With a seamless blending of traditional Chinese ink painting and abstract expressionism, Wu Guanzhong’s Waterfall exemplifies his mastery of both styles philosophically and technically. The unique way in which he internalized Chinese culture and Western culture, as well as his ability to demonstrate superior skills acquired from vastly different visual sources, are all manifested in this work.
In 1936, Wu Guanzhong entered the National Arts Academy of Hangzhou, where the school motto was “A mediation between Chinese and Western art, creating the art of our time,” according to its founder, the renowned painter Lin Fengmian. At the academy, he studied oil painting and traditional Chinese painting under great painters such as Chang Shuhong, Guan Liang and Pan Tianshou. In 1947, Wu continued his study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, focusing on Western modern oil painting under Professor J. M. Souverbie in 1947. Wu returned to China After three years with the hope to develop a new approach in modern art rooted in traditional Chinese painting. However, this approach contradicted with the contemporaneous mainstream artistic trend. After much struggle, he came to the realization that his attitude of “understanding the aesthetic of the object, as well as analyzing and grasping the structure of the aesthetic form” would always be castigated by the public and shunned. Nevertheless, he refused to surrender his artistic ideals and instead tried to circumvent the political current and public opinion. He has stated in his memoir that “I cannot accept the formula of other people’s aesthetics merely to depict workers, farmers, and soldiers. As I was pushed to the brink, I changed my approach and decided to paint only landscape.”
Wu began to focus on ink painting during the mid-1970s, extensively copying works from masters like Shitao, Bada Shanren, Zheng Xie, the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty and Four Wangs of the Qing Dynasty. He particularly admired Shitao’s oeuvre for his interpretation of the relationship between painting and nature. Shitao advocated “borrowing the past to develop the now” and “the ink and brush should follow the present,” which Wu considered the most progressive ideology in Chinese painting history. During his stay in Paris, Wu immersed himself in the art of Impressionism, post-Impressionism and Expressionism. To Wu, returning to traditional Chinese painting meant using the paper medium as a vehicle, to explore the possibility of combining the concept, composition, structure, coloration, and brushwork of Western painting with the heritage of traditional Chinese painting. It was an attempt to develop a new, “contemporary” approach to ink painting.
Wu reached the peak of his creative prowess in ink painting during the 1980s, when he emphasized the versatility of the ink and brush, and preferred a more subdued color palette instead of a vibrant one. Waterfall is a masterpiece from this period which embodies all of his most cherished ideals mentioned previously. Unlike many traditional Chinese painters, who mostly learned painting landscape from other landscape paintings and sometimes duplicating the scenery they see, Wu’s creative process involved a commune with nature in order to discern each element’s unique expressive form. He stressed the importance of painting landscape outdoor, even “visiting different sites and vantage points for a single compositional idea” so one could distill the aesthetic of the scene.
Wu Guanzhong has visited various sites of waterfalls and has expressed his opinion on this subject, “There is a waterfall in virtually every traditional Chinese landscape. The gushing water is accompanied by an old man holding a staff or his hands folded behind, viewing the waterfall. The painter usually entitled the work ‘Viewing Waterfall.’ Among the dark rendition of mountains, rocks, and trees, the white spaces representing the waterfall flying across, quietly drop down or turbulently meander, are the most lively pulse. It is this contrast of black and white, of two-dimensional forms and lines, of stillness and movement, that attracts and inspires painters. However, the success of the painting rests on the complete structure of all the elements, and a waterfall alone cannot salvage myriad of ordinary landscape.”
Few of Wu Guanzhong’s works have waterfall as their themes. Although they were all completed after “sketching from nature” in the outdoors and subsequently distilled and abstracted into the final image, they varied in expression and composition, following his observation of different scenery. The dynamism in Waterfall, as expressed by the curvilinear and swirly brush strokes at the top and the bottom of the composition, injects the painting with “the most lively pulse” he cherished. Layers of ink wash at the top as mountains in the distance behind the spectacular waterfall lends depth to the pictorial space. Overall, the painting imparts a sense of grandeur of the natural world, which, as we know, was always the aim of Wu Guanzhong.