The exhibition Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong hosted by Asia Society, New York in May 2012 writes: "Based on traditional Chinese art and culture, Wu Guanzhong's paintings gradually shift from Realism to Expressionism, but at the same time keeps consistent with Chinese still-life and abstract elements. His paintings put emphasis on the expression of emotions, which he achieves through expressions of dots, lines, surfaces, colours and composition. He pays particular attention to the painting of still objects and accentuates personal experiences in his interpretation of nature. His works are filled with modern rhythms and vivid Chinese traditional elements. He is an innovative artist in modern art history who focuses on the form of beauty. His approach and success in painting further accelerate the development of modern art in China during the late 20th Century."
The Spirit of Modern Ink Painting
"To Understand the Beauty of Objects and Analyze the Formation of Such Beauty"
Many artists in ancient dynasties of China made use of ink paintings for the purposes of historical records, depicting nature as expression of emotions. Dating back to Sui Dynasty, Chinese ink painting is set apart from figurative and religious paintings and became an independent subject. Since the 20th Century, this subject has experienced the transformation in traditional painting and developed into two major streams of "using the past to analyze the present" and "taking Western knowledge to enrich the development in China". Wu Guanzhong presents the modern spirit of "East meets West" by assimilating Western techniques of abstraction with the beauty of Chinese landscape, creating modern works that is in line with Chinese aesthetics.
In 1936, Wu enrolled in the National Arts Academy of Hangzhou, studying both Chinese and Western paintings under the teaching of the principal Lin Fengmian, Chang Shuhong, Guan Liang and Pan Tianshou. In 1947, he travelled to Paris and entered the Ecole Nationale Sup?rieure des Beaux Arts to study Western modern painting under the training of Professor J. M. Souverbie. After three years of study, Wu returned to China to develop a new approach in modern art combined with traditional characteristics. But this approach did not comply with the political interests of the time. After many political condemnations, he realized that the approach of "the beauty of formality" is a target of public criticism. Wu refused to give up his goals and thus switched to other form of paintings.
Wu began to focus on ink painting during the mid-1970s, extensively copying works from masters like Shi Tao, Bada Shanren, Zheng Xie, Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty and Four Wangs of the Ching Dynasty. Wu particularly admired the works by Shi Tao for his liberal and innovative approach on painting and interpretation of the nature that "use the past to analyze the present" and "keep pace with time". During his study in Paris, Wu exposed himself to the art of Impressionism, post-Impressionism and Expressionism. He returned to ink paintings as he wanted to express the concept of Western art through Chinese elements. He made use of innovative techniques and breakthroughs on form, structure, colours and brushstrokes to inherit and transform traditional ink painting into modern ink painting. Mid to late 1980s is the peak of Wu's artistic career in which he put more efforts on ink brushstrokes, simple colours and abstract style in his landscape paintings. Waterfall (Lot 13) is a work from this peak period and a masterpiece that combined these concepts in a theme of a waterfall scene. Different from other ink-painting artists, Wu explores the unique form of expression based on his personal experience with nature. Without direct interpretation of the object, he follows the technique of traditional landscape paintings. He paints a "still-life" of nature, combining different points of origin to exist within one painting. After thorough consideration, the artist chooses to paint only certain aspects of the scene to enhance the discovery of the inner beauty of the landscape. This kind of "recognized beauty" is derived from the principle of Western art and also conforms to the aesthetics in Daoism.
Wu would return to China after his study in Paris, where he was transferred from the Central Academy of Fine Art to the Architecture Department of Tsinghua University as his artistic approach was not accepted in the mainstream of fine art. However, the practical technique of architecture offered Wu a rational way of thinking in dealing with space. He learned that the beauty of form is a science which can be analyzed and investigated. He further learned beauty that was presented in geometric forms and balance of power. This scientific approach of analyzing the form of beauty is based on Western abstract Expressionism. For example, the geometric composition theory by Wassily Kandinsky (Fig. 1) highlighted the use of lines, surfaces, dots, colour batches and composition to express the inner feelings, emotions and rhythm. In Kasimier Malevich's theory, he omitted the theme and subjective expression of the objects to demonstrate feelings and emotions in a geometric format (Fig. 2).
