Abstract beauty is at the heart of formalistic beauty, and we react instinctively to both. We sense beauty in nature, where it is an integral and rich part of concrete forms. Artists who depict such forms in their search for beauty choose only what is essential during that process, and so discover the principles on which beauty itself is founded. Based on the experience of those who came before, we have concluded which conditions and factors are most essential for beauty: contrast, harmony, fluctuation, rhythm, and unity in diversity.
East and West have differed in their interpretations of what 'abstract' painting means. The greatest difference in viewpoints lies in the fact that in the China, abstract painting has been taken to embody the artist's view of nature and the humanistic philosophy of man's integration with it. By contrast with the West, abstract painting in the East has deeper historical roots and is rich in its conceptual basis. Western abstraction perceives forms within abstraction, and presents figurative geometrical patterns, as are found in the paintings of the school of Neo-plasticism. The fluid lines unique to Chinese calligraphy have allowed Chinese painting, in its linear depictions, a richness of metaphorical and symbolic meanings, and that, combined with the centrality of nature in its humanistic philosophy, has meant that Eastern abstraction works by finding abstract implications through figurative representations.
Wu Guanzhong's 1985 White Birches (Lot 19) beautifully illustrates this artist's success in fusing the essentials of Eastern and Western art, by balancing figuration with abstraction and washes of ink-like color with more heavily layered brushwork in oil. In Birches, the ink-like ambience of the oil works from Wu's earlier periods is skillfully transformed into simple but strong lines, which here form the divisions that structure his composition. Interestingly, the modern Italian painter Lucio Fontana was similarly adept at segmenting his canvas with lines (Fig. 1), though in Fontana's case, he directly scored his canvas with a sharp blade, so that the parallel lines formed by his cuts serve to directly and powerfully break through the original imaginative space created on the canvas. With just a few simple, clean lines formed by these incisions, what was originally an artificial, imaginary space has been fused together with actual space. Wu Guanzhong employs three white birch trunks placed close within the viewer's field of vision, and ingeniously uses six parallel lines running from top to bottom, thereby guiding the viewer into an imaginary space where solid forms alternate with empty spaces. Wu similarly employs his abstract composition to display this segmented structuring of space, though whereas Fontana leads the viewer directly into the real world, the deep conception behind Wu Guanzhong's work produces forms and spaces that are staggered within the unreal space of his canvas; the result created a new world of expression within the field of Eastern abstract painting.
Wu Guanzhong was concerned with Chinese philosophy as a part of his creative philosophy, its basic thought being founded on the ideas of the unity of man and nature and the interdependence of self and other. Viewing the scene presented in White Birches, we see a composition in which a segment drawn from a much larger scene becomes the entire visual focus of the work. Wu Guanzhong, taking the natural world as central in his philosophy, viewed himself as floating within it as lightly as a feather, his tiny individual self capable of focusing on any part of the scenery, and it was from such a point of view that he produced this painting. Cezanne, the father of modern art, also placed the trunk of a tree directly in the center of the canvas and the viewer's gaze (Fig. 2), but was unable to escape the more traditional approach of an overall depiction of his subject. Wu Guanzhong boldly focuses on one segment of a view of some birches, showing how the artist selected only the essentials in his compositional process. He discovers the splendid principles and harmonies behind the natural world, and concentrates solely on communicating to us the most fundamental principles of beauty itself. The artist's outlook in fact was such that this was his sole concern; his only object was to achieve a depiction of beauty's true nature. Proceeding from the philosophical principle of man's union with nature and the interdependence of self and other, he entered the realm where one sees the whole in the tiniest part, “the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a flower,” the realm where you “hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and see eternity in an hour.”
Wu Guanzhong enriches White Birches with a number of freehand brushstrokes, so that the lines which depict the flowing curves of the birch trunks, and the special placement of those lines adds tremendously to the sense of space and visual tension within the work. These few simple strokes are rich in metaphorical and symbolic implications, their shaping suggesting twigs newly forming or the sprouting of new leaves, and at the same time, heightening the aspects of abstract conception within the figurative depiction of this scene. In addition, several strands of white mist appear beyond the birch trunks, wisps that seem to float across the scene or perhaps suggest whitish clouds above distant mountaintops; they unobtrusively add contrasts of distance and create spatial depth, while contributing further to the Wu's conception of forms against empty space.
Wu Guanzhong's artistic journey spanned a period of half a century, a journey in which he sought the true nature of art and continually refined his abilities as he switched between the ink and oil mediums. His works brought together his unique personal views of modern Western oil painting and traditional Eastern ink works; his painted works in an Eastern abstract style were true Chinese paintings, as he received and carried on the essential aesthetics of the Chinese painting tradition. Whether he painted towering mountain ranges, gushing springs with clouds of mist, sturdy pines, or quaint riverside villages, his works all displayed an ability to govern complexity with a simplicity of style and brushwork, and his ability to adapt the characteristics of Chinese colored ink painting for use in the oil medium helped usher in a new future for Chinese painting. Because of all these outstanding abilities, he is today a figure whose accomplishments remain unmatched in the world of international art.