as a painter, Wu Guanzhong often described himself by analogy as a “tu zhe,” “a thistle.” A Confucian scholar of the Eastern Han, Zheng Xuan, annotating the classic Book of Odes known as the Mao Shi Jian, wrote, ‘The thistle: the head of a reed, very light, floats everywhere in the wind.” Thus the word “tu” is a botanical name, lactuca chinensis, a member of the family of composites, and is also the white flower produced by thatch or rushes. Wu Guanzhong had a concern for Chinese philosophy as a part of his own creative philosophy. He based his thinking on the concept that man is an integral part of nature, that self and other are interdependent. The heavens and the Earth were central to this concept, and he felt himself to be as light as a feather within them; he believed that as such a tiny part of everything, he could give his attention to any detail of the landscape. In his creative work, we can see him developing his philosophy of dealing with the world through this concept of “the thistle.”
Wu Guanzhong spent the 1970s, artistically, in transition, ranging between the beauties of figuration and abstraction, while also steeping himself in the forms of nature, its flowing rivers and mountains, and its ancient trees reaching to the sky. Prior to 1974, he produced only oils, rather than Chinese ink paintings, but that year he began working in both mediums at the same time. Stylistically and technically, he was considering the possibilities of both East and West, and a vocabulary for communication between them that could preserve the essence of both. Several times during this period he expressed his belief that daily life should be the source of inspiration for art and his desire to retain Eastern cultural elements, to link art to the feelings of the region and its nationalities. In the 80s, his art began exhibiting a greater flatness and to lose some of its weightiness, a result of committing natural forms to the vocabulary of Western abstraction. His brushwork in the oil medium followed along the lines of ink-wash painting, while using points, lines, and planes as a compositional foundation, seeking a completely new mode of expression for the mountains, rivers, and forests of China.
...There are a least hundreds of types of paper-cut window decorations for use in gardens. They are made up of arrangements of straight, bent, curving, or arcing lines; there are countless variations of their graceful, natural elegance. That is a kind of abstract beauty. Artificial rocks can also be gracefully sculpted, or they can be massive and imposing; some have a comfortable familiarity, while others have strange, grotesque shapes. That too is a kind of abstract beauty....in fact, the orchids and bamboo in Chinese ink-wash painting, like silhouette projections, belong to this same form of semi-abstract beauty.
Wu Guanzhong's Garden (Jiangnan Garden) (Lot 20), dating from 1978, derives from his famous series of paintings depicting the Jiangnan region. It was also a special work presented as a gift to his friend, Zhu Junshan, as a part of their ongoing exchanges. In 1978, when Zhu Junshan was provost at the Central Academy of Industrial Arts, that institute held a Wu Guanzhong Retrospective, the first solo exhibition of the artist's works since his return from France in 1950. This fact illustrates the depth of the personal friendship between Wu Guanzhong and Zhu; they met with each other often, and the fact the Wu gave Zhu his Garden (Jiangnan Garden) as a friendship gift also illustrates how satisfied he must have felt about the work in his own heart.
Wu Guanzhong was born amid the rich culture and customs of Jiangsu, where the beauty and charm of its Jiangnan scenery could exert their imperceptible influence on his cultural temperament. It was certain that Wu, who decided on his own at 17 to give up electrical engineering, to pass the entrance exam into the Hangzhou Academy of Arts, and to travel the path of art, would have a deep feeling for the aesthetics of Chinese painting. He once said, “The taste that informs the painting styles in modern art is already implicit in many of China's early masterpieces. I believe our Bada Shanren, with his ability to find a harmony between the figurative and the abstract, was the traditional painter who explored the most deeply the realm of abstract beauty. I introduce aspects of colored-ink painting into my oil paintings, giving them those lyrical washes of color in the Chinese style. I've also absorbed a special feature of composition from ancient Chinese paintings, in the way they combine several different scenes into one grand vista. I combine the best features of ancient paintings and oil paintings, to produce the kind of images and colors, and the grand sense of space, that will be moving to viewers.”
Wu Guanzhong's Garden (Jiangnan Garden) embodies in exactly this way his distillation of the essence of both classical Chinese paintings and oils. The painting depicts a giant rock formation directly in line with the viewer's gaze, with a central rift that splits it in two; through this rift can be seen a distant pavilion and pagoda, while a spring gushes forth in a waterfall from the rocks.
In its midst are two small figures that embellish the scene with their contrasting red and blue tones. Wu makes use of the “deep distance” compositional technique originally found in classical Chinese paintings. That is, from a position in front of a mountain, we glimpse scenes beyond it; the tiny human figures that enter into the midst of the scene can only be portrayed in a fragmentary or incomplete manner. The result is quite similar to effects seen in the painting Travelers Among Mountains and Streams by the famous Northern Song painter Fan Kuan (Fig. 1), though in Wu's Garden, the opening in the rocks provides even more opportunity for to exploit depth effects. The characteristics of oils allow him to faithfully present the textures of the rock, its perforations, coarseness, and folds, making it seem familiar and approachable. Even highlighting its somewhat grotesque appearance adds an extra measure of lyrical, humanistic and abstract beauty. Bada Shanren was the finest practitioner of Eastern abstraction; in his Bird on Stone (Fig 2), viewers feel that the artist's own thoughts and personality, his will and his feelings, are contained in the odd contours of mountain and stone he painted. Bada Shanren's ability to create this richly human and lyrical abstraction, even in a figurative painting, reflects a deep pursuit of Eastern abstraction of the kind that Wu Guanzhong so revered. Wu's painting of Garden coincided exactly with that period in the '70s when he began to explore abstraction. Whether Garden is viewed as an attempt to explore, in the oil medium, the source of inspiration found in Chinese ink-wash landscapes, or conversely, as a Chinese style of lyrical abstraction introduced into the oil medium, Garden (Jiangnan Garden) stands as an outstanding representative work in Wu Guanzhong's oeuvre.
Another special point of interest for the viewer of Garden is the fact that nowhere can Wu Guanzhong be seen to use any lines as outline for the forms in his painting; instead, he builds up his brushstrokes to create the sense of mass and volume seen in the objects it portrays. Cezanne believed in the concept that “lines don't exist; light and shadow don't exist; only contrasts between colors exist. Modeling is just the outcome of exact relationships between tones.” For that reason, Cezanne abandoned precise modeling of objects, and gave his attention only to their sense of volume and the overall relationship between them; sometimes, to produce harmonious relationships between all of them, he even abandoned the attempt to depict them as fully independent and real individual forms (Fig.3). In Wu's painting, he introduces a fine willow tree into his composition, living and growing in the fissure between the two rocks, and it seems as if it should be an independent form, yet is depicted as growing against or attached to the rock. The willow tendrils and leaves fall in a curtain from the top of the rock, and the trunk that leans hard against it becomes a visual point of focus that helps divide the stone into two. The overall arrangement creates a scene that is harmonious, if not entirely realistic. This outstanding work nevertheless represents one way in which Wu Guanzhong introduced further important innovation into Chinese scenic landscape painting.