Wu Guanzhong extensively practices this visual science in his "revolution of ink painting". Although he still employs the still-life painting technique in his early works, he also pays attention to the use of geometric combination to divide the composition. For example, A Pair of Swallows (Fig. 3) in 1981 is a concrete description of the object details, but the contrast of geometric patterns in black and white amplifies the visual effects of the painting. It also accentuates the romance of the water city in the south of Yangtze River as well as depicting the essence of surreal beauty. Wu Guanzhong visited various locations of waterfalls and wrote in an article: "There is a waterfall depicted in almost all traditional ink paintings, with an old man holding a walking stick or putting his arms behind watching the running water of waterfall. Between the dark mountain and forest, the draping or winding white silk forms the pulse on the canvas. The contrast of black and white, lines and patterns, as well as still and dynamic objects offer inspiration to the artist. The overall structure is very crucial because waterfall itself cannot act as the main character in a plain landscape painting" (Extracted from Writings of Wu Guanzhong).
In the composition of Waterfall, Wu Guanzhong employs a groundbreaking approach in ink painting portraying a landscape scene with illogical patchworks: The base of waterfall and cliff are two-dimensional. The rectangular proportion of the composition creates a powerful and stable structure that magnifies the space and volume. The use of colour is based on the old technique of "less is more" to exaggerate the scenery with light ink wash. The large batch of grey and the empty space of water flow form a melodic appearance of a magnificent panoramic landscape that connects the waterfall and the sky. Opposite to the waterfall, the snake-like branches of trees are enlarged to touch the edge of the sky. This imbalance and surreal interpretation presents the beauty of imagery, which is a twist in Western abstract art into the essence of Eastern still-life paintings. Another characteristic of Wu's ingenuity is the use of self-made tools to create experimental works without any tradition technique. In Waterfall, the artist uses broad brush to create the background in Chinese calligraphic brushstrokes that capture the energetic flow of water in an abstract form. The broad brush sweeps, scrapes, moistens, dyes and pauses in a free yet orderly movement to create a dynamic touch that remind us of the formal logic of action painting and Abstractionism. Franz Kline uses his oil brush in similar ways to draw raw lines on the canvas to express powerful and architectural structure.
Chinese traditional painting emphasizes the beauty of imagery but sometimes neglects to focus on a main object. Wu Guanzhong always keeps in mind the things he learned in Paris. Professor J.M. Souverbie underlined," The canvas is a stage that shapes and lines should be pushed forward to the centre. There must be a main character on the crucial point or the viewers will be disappointed," (Extracted from Writing and Painting by Wu Guanzhong). The old trees in the forefront of Waterfall are outlined in bold dark ink which becomes the main focal point of the painting. The trees also compositionally divide and balance the overall composition. The scattered brushes of colours add a dynamic touch and imply a metaphor: the thin dried branches cannot resist the winter season, while green leaves and yellow seedlings symbolize the presence of spring. The splash of red and blue are like jewels that give emotion and spirit to the painting. The old trees of spring and the magnificent waterfall compose a symphony of life. The trees are actually the reflection of the artist's pursuit of perfection. A passion that goes beyond the appearance of the object but the ability to convey the essence that leads viewers to an imaginative aesthetic world.
Moreover, Wu also applies the flying white technique in calligraphy and combine the graphic method of abstract Expressionism of Western Art. The skills of brush and ink are integrated with Western abstract thinking to explain the relationship between water flow and rocks in a graphic format. If the grey area depicts the dark rocks and forest, then the empty space of white is the winding flow of water; if the grey is the dynamic water, then the white is the tip of the rocks. Such interval arrangement is in accordance with the interrelationship of the virtual and real: "Use of both emptiness and fullness. But if sparse, it has no depth; if dense, no rhythms. The key is to judge the emptiness and fullness with ideas; the paintings will then be wonderful." (Dong Qichang). Wu fully utilizes the contrast of real (ink) and virtual (white) to skillfully deal with space. This abstract point of view is not only the artist's knowledge on the scenery, but also his attitude on the appreciation of life.
There are not many works of Wu Guanzhong in landscape format with waterfall themes. Similar comparable works are Jiuzhaigou Valley (Fig. 4) and Waterfall. Although both paintings are themed with natural landscape in a refined interpretation, they present different styles of scenery. The two paintings are mainly presented in lines to show the concrete appearance on the flow of water. The format and structure translate the artist's emotion towards the landscape, which is a common practice found in his paintings. On the other hand, Waterfall offered in this auction focuses on the analysis of the formal beauty in an abstract approach to demonstrate the surreal interpretation of landscape. With a career in ink painting spanning over 30 years, he tirelessly persists in exploring a new approach that combine traditional and modern style and the fusion of East and West. Waterfall by Wu Guanzhong takes the approach of "understanding the beauty of the objects and analyzing the formation of such beauty" to employ the advantages of Western and Chinese art in the theme of traditional painting. The beauty of nature, passion and emotion is best presented by the unique language of ink painting, which symbolizes a new benchmark in the history of modern ink painting.