Wu Guanzhong is one of the most well renowned contemporary Chinese artists in the world. His paintings are now sold by prestigious auction houses such as Christie’s for hundreds of thousands of dollars. What makes him so special compared to other talented artists of his time is his use of colour, deeply influenced by European modernism. His works combine traditional Chinese ink techniques with Western oil painting. He liked to describe himself as ‘a snake swallowing an elephant,’ — the snake symbolising the Chinese artist in him, the elephant representing Western influence.
Wu Guanzhong’s life was in many ways fascinating. He was born in 1919 in Jiangsu province in a modest but educated family. His father was a school teacher and hoped that Wu would follow his steps. But fate had something else planned for him. He dropped out of his engineering course at university to attend the National Hangzhou Academy of Art. He studied under the guidance of important artists such as Lin Fengmian, often considered the father of Chinese modern painting.
The years that defined the most his later career and success were those spent in Paris. He studied for 3 years at one of the most prestigious academies in France. He greatly admired Post-Impressionists such as Van Gogh, Pissarro and Cézanne. His study abroad trip also made him appreciate formalism, an style of expression that favours the purely visual aspects of an artwork rather than its narrative or accuracy to the real world. Wu would later apply this principle to his art and push the boundaries of form and colour.
When he came back from France, he taught at several Beijing universities and academies until his life changed drastically in 1966. Because of the Cultural Revolution, his wife and him were sent to the countryside to work in the fields. He could not paint during this time and had to destroy most of the oil paintings he had done after his trip to Europe.
But when ten years later Wu went back to painting, he did not immediately start using oil colours again, instead he used ink wash painting. Wu was ready to revolutionize this ancient technique. As he put it “brush-and-ink is misunderstood as being the only choice for life and the future path of Chinese painting, and the standards of brush-and-ink painting are used to judge whether any work is good or bad.” He mixes black ink with colours.
He takes inspiration from famous traditional painters like Guo Xi. Let’s take a look at the following artwork. Even though Wu depicts a mountainous setting and a waterfall like in “Early Spring”, the results are completely different. Wu dilutes ink to make it grey and uses black just for some details, and leaves plenty of space to play with colour. With just a few visible brush strokes he skilfully paints the scene, just like Impressionists.
In later work, his Western studies and oil-painting background show through even more. He distances himself from traditional Chinese painting in two ways. Firstly, his subjects become more and more abstract. His portrayal of the Lion Grove Garden in Hangzhou has been compared to Pollock’s work, his use of colour and form can be assimilated to Abstract Expressionism. Unlike Chinese painting, colours here are used in a non-referential way, i.e. they do not reflect reality. The splotches of colour in this and other paintings are an example of this.
The second way he differs from traditional Chinese painters is the choice of the subjects of his painting. Inspired by the geometrical lines of Mondrian, architecture becomes central in his works. To a Western eye this probably does not seem like such an experimental move. However, in traditional compositions elements of architecture were always just small details in a vast natural landscape.
The minimalism and attention to perspective of “Twin Swallows” were ground-breaking at the time. The only detail that provides an idea of the scale are the two birds flying over the houses.
His style of painting is in continuous evolution. When it comes to architecture, he loves experimenting. He can be a realist and paint Zhouzhuang village exactly as it is or he can immerse himself into abstraction, like in “Chinatown”.
As the tenth year of Wu Guanzhong’s death approaches in June, it is important to celebrate one of the greatest painters of our time. He did not only push the boundaries of Chinese traditional painting, but also had a significant impact on the way the Western art world viewed Chinese painting.