Wu Guanzhong, influential and non-conformist Chinese painter, dies at 91

CHINESE PAINTING MODERN CHINESE ART

Modern Chinese master painter Wu Guanzhong passed away in late June this year, aged 91. Wu became known for using traditional Chinese ink brush techniques to produce an aesthetic that is distinctly influenced by western art, in both ink and oil mediums. In his last years, Wu donated many of his works to public museums.

Wu Guanzhong, 'The Call of the Gods', 2009, oil on canvas.

Wu Guanzhong, 'The Call of the Gods', 2009, oil on canvas.

According to The New York Times, Wu gave 113 works to the Singapore Art Museum in a donation valued at 73.7 million Singapore dollars, about $53 million in 2008. He also donated dozens of paintings to the Hong Kong Museum of Art, adding to a collection of previous gifts. Just before his death, he donated five more of his works to this museum.

The Guardian headlined that Wu “emerged from a cultural straitjacket as a modern master”. The article went on to state,

In the summer of 1950, soon after Mao Zedong had proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic, Wu Guanzhong, happily studying painting in Paris, made the fateful decision to return to China. Appointed to teach in the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, his head full of Cézanne and Van Gogh, he soon found that he was forbidden to mention those names, and felt unable to face his radical students until he could talk about socialist realism in the Soviet Union, and its foreshadowing in the art of Ilya Repin. This was the beginning of almost three decades of harassment and victimization that, for him and countless others, ended only after the death of Mao in 1976.

About Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong was born in 1919 into a peasant farm family in a village near Yixing, in east China’s Jiangsu province. In his teens, he was studying to become an electrical engineer, but Wu changed his path after attending an art exhibition at the National Arts Academy of Hangzhou. He decided to transfer to this institution to study and it was here that his talent started to blossom.

After studying both Chinese and Western painting under Lin Fengmian and Pan Tianshou, Wu graduated from the National Arts Academy of Hangzhou in 1942. After teaching art in the architecture department of National Chongqing University, he won a scholarship to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He left China in in 1947. Here, Wu studied under Professor Jean Souverbie, whom according to Wu had affected him deeply. But by 1950, he began to feel cut off from his roots and decided then to go back to China.

The three-year study in France enabled Wu to capture the essence of modern art in the West. Growing up in withinChinese culture, he also had a deep understanding of Chinese painting style. After his return to China, Wu taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and other institutions. He introduced Western art to his students, but the Academy was dominated by Soviet social realism and he was branded as a fortress of bourgeois formalism.” Refusing to conform to political dogma, he was transferred from one academy to another, painting in his own style.

During the Cultural Revolution in August 1966, he was forbidden to teach, write or paint. Eventually he was sent to the country to work as a farm labourer. It was only after two years that he was permitted to paint again.

Gradually, things got better. In 1973 Wu was one of the leading artists brought back from the countryside, an initiative of Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China. He was painting again, travelling around China and writing articles. His rehabilitation was marked by an exhibition of his work in 1978 at the Central Academy. From that moment, he never looked back. Major exhibitions of his work were held in the British Museum in 1988, in the US in 1988-89, in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, and today he is recognised around the world as one of the masters of modern Chinese painting.

Mr. Wu had an impact on the way the Western art world viewed Chinese painting. In 1992, he was the first living Chinese artist to have a solo exhibition at the British Museum in London. In 1991, France made him an officer of l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2002, he was the first Chinese artist to be awarded the Médaille des Arts et Lettres by the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France. The New York Times

Wu’s importance within Chinese art

Unlike some other modern Chinese artists, he never found the choice of styles a problem. Asked whether he preferred the Chinese or the western style, he said: “When I take up a brush to paint, I paint a Chinese picture” The Guardian

Flower, 2000,  Ink on paper

Wu Guanzhong, 'Flower', 2000, ink on paper.

Like Van Gogh he painted not just the form, but “with his feelings”. He found inspirations in the beauty of nature. Wu’s style of painting has the colour sense and formal principles of Western paintings, but tonal variations of ink that are typically Chinese.

“Don’t be afraid of it,” he insisted, “because it is all around us in nature – in the design of the trellis in a garden pavilion, in the shadow of the bamboo leaves on a white wall… The line that connects the painted image to the real thing can never be broken.” The Guardian

In his work, natural scenery is reduced to its essentials – simple but powerful abstract forms. In rows of houses built along the contour of the hills, Wu discovered abstract patterns, the white houses with black roofs standing out against the soft grey tones of the mountains or water. In all his work, objective representation loses its importance, overtaken by the beauty of the abstract forms, lines, colours and subtle ink tones.

Wu’s works are unconventional and full of passion. In the eyes of the West, the images are very Chinese, but to Chinese viewers, the images appear modern and Western.

Read the obituaries and other related articles

JAS/KN

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Comments

Wu Guanzhong, influential and non-conformist Chinese painter, dies at 91 — 2 Comments

  1. According to their site, the Singapore Art Museum will be hosting an exhibition of selected works from Wu’s donation, entitled, “Seeing the Kite Again”. It will be on view until 12 November 2012. Hope that’s helpful!

  2. My brother will travel to Singapore in April. Is Wu Guanzhong’s collection back at the Singapore Art Museum, or is it still in China?

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