Biography of Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong is arguably the most famous Chinese artist alive today. Although now in his mid-eighties, he continues to forge ahead into the twenty-first century with his highly distinctive art, which has successfully assimilated the formalist principles of Western art with the aesthetic concepts of the East. Not only has he skillfully managed to blend East with West, but he has also effectively bridged the gap between traditional and modern Chinese ink painting. Wu Guanzhong, with a passion undiminished by the hardships of life, and with fervent single-mindedness has, over more than half a decade, produced a body of works that is elegant, harmonious, powerful, but above all, uniquely his own.

With a strong following both at home and abroad Wu Guanzhong has held exhibitions in China, Japan, Africa, South-east Asia, Europe and America. Even today he works tirelessly for his passion, not only creating new art, but also overseeing exhibitions, supplying material for new catalogues and writing articles on art. With an ever-increasing demand for his work, this year alone sees the opening of a new Wu Guanzhong museum at Art Retreat in Singapore, a commercial exhibition entitled ‘Wu Guanzhong – Recent Works’ held in Hong Kong (the first in seven years), and the publication of two new major catalogues, not to mention record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s and Christies.

Primarily a landscape artist Wu Guanzhong has traveled his homeland extensively to capture the beauty of nature in all its forms. Like a restless wanderer he has traveled the land often climbing a mountain from every angle in order to capture the very spirit of the place, not just a single view, down on paper. Equally adept in oils as in ink his works embody the very essence of creativity as he skillfully blends elements of traditional Chinese landscapes into his oil paintings and by instilling a sense of Western colour and form into his ink paintings. Over the years Wu has become fascinated with the idea of abstract forms. In his paintings he reduces natural scenery down to the essentials, thus creating simple, very direct images. He reveals beauty that is hidden in tangible phenomena, making his works universally appealing.

Born in Yixing, Jiangsu Province in 1919, Wu Guanzhong’s life spans the tumultuous decades of the last century. His father, a schoolteacher, of modest means, hoped that he would follow him into the same profession, however his hopes were dashed when Wu enrolled on a course of electrical engineering. His training college was affiliated to the Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and through a chance meeting with some artists who were studying at the Hangzhou Art Academy, Wu became so passionate about art that he left his vocational training course, enrolled himself into the Art Academy and never looked back.

While at the Academy Wu received training in both Western and traditional Chinese art. His principal art teachers and mentors were Lin Fengmian (1900 – 1901) and Pan Tianshou (1897 – 1971). Through Lin Fengmian, who had studied in France, Wu was exposed for the first time to artists such as Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse, and in particular van Gogh, whom he greatly admired. Pan Tianshou instructed Wu in the art of Chinese painting and encouraged him to make copies of the Chinese masters such as Zhu Da (Bada Shanren) (1626 – 1705) and Shi Tao (1642 – 1707), in order to perfect his brush work. Pan instilled in him a profound understanding and love of Chinese aesthetics. Of that period Wu comments: ‘Thanks to our Academy principal, Lin Fengmian, who set up the painting faculty without a division between Chinese and Western art, we studied both spheres of art. Strict formalism, strong colour, the oil paintings were intoxicating to young men. The freehand brushwork and charm of Chinese painting also attracted me. I hated to give up either school of painting. I tried to combine the merits of both schools, but found the heavy consistency of oil contradicted the fluidity of ink and water. They absolutely could not combine with each other.'(1) This dichotomy was to preoccupy him for many decades to come.

Throughout his time at the Art Academy Wu’s passion for art never diminished despite the chaos inflicted by the Second World War. During The War of Resistance against Japan, which started in 1937, the Art Academy with all its staff and students was forced to flee Hangzhou and settled first in Yuanling, Hunan province and then later in Qingmuguan, Sichuan province. Wu graduated from the Academy in 1942 and was soon engaged as a tutor at the Architecture Department of the National Central University of Chongqing. During this period Wu had set his heart on furthering his art studies in France. Since the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 it was becoming perfectly apparent that new life needed to be injected into the stagnant tradition of National painting (guohua). This art form had already reached its peak and was in its decline by the time Wu Guanzhong was born and he felt that only by learning new ideas from the West and fusing them with this tradition could he attempt to bring something new and truly creative to fruition.

In 1946 Wu won a painting competition and was granted a scholarship to study in France. Under the tutelage of Professor J.M. Souverbie at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts Wu spent the next four years studying everything he possibly could about Western art. One can imagine the artist’s exaltation upon seeing for the first time those ancient and modern masters hanging in the Louvre, paintings that he had only seen in books before were now available for close inspection and daily viewing. Intoxicated by French art Wu showed a special affinity to the paintings of Utrillo (1883 – 1955). While other artists were concentrating on the effects of light shimmering off the Seine or depicting the warm glow of a field of wheat in summer, Utrillo was depicting the dark, narrow alleyways of Montmartre, the white walls and dilapidated houses surrounding the Sacre Coeur, and images of the aged and dejected. Utrillo demonstrated his skill at finding beauty in the mundane, but above all he displayed an intensity of feeling that far outreached other artists’ works. Wu Guanzhong’s white walled houses of Jiangnan, painted much later in the 70’s and 80’s would echo similarly strong sentiments.

