148 x 297 cm. (58 1/4 x 117 in.)
signed in Chinese; dated '97.' (lower middle)
Hua Wai Hua-Wu Guanzhong, People's Publishing House, Beijing, China, 1999
(illustrated, pp. 71-72).
A Scholar’s Journal - Moving and Transposing, China Travel & Tourism Press, Beijing, China, 2001 (illustrated, unpaginated).
Wu Guanzhong Shan Shui Ji Hen, Guangxi Fine Arts Publishing House, Nanning, China, 2003 (illustrated, pp. 94-95).
The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. IV, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, China, 2007 (illustrated, pp. 184-185).
Great Master of Art in the World - Wu Guanzhong, Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House, Shijiazhuang, China, 2008 (illustrated, pp. 112-113).
Wu Guanzhong-Connoisseurs' Choice, People's Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing, China, 2010 (illustrated, pp. 242-243).
20th Century Chinese Oil Painting - Wu Guanzhong, Culture and Art Publishing House, Beijing, China, 2010 (illustrated, p. 148).
Collected Paintings of Wu Guanzhong, China Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing,
China, 2010 (illustrated, pp. 74-75).
Huayan, Wenhui Publishing, Shanghai, China, 2012 (illustrated, p. 177).
EXPLORING EAST AND WEST—"ADVANCING ON LAND AND WATER"
In 1992, the British museum held an event of far-reaching significance, a solo exhibition entitled "Wu Guanzhong: A Twentieth-Century Chinese Painter." In doing so, the museum broke with its own unwritten convention that it would only display ancient Chinese relics, showing for the first time the work of a living Chinese artist. Souren Melikian, art critic of The International Herald Tribune, wrote a review entitled "Artist Opens a New Route to China", which began by saying, "A master has been discovered. His works may become emblematic of a radical change in the art of painting, and they open an avenue for us that leads to the world's most ancient culture. This is an extraordinary piece of work, which may be why the head of the Asian Department made a rare break with the unwritten rule of the British Museum that it only displays ancient relics. Gazing at the works of Wu Guanzhong, we are forced to admit that this Chinese master is the most unusual and surprising discovery of recent decades in modern painting..."
The term "recent decades" refers to the fact that Wu Guanzhong, during a period of creative development and change beginning in the 1970s and lasting almost 30 years, worked ceaselessly to advance the concepts of modern Chinese art. During the '70s his focus was on oil painting, as he took advantage of the medium's colouristic qualities to portray landscapes with a Chinese feel and to realize his ideal of a "national" style of oil painting. During the 1980s, Wu extended his work into coloured ink painting, employing gracefully winding lines and rhythmically dancing spots of colour to present the kind of purely formalistic beauty often sought in modern art, and achieving a breakthrough into a new and "modernized" Chinese painting style. As Wu put it, he was, in the 1990s, "advancing on both land and sea"—by "land" he meant oil pigments, and water-based inks were the "sea." The 1990s were a peak period of successful creative development for the artist. The stage had been set for his new and bolder creative vision by the arduous work of his teachers Lin Fengmian and Pan Tianshou, who helped create a path for the development of modern Chinese art. Wu Guanzhong's process of shuttling back and forth between the oil and ink mediums, between Eastern and Western aesthetic values, each influencing the other, helped raise his work to heights rarely achieved in modern Chinese art.
The mid-1990s were thus a richly productive period for Wu Guanzhong. There were frequent overseas showings of his work, including many solo shows at important institutions in Europe, Singapore, and Indonesia, along with the publication of a number of important anthologies and commentaries on his work. He also exhibited a greater breadth of creative vision and a freer outlook, in which he departed from the more deliberate focus on detail that marked his landscape painting style during the '70s. He became less insistent that his works be fully completed on site, and instead produced some oil paintings based on sketches earlier painted from life. His 1997 oil The Zhou Village (Lot 121) displays the artist's determination to challenge himself in a very large-scale work, and is a type of scenic compositions most representative of Wu Guanzhong's work. It further embodies the beauty of China's waterside villages, representing in an iconic image the scenic wonders of the entire Jiangnan region, and it is also the finest work of Wu Guanzhong's career in his advanced years. The Zhou Village stands as one of the most brilliant examples of what Wu Guanzhong meant by "advancing on land and water": the simultaneous exploration of Eastern and Western aesthetics.
ZHOU VILLAGE—ALL THE BEAUTY OF CHINA'S WATERSIDE VILLAGES
Zhou Village, a famous waterside village of the Jiangnan region with a 900-year history, is located where the regions of Shanghai, Suzhou, and Kunshan intersect. Founded during the Tang and Song dynasties, it came into its own during the late Ming and early Qing, and had always been a favored spot where men of letters and high ideals could go to find needed seclusion.
Wu Guanzhong was deeply enamored of the scenes at such waterside villages, and said, "I will never finish painting these Jiangnan villages and my feelings for my native home." Such locales, with their whitewashed walls and black roof tiles, their footbridges and flowing streams, became important subjects for the analytical eye of this artist and his expressions of formalistic beauty. Wu first arrived in Zhou Village in 1985, accompanied by his wife, and was so impressed with the beauty of the place that he penned several essays, "The Thorn in the Side of Zhou Village", "Zhou Village—The Spirit Will Never Return", and "The Beauty and Sorrow of the Ancient Village", evince Wu Guanzhong's fondness for the place and the deep feeling he projected onto it.
