October 16, 2005:
[achtung! kunst] *Wu Guanzhong* Shanghai: A Restrospective
In 1972, at the age of 53, Wu Guanzhong was forcibly separated from his family and confined to a Chinese labor camp. And although he had been trained as a painter and had even taught at some of China's most prestigious universities, he was only allowed to paint on holidays.
But a few years later, after China's Cultural Revolution came to an end, Wu returned to Beijing and took up serious painting again. At the age of 59 he held his first solo exhibition in Communist China. Soon after, his landscape portraits became so popular in China and the West that in 1992, at the age of 72, he became the first living Chinese painter to have his works exhibited at the British Museum in London.
Now 86 years old, Wu is still painting and still inventing fresh landscapes in oils and ink, often abstract portraits that deftly blend Western oil painting techniques with traditional Chinese brush strokes.
Indeed, Wu is now considered one of the pioneers of modern Chinese painting, and his works command high prices. His large ink and water painting, "Loess Plateau," which was painted in 1987, was auctioned off in China last May for about $2.3 million, a record price for a living Chinese artist.
A new exhibition here in Shanghai, "Wu Guanzhong: A Retrospective," runs through Sunday at the Shanghai Art Museum. It traces much of the artist's life work, from his early years painting flowers and cattle to his more colorful and abstract landscapes and metropolises.
The show also offers a glimpse into a darker series of oil paintings that are now unfolding in the artist's imagination, as he struggles with health problems but refuses to abandon the brush.
"This is a major show for us," said Jiang Mei, the curator of the Shanghai Art Museum. "Wu is one of the people who represents contemporary art in China in the 20th century."
In fact, Wu is part of a generation of Chinese painters, along with Zhao Wuji and Zhu Dequn, who went to France to study painting in the 1940s and then set about helping to transform Chinese art with Western techniques.
The three artists were classmates in China in the 1930s and 1940s, studying under the influence of Lin Fengmian, who is widely believed to be the father of modern Chinese painting.
But of these three Chinese-born painters, only one Wu returned to paint in China after the revolution.
While Zhao and Zhu have thrived in France for more than 50 years, Wu fashioned himself a kind of philosopher and poet who tried, beginning in the 1950s, to create beautiful modern landscape portraits in China, a country then dominated by Mao and Soviet social realism, the reigning art form in the Communist world.
His stubbornness, perseverance and artistic breakthroughs seem all the more remarkable when one considers the political and artistic climate of the times.
Few Chinese artists span modern China like Wu, who was born in 1919 and studied art during the Japanese occu-pation in the 1930s and 1940s. He attended Hangzhou's elite National Arts Academy, which was then run by Lin. But China was in such turmoil from the Japanese occupation and brutal Chinese civil war that the college moved at least three times, eventually settling in western Sichuan Province.
After graduation, Wu went first to study and paint in Chongqing. Then, in 1946, he won a scholarship to study in Paris at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts.
But in 1950, a year after the Communists took power, Wu returned to China and took a post teaching modern painting at Beijing's most prestigious art school, the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He soon transferred to teach art at Tsinghua University and then Beijing Normal University. But in the mid-1960s, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, most artists and intellectuals were denounced.
Lin, the old master painter, was imprisoned. Wu was banned by the government for seven years from painting and writing about art. And he was forced to read Mao's works to "correct his ideology," his family now says.
In 1970, he and his wife were even sent to separate areas of the countryside to do manual labor. Wu, who has written that creativity is born of life-and-death struggles, says he never lost his passion for life or art.
Through famine and social and political chaos in China, Wu managed to sketch or paint expressive landscapes por-traits of chrysanthemums, sparrows and the Jinggang Mountain. He sketched scenes in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shandong provinces. His subjects were simple lakes, mulberry trees and fishing boats.
He avoided painting portraits of despair and rarely sketched people.
Much of his success, critics say, came after the Cultural Revolution, when his works suddenly came into favor in China. He was commissioned to paint for Beijing museums, hotels and other landmarks. He was even asked to create a huge painting of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River for the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. By the mid-1980s, he was suddenly traveling abroad and watching his paintings break auction records.
Many of the paintings on display here have never been exhibited before. And many are romantic and expressive.
Many contemporary artists now dismiss Wu's works as lacking energy and as neither modern nor traditional.
But art critics say he makes good use of white space, using points and abstract lines, as well as some calligraphy to create nature scenes.
In the late 1990s, his work became increasingly abstract and even more vibrant with color. Some even have a touch of Jackson Pollock. But they are rarely entirely abstract.
"As much as they are free forms, they are still landscapes," says Michael Sullivan, a professor emeritus at Oxford University. "He always wants to show the landscape."
His painting "Love of City" (2002), for instance, is a tumult of colorful houses stacked on top of one another. And "Where Is the Spring Going?" (1999) is a dance of bright greens and whipping black trees. Wu donated six of the 96 works on display here to the Shanghai Art Museum.
Asked about his more recent works in a telephone interview last week, Wu said: "The beauty of painting still strongly attracts me now. But I think more about the great changes in the course of time and the tragedies of life when I paint. My paintings now express more the sad side of life. I paint the chaotic universe and people's attitude toward death."
He went on: "In my early works, there was more happiness, but now I see the tragedies of life. I have experienced much sadness."
with kind regards,
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