Wu Guanzhong’s decision to leave Paris was not taken lightly. He spent a long time deliberating the merits of staying on. Paris was the epicenter of artistic endeavour for many artists, his close artist friends Zao Wou-ki (1921-), Zhu Dequn (1920 – ) and Xiong Bing Ming (?) would all decide to make it their home, but for Wu it was not enough. He had learned all he could about Western art in terms of expression, composition and technique and was keen to develop these ideas further in his own homeland. Many factors contributed to his final decision to leave, but perhaps the most important was simply his love of his motherland and his desire to become a pioneer in the Chinese art world.

Returning to China in 1950 Wu could not have anticipated the hardships that lay ahead. The People’s Republic of China had just been established and an air of excitement and enthusiasm was prevalent in the academies and art institutes. Wu was assigned to the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, which was under the presidency of Xu Beihong (1895 – 1953), who had also studied in Paris. Wu was keen to teach his students about artists such as van Gogh, Gaugin, and Matisse and about the formal approach to art he had learnt while studying in France. However, within a year it became clear that this style of art would not be tolerated by the Academy, which was ever more closely monitored by the government, and which was now instructed to teach socialist realism in the Soviet style in order to promote state ideology. Branded an’intellectual of the capitalist class’ Wu clashed with authorities. He simply could not subscribe to this new socialist mode of painting in which farmers and soldiers were idealized. His figures were considered too sensitively rendered, lacking the politically prescribed heroism and glory. Shunted from one art academy to the next Wu gave up figure painting altogether and concentrated instead on landscape art, a subject less likely to attract adverse attention.

Between the years 1956 and 1964 Wu enjoyed relatively peaceful years teaching students at the Beijing Fine Arts College. It was during this period that he really discovered beauty in nature. Making several trips around the country he made many sketches of mountains, valleys, rivers and deserts, which he would later rework in his studio into oils on canvas. Wu likened himself to the seventh century monk Xuanzhaung, who’s difficult task it was to bring back Buddhist sutras from India and translate them into Chinese. He too had an enormous task, not of translating sutras, but of trying to nationalize oil painting by bringing back methods learnt abroad. ‘Started with landscape painting, with my search for the concretized ideal, and with a feeling for what the Chinese people like to see and hear’ only felt that I was pursuing something: the people’s feeling, the soil’s pulses, traditional style, and the rules of modern Western form’.(2) During this period Wu concerned himself primarily with the appearance of objective nature. Hence most of his works from this period are painted in a naturalistic style. However, despite all his training in Western art, Wu did not simply imitate styles from abroad. By stressing mood and emotion while at the same time incorporating techniques of realism and perspective he managed to infuse a sense of Chinese lyricism into his works, thereby drawing his audience into his own world of beauty.

The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and by 1967 Wu, along with all his colleagues from the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, had been sent off to the countryside to do hard labour. For three long years Wu was made to do backbreaking work in the fields around Shijianzhouang in Hebei Province. Unable to even speak to his wife who was in a similar work unit some distance away, Wu was also banned from painting. During this period Wu, fearful of the consequences of being in possession of so many of his figure paintings, especially the nudes, which might have been deemed counter-revolutionary, was forced to destroy them all, leaving a gaping hole in his artistic endeavours thus far, and depriving us of, no doubt, some very fine works. Working in the fields, however, brought Wu into close contact with nature. As the rules were gradually relaxed and Wu was allowed to paint again he produced some very fine oils such as Sparrows and Melon Vine, both painted in 1972, which reflected both his close proximity to nature and his focus on small objects. In Sparrows, which depicts a scene of trees with autumn leaves interspersed with small birds against a back drop of fields and mountains, Wu already seems to be extracting and highlighting essential elements of nature, in that the branches of the trees are not painted realistically with touches of light and shade, but more as lines of varying density forming a network against which blobs of colour depicting the leaves and birds are set. The warmth and emotion emanating from the painting touches us and like almost all of his paintings, this is an uplifting image of beauty in nature. Echoes of van Gogh are felt in Melon Vine, which presents us with vibrant patches of colour representing the vine set again against the pale bluish brown of fields and hills in the distance. In this painting we sense Wu’s strength of character, despite all the adversity he must have endured over the past years, here we have a painting showing pure exaltation and joy in the simplest of nature’s gifts. We sense his passion for art and intensity of emotion, but also admire his sophisticated and distinctive use of brushwork. Wu’s oils of this period all show a lightness of touch and ease of style, which belie the tumultuous times of that violent era. Throughout his life Wu would never become involved in politics, to him all that mattered was his passion for art and the desire to reveal to his nation the beauty of their country.

In 1973 Wu was recalled to Beijing by Zhou Enlai and instructed to produce works for public buildings. Having painted almost exclusively in oils until this time, he began to feel that this medium alone could not satisfy his creative drive and he began experimenting with the traditional medium of ink on paper. Although he continued to work in oils he felt a new sense of freedom in ink:’I have grappled with oil paintings for several decades, I still feel that objective images pose limitations and restraints. I cannot always get what I want. When I change to water and ink, it becomes relatively freer in many ways. The element of “impression” becomes much expanded.'(3)

Wu did not return to the traditional form of ink painting that he had studied while at the Hangzhou Art Academy, accepting the challenge to modernize this tradition, he set out to create a completely new structure of art in a style uniquely his own. Unwilling to be restrained by a prescribed set of values and formulae that he considered out of tune with modern society he began to paint in a style that incorporated Western elements of formalism and colour but remained true to the spirit of Chinese culture.

For a period in the 1970’s Wu carefully reworked several images from oil into ink experimenting with how the image could be transferred from one medium to the other. Ever since Wu has maintained a very close relationship between these two mediums often likening them to the blades of a pair of scissors with which he wants to fashion a new set of clothes incorporating both Chinese and Western styles. He has often said that when he reaches a point where he feels frustrated in one medium he will revert to the other in order to solve a given problem, his ability to switch effortlessly and successfully from one to the other has given him the well-earned reputation as an artist of outstanding and exceptional talent.

Although his first experiments in ink were paintings in a more representational style his major breakthrough came in the early 1980’s after he had written his first controversial article on ‘Formal Beauty of Painting’ in 1979. Coming only two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution many critics were shocked at Wu’s audacity to openly propose a new style of art other than the state prescribed socialist realism. However, the times were changing and a more relaxed and open attitude to art was beginning to prevail. In this article and in later articles, Wu was to explore the issue of beauty in abstract art. Abstract beauty he claimed could be found everywhere; in the pattern on a rock, in the branches of a tree, in the black roofs of Jiangnan, even in builders’ scaffolding. It is the artist’s task to extract the abstract from the essence of a form and to create it into in an image of beauty and harmony. In these early ink paintings Wu shied away from pure abstraction feeling that by losing touch with the objective world he would lose touch of that essential Chinese element in his paintings. In his well-known metaphor of kite and string he writes: ‘Art is like a kite. You have to pull the string hard in order to stretch its potential to the limit, but you don’t want to pull it so hard that you break the thread, because the thread connects you to the land and its people’.

Few paintings sum up this metaphor or display Wu’s mastery of ink paintings of this period better than The Lion Grove Garden painted in 1983. The image depicts the rockery at the Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou, famous for its lion-, tiger- and leopard-shaped rocks. With a rhythmical sinuous line Wu traces out the dips and crags in the rocks splashing multi-coloured ink drops over it to highlight the holes and caverns. Had he painted nothing but the rockery in this fashion we would have feasted our eyes on the purely abstract beauty of the image and admired his skills of the brush, but he would not have achieved his goal of keeping the kite attached to the string. For this reason he added the pavilions at the top and the bridge and fish to the side and below respectively. Our eyes are drawn first from the beauty of the abstract into the realm of reality, such is the harmony of this painting that it happens almost imperceptibly.

Critics of Wu Guanzhong’s art have often denounced his style as veering too far from traditional Chinese art and consider his execution of brush and ink deficient in certain aspects. He has also been accused of copying styles from Western artists such as Jackson Pollack. Simply by glancing at the Lion Grove Garden should dispel such arguments. Not only does this image reverberate with skillful brushwork, but the dots and splashes of colour have clear Chinese precedents. Like the Qing Dynasty artist Ba Da, whom Wu greatly admires, Wu uses his brush not to merely replicate an image, but to give us an emotional insight into his state of mind. Wu uses his all senses to respond to a given subject and he conveys his emotions via his elaborate and highly unique use of lines, dots, and splashes. One can trump up charges that Wu has been influenced by all kinds of artists from Utrillo to Mondrian to Pollack, but underlying his art is the sense that all his paintings are distinctly Chinese in spirit.

Exhibitions in San Francisco in 1989, in London in 1992 and in Paris in 1993 catapulted Wu Guanzhong onto the international art scene. Paintings such as Mulberry Grove (1981), Villages in the Altai Mountains, (1986) and The Ruins of Gaochang (1987), were received to rapturous applause. Here was a Chinese artist displaying a modernity and style that was captivating both Chinese and Western audiences alike. His images displayed a beauty and simplicity that transcended barriers of language, culture and heritage.

Throughout the 90’s Wu continued evolving his style and his theories on abstraction. One could say that his paintings over these years moved further away from representational art and edged more into an abstract spiritual realm. Always acutely aware of how his paintings are received by his own people, Wu perhaps felt that with the opening up of China since the 80’s people’s tastes had grown more sophisticated and therefore better able to understand and appreciate a more abstract perspective. Paintings such as Book of the Gods (1992) and Floating (1992) demonstrate the artists move into a purely abstract realm. The relationship between these images and the real world seems very distant, however, in a symphony of black, white and grey and splashes of yellow, pink and green, Wu depicts images that are brimming with emotion, bursting with energy and resounding with passion. In many of his paintings from the 1990’s the heavy use of black ink, and his desire to fill in much of the surface area, compared to previous images with a much lighter touch, would suggest a move to a deeper, more spiritual level. Wu’s wife was taken seriously ill in early 1991, which gave rise to feelings of mortality and introspection. Reflecting on the mysteries of life Wu chose abstraction as a way of conveying complex emotions about life and death. Despite the predominant use of black in these paintings, however, they cannot be termed as dark or negative images. Wu seems to be an eternally optimistic artist, who cannot depict ugliness or sadness, only beauty and joy. Even in paintings with titles such as Life and Sinking where he is obviously grappling with complex issues, we do not feel burdened by the outcome, his paintings are always uplifting, as if he were saying life is always a cause for celebration whatever its outcome.

One cannot write an article on Wu Guanzhong without mentioning his paintings of Jiangnan. Time and time again Wu comes back to this subject, as if haunted by the beauty of his hometown. Working in both a horizontal and vertical format in both ink and oil Wu has depicted the white walls and black roofs, the bridges and waterways, the villages and communities of this romantic region of China. Some of his most iconoclastic works, such as the ink painting Two Swallows (1981), have Jiangnan as their subject. This painting sums up his eternal love of his hometown as well as highlighting his fascination with the juxtaposition of black and white, the relationship between the vertical and horizontal and the tension between pictorial structure and Chinese lyricism. The two swallows in the painting have become almost a trademark in his work, they flit in and out of his paintings, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups, denoting the coming and going of spring and the passing of time. It is charming to see them again in a very recent oil painting painted in a horizontal format entitled ‘Childhood Memory’ (2003). Flying high above a waterway scene in Jiangnan they are the only allusion to life in an otherwise almost cubist depiction of a water village. Although he has painted this scene many times before, it appears that with this image he has reached new heights of serenity and calmness. The waterway takes up over one third of the image and is striking in its simplicity. By using vertical strokes to depict the water, Wu guides our eyes up towards the bridge in the distance. The shadows of the buildings cast over the water also add to the elongation of the image. The houses have been reduced to semi-abstract forms in white, black and grey. By reducing the motifs to their simplest elements and by avoiding the use of small details, which would detract from the essence of the painting, this image leaves us with an uplifting sense of harmony and serenity.

This serenity is reflected in many of his most recent works. Like a Buddha reaching a state of Nirvana, Wu has come through the ‘dark’ period of the 1990’s into a more serene state of being. His images are purer and brighter, lighter and less complex. Two ink paintings that highlight this state of mind are Fruit Tree (2000) and Time Flies (2000). The fruit tree and the bush are each set against a pure light background, the colours Wu has used for the fruit and blossom are bright and fresh. One would expect images like this to be the work of an artist in the prime of his youth, the vibrancy of the brushwork and the sheer beauty of the subject matter is invigorating. Only when we look closer at the inscription of Time Flies, which translates literally as ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, too quickly’, do we appreciate the reference to the passing of time. Wu, in the twilight of his life, is still able to produce works of such youthful passion, it is as if his spirit has been rejuvenated and elevated to a more enlightened place.

Wu is an artist of undisputed talent. Had he left China and stayed away like many other artists did of his generation, he might have lost the impetus for his artistic endeavours. China has been Wu’s artistic inspiration for more than half a century. With sensitivity and originality he has depicted its forests, mountains, villages and waterways, creating a eulogy to his homeland. Synthesizing elements of Western and Chinese art, fusing tradition with modernity, his influence as a pioneer in the contemporary Chinese art world, will be felt for decades to come. When fellow contemporary Chinese artist Wang Huai Qing was asked what Wu Guanzhong meant to him he said: ‘to me he has only one occupation, and that is Painter. If one name is not enough, than I shall give two or three more and they are Painter, Painter and Painter. Contained in this word is everything, his happiness and hardship, his day and night, and all his heart.

Beyond this word you cannot find Wu Guanzhong.