Monday, 6 September 2010

The Legacy of Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong
I thought I had missed my chance to see master artist Wu Guanzhong's (吳冠中) works at the Hong Kong Museum of Art when the exhibition supposedly ended on August 31.

But I saw in the newspaper that in fact it had been extended to October 10 so I rushed over to Tsim Sha Tsui to see it.

And for only HK$10 ($1.29) I was able to see a large collection of these works, some of which he donated just before he died on June 25 this year.

His paintings, both oil and watercolour, seem abstract at times, pushing modern Chinese art forward. Some look minimalist, others with strong brush strokes evoking power.

Almost every painting had a poetic or philosophical outlook. One called "City Night" he did in 1997 features the entire sheet of paper filled with lines and squares in black ink with coloured dots around them. He writes:

Tokyo, Beijing, New York, London -- people nestle in the steel frames like bees in their hive. The red light district, the green light district, the tears, the laughter -- the night of the metropolis is captured in a painting.

Indeed. Another has the entire page filled with leopard spots, and off to the right the viewer can make out the pointy ears, green flashing eyes and angry scowl of a leopard which Wu titled the work "Illusion". 

Mending Nets, 2009
In 2002 Wu made a visit to Hong Kong, where he was invited by the museum to sketch the skyline of Hong Kong island. However, that particular day was overcast, but he still managed to draw with markers a vibrant city, capturing the skyscrapers with their vertical and horizontal lines that were complemented by the playful waves in the harbour.

In the video his right hand seems shaky, but he guides it with his pinkie along the sheet of paper. He first drew a slight outline of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, and then a series of lines across the page. these were then filled out slowly with shading or dots signifying windows. Eventually he added watercolour washes to give it some colour.

Wu did not become a celebrated artist until his late 50s. Born in 1919 in Yixing, Jiangsu Province, Wu first studied engineering and then art at the National Arts Academy in Hangzhou. He then got a government scholarship in 1947 to go study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris.

When he returned to China in the early 1950s, he taught at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, Tsinghua University, and Beijing Fine Arts Normal University. In 1964 he became a professor at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Beijing.

But the appointment became a burden when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, a point not mentioned in the museum's biography of Wu. He was forbidden from talking about, teaching or creating art, and many of his early works were destroyed.

In 1970 when Wu was 51 years old, he and his wife were separated to do two years of hard labour in the countryside as part of his re-education. There he was only allowed to paint on Sundays, his day off and holidays. And he did not waste that precious time, sketching the countryside.
Leaving Youth Behind, 2009

Three years later Wu was allowed to return to the capital, and ironically enough, was given jobs to paint murals in Beijing hotels, and even create a huge painting of the Three Gorges for the Great Hall of the People.

When Mao died in 1976, Wu was finally able to return to his art and had his first solo exhibition three years later. From then onwards his career soared, with one of his paintings, "Loess Plateau" sold for $2.3 million at auction in 2003, the highest ever for a living Chinese artist.

What's interesting is that there is no trace of anger in his work, just thoughtful lines full of vitality and meaning. Perhaps for him they were his ultimate escape from the numerous obstacles he encountered, and wished only to put his best thoughts on paper or canvas.

And perhaps that's how he wants us to remember him by.


  1. what a shame that the chinese authorities treated talented intellectuals, artists, writers like dirt. too bad he did not quite live to fully enjoy his fruitful artistic achievement.

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