Wu Guanzhong was born in 1919, the year that saw the beginning of the May 4th Movement, during which Chinese intellectuals sought a path toward reform and selfstrengthening in China. The May 4th Movement was a milestone in China's move toward modernization in the 20th century, a historical event of such proportions underlying drastic changes of the country's politics, society, culture, and arts. It was in the midst of this conflict and antagonism between old and new that Wu Guanzhong grew up and came of age. The desire for innovation and reform that swept across the new China formed a strong counterweight to its long-established traditions, foreshadowing Wu Guanzhong's own intense desire to battle mainstream critical orthodoxy and seek newness and change in his art.
After the end of World War II, Wu Guanzhong was selected through intense screening to travel to Paris on a government scholarship, where he studied modern Western painting under Professor Jean Souverbie at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. When the funding for his three-year stay was running out, Wu decided, with the support of his professor, to return to China. Full of enthusiasm, he returned to his own culture determined to find "the fountainhead of art," and to find a new path, combining Chinese national characteristics with modernism, through which he could contribute what he learned in Europe to his native land. In 1950 Wu was engaged as a lecturer at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. But his advocacy of Western "formalism" and other attempts at introducing innovation in oil painting ran afoul of official dogma, which had little tolerance for anything beyond Soviet Social Realism. The following year he became a target of public criticism in the "three-anti" and the "five-anti" campaigns because his portraits were felt to demean workers, peasants, and soldiers, and he was branded a "bastion of bourgeois formalism." Unwilling to give up painting on this account, Wu switched genres and continued his exploration of painting styles and forms by painting scenes from nature.
Wu believed strongly in painting from life. In scenic painting he emphasized the importance of sketching live scenes outdoors, and then, on the basis of these drafts, reflecting on and analyzing the scene at hand until the artist could extract its essentials and produce his own, new creation. After the Cultural Revolution erupted, Wu was sent down to the countryside in 1970 to do farm labor in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, returning only in 1972 when the repression of intellectuals began to ease. But outside of his duties as laborer, Wu was allowed to paint one day a week, and despite the extreme material shortages of his circumstances managed to produce a series of works in a new style that included Turnip Flowers (Lot 1012), Melon Vines, and Great Fruit. The techniques Wu employs in Turnip Flowers, like his other works from this period in the early '70s, tend toward Realism and depicting the features of the natural scene objectively. But even here, in a work whose style and subject appear conservative, Wu does not abandon his exploration of beauty through "formalism" while depicting the surface features of the scene. In the first days after being sent down to the countryside in Hebei, the broad plains of northern China must have seemed monotonous to Wu, compared to the southern landscapes with which he was familiar, but with time he gained an appreciation for the imposing breadth of its pristine, natural expanses. In the pictorial space of Turnip Flowers, Wu seeks the pure expression of points, lines, and planes; with these he decorates and embellishes the clumps of Turnip Flowers in the foreground, expanded somewhat so that they loom large within the composition as a whole. Wu's lines are the turnip stems, rising and twisting in a densely woven pattern that gives the work a basic structure, and crowned at their tips with round yellow-green flowers. Wu sets out the sepals at the base of the blooms in thick, clean brushstrokes in a vivid dark-green, using the tip of his palette knife to scrape lines out of the pigment, forming their radiating patterns of veins. Lastly Wu uses a dry brush with white pigment to embellish the scene with finely textured lines and spherical shapes set among the blooms, and adds figures in the far background who are sometimes simplified to little more than the red or white dots of color that indicate their clothing. What results is a lively and exuberant country scene. In these rural scenes from Wu Guanzhong's period in the north of China, we see the easy grace of works from his earlier periods, to which are added the totemic aspects of traditional handicrafts with their beautiful combination of the rustic and the elegant. From these elements Wu also derives the kind of solid, unaffected, self-contained vitality that Van Gogh achieved in his treatment of sunflowers. Working at he two levels of straightforward figurative depiction and lyrical, conceptual expression, Wu's formal exploration in Turnip Flowers already seems to be moving toward the more abstracted and idealized approach of his work from the '80s onwards.
Unlike the artists of the May 4th period, who were actively involved in social movements and cultural and political reform, Wu Guanzhong adapted to the historical change and the political upheavals of his own times while never losing his focus on artistic form and style. Beginning from an academic orientation, Wu emphasized an unceasing exploration and consideration of his subjects, and adopted a pragmatic approach to the challenges Chinese art faced in the movement from tradition to modernism. In The Collected Writings of Wu Guanzhong (Vol. 1), published in 1998, Wu insisted that "once you have a grasp of technique, technique must yield to thinking." This explains much about Wu's feeling that, faced with bottlenecks in artistic development, one must first engage in analysis, and then seek further answers through experimentation in order to develop new creative vocabularies. In assessing the aesthetic value of Wu Guanzhong's work, art critic Shui Zhongtian noted that Wu's contribution to Chinese art was not a matter of "skill" or "technique," but instead grew from his rebellion against inherited teachings and "his process of unceasing thought and analysis." In an age of transition from old to new, Wu Guanzhong was stalwart in his insistence on maintaining his own "undistorted artistic personality."