In the compilation of materials for the The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. I, as many as 16 Wu Guanzhong works were found either named after Zhou Village or with its name inscribed on them, far exceeding the number of sketched works produced by the artist at any other location. They illustrate how he would choose from among the various scenes at a given location and repeatedly sketch them, in this case capturing both the natural surroundings and the human face of Zhou Village. The ink-wash painting The Zhou Village, a Water World, from 1986, adopts a composition nearly identical to a sketch with the same title from a year earlier, yet its extraneous details have clearly been eliminated by the artist, transforming it into an even more refined arrangement of formal elements. Further, there is an oil produced ten years later, The Old Picturesque South Kept As It Was, and then finally, Wu's The Zhou Village from the following year, in which we again see the artist in this process of choosing and rejecting, refining and simplifying. This process of course represents Western modernism's tendencies toward the analysis and deconstruction of its subjects. But at the same time there is the sense, as in traditional Chinese landscapes, that the artist has himself wandered through the scene and then created a representation in which subjective feeling mingles with the images of the natural world.
While writing The Painter's Eye, Wu Guanzhong described the creative process behind The Zhou Village:
"In the '80s, traveling to Zhou Village by boat, I felt I had landed on a lonely islet, completely surrounded by water and inaccessible by car. I searched amid the solitude, floating along under the bridges, where boats rested all along the banks. I stayed and painted scenes from life. I lived at the only hotel in Zhou Village, with its wooden staircase, and looking out from above, I saw white gables and black-tiled roofs everywhere. Water flowed all around, drooping willows offered their shade, and geese and ducks argued, presenting me with scenes just meant for painting. I once said, 'All the beauty of the Chinese mountains can be found at Yellow Mountain, and all the beauty of its waterside villages in Zhou Village.' Today, the village is a tourist hotspot, and now, every day, this once quiet and remote village is as busy as a temple fair. And I see how everywhere now they're quoting what I said when I praised its beauty. But this is no longer the Zhou Village of yesteryear. Tall hotels are going up all around, and even though they need to preserve the old streets as a tourist attraction, they’ve been reduced to little more than bonzai landscapes amid the big hotels. I've painted lots of Zhou Village scenes, from narrow lanes to old city walls, from waterways to ancient dwellings. Returning there today, I miss that old town. In The Zhou Village, I wanted to portray the fundamental character of Zhou Village, to present an overall sense of this worn-down and dilapidated, yet ageless and ancient village. The Impressionists always worked on a small scale, painting from life, which made their work lively and vivid. And I've seen the larger-scale landscapes by Pissarro, but they're still just small works that have been expanded to become larger ones. Creating a large-scale work within a landscape, and truly capturing its image, is a matter where a Chinese landscape artist will even better understand the joys and hardships involved."
As the artist noted, The Zhou Village was derived from sketches made in earlier days. More than ten years of filtering his impressions and creating new works enabled their transformation into an ageless representation of the look and feel of this ancient village. By contrast with The Old Picturesque South Kept As It Was, painted the previous year, Wu makes frequent use of the palette knife to produce the thick textures of the weathered, whitewashed wall, which seems to bear all the weight of history and cultural accretion. The dense overlapping of rough, dry-brush strokes with blocks of colour creates structured forms with an abundant feel of weight and volume. For Wu to produce this 1997 The Zhou Village meant more than just "creating a large-scale work within a landscape." The act of applying oil pigments to this three-meter length of canvas not only tested the artist's ability to create a large-scale compositional presentation, it further tested his physical strength and endurance. For the then 78-year-old Wu Guanzhong this was no small feat, so that the painting becomes at the same time an important symbol transcending one's own limitations. While he had had previous experience creating even larger ink-wash paintings, he still certainly felt how "creating a large-scale work within a landscape, truly capturing its image, is a matter where a Chinese landscape artist will even better understand the joys and hardships involved." The fact that, at present, the dimensions of The Zhou Village are the largest of any oil work yet to appear on the market illustrates one aspect of this work's tremendous value, though it also has great significance for the academic study of the artist's oeuvre and stylistic development. Given its subject, which is so representative of the artist, and its importance due to its size and the period in which it was completed, The Zhou Village in every sense represents the finest of this artist's work. Wu Guanzhong's achievement in The Zhou Village displays the artist's abilities developed to their highest maturity over the course of his long career.
A STRUCTURE OF POINTS, LINES, AND PLANES
Since the 1980s, when Wu Guanzhong made the ink-wash medium his principal focus, he developed his abstract style by gradually simplifying the elements of his paintings into points, lines, and planes. His brushwork, however, did not follow traditional techniques, but instead was based purely on his observation of nature: first, by simplifying and abstracting the objects he saw, then grasping the overall compositional functions of his points of colour, lines, and planes and returning to the most original geometric shapes. The way Wu employed line in his oil works was in the combination of lines imbued with an Eastern quality with Western planes, forming a new and unique formal vocabulary. In The Zhou Village, Wu employs black outlines for the upturned corners of the flying gables in the village buildings; the fine and nimble lines of his depiction of balustrades and window lattices, relative to his earlier Zhou Village paintings, take on a special weight and a rich beauty due to their brush application and blocked-out planes of colour. Each of these aspects demonstrates how the artist's vision and grasp of this subject, and its composition, continued to mature over a more than ten year period. The continuing refinement through sketches, ink works, and small-scale oils with similar compositions and brushwork resulted in this ultimate, mature work, a testament to