Individualism and subjectivity are central to art, and art is the product of an artist’s unique expression of human emotions. This was Wu Guanzhong’s belief, which he carried with him throughout his artistic career. Throughout his practice, he explored multiple mediums and subject matters (ranging from nude paintings to landscapes), but landscapes form a large part of his oeuvre and became the predominant subject matter through which he demonstrated his belief.
The dynamic quality and tendency of natural landscapes to evolve over time lends itself well as an endless source of inspiration to Wu’s practice. As Wu said, “Sketching from life is drawing and composing and creating” (See: 2010 video including an interview with Wu). Thus, the process should be organic, led by emotions, followed by observation. A work which exemplifies the creative product of this process is Running Stream (1988). Trees emerge from bold, organic strokes of black ink, standing firmly in the foreground; their leaves are rendered in wispy brushstrokes, as if blown by the wind. Faint washes of ink wind around the trees to become the running stream that sweeps across the entire landscape. Further back, a misty grey surrounds distant trees, and amongst them, flowers are represented by Wu’s signature dots of colors. His dynamic strokes capture the movement of the landscape, whilst preserving the calm that accompanies a natural retreat. Instead of just capturing how a stream might look, Wu emphasized the movement of the stream and the feelings of the observer – calm and pensive when faced with the beauty of the landscape. Wu brings a unique subjectivity to his interpretation of such scenes to create his poetic landscapes.
The significance of his landscapes intensifies with the knowledge of his experience during China’s Cultural Revolution. Much like how restrictions now form a large part of our lives, Wu Guanzhong lived in a time of restrictions under the Communist Party. Penalized for deviating from state-supported, Social Realist subjects, he was banned from painting for seven years and later bound to strict rules that only allowed him to paint once a week. Still, Wu rejected the notion of art as a servant to politics. Instead, he insisted that emotions came first in the art-making process, which then determined the content of the work. After destroying his figural works which risked being labelled as counter-revolutionary by the Red Guards, Wu dedicated himself to landscapes, a way for him to continue art-making despite unfavorable circumstances.
With the expression of emotions as the connecting thread throughout his oeuvre, Wu was never bound by geographical or cultural boundaries; he melded Western abstraction with Chinese ink aesthetics, painted Europe with ink techniques, and captured historic towns in China with oil paint. Two personal favorites which exemplify his fusion of East and West are Yearning for hometown (1998) and Childhood (2003), both set in China. The former depicts a water town, not unlike Yixing where Wu grew up, with clustered houses reduced to semi-abstract structures, trees by river banks growing from calligraphic lines, and scattered patches of green, red and yellow for foliage. The bright, lively colors are reminiscent of flowers growing in spring. These elements evoke the pleasant memories Wu had of his hometown and convey the nostalgia he has for the place. In Childhood, the houses are represented by geometric forms with soft edges, only vaguely distinct from the murky grey of the stream that washes down the middle. He utilizes abstraction to convey the familiarity of a distant memory, recognizable yet blurry, expressing the wistfulness he feels for the past.
Beyond his native China, Wu had a deep attachment to Paris, where he studied between 1947 and 1950 before returning to China. Inspired by European artists such as Impressionist Maurice Utrillo, Wu adopted a viewpoint similar to Utrillo’s La Rue Norvins à Montmartre in his 1989 painting Montmartre of Paris (V), and captured the neighborhood in expressive strokes and a semi-abstract style when he returned to Paris that year for a commission. Wu painted Montmartre because he felt that it was “the hometown of his artistry” and “the Mecca of artists around the world”. The colors in Montmartre of Paris (V) are reminiscent of the color scheme of Chinese ink paintings with white, grey, and black. With his mastery of both mediums, the differences between Chinese ink-and-wash and Western oil painting were not barriers, but rather, tools of his intercultural artistic expression.
Wu Guanzhong’s emotive landscapes, ranging from the mountains and water towns of China to cities of Europe, are testaments of his firm belief that art making was a subjective process in which emotions held a central role. His landscapes speak of his life story and artistic practice, which transcends geographical borders and pushes cultural boundaries.
Hi there! I’m Constance, a student ambassador for The Art Story. I’m currently an intercollegiate student at UCL and SOAS studying Asian, African and European art history, with an interest in genre paintings and contemporary Asian art (amongst many others, the list goes on!). I believe art has immense potential to move and connect people, and contributing to a collective effort to make art more accessible is why I’m here! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this little piece of work from me, and do keep a look out for more here on The Art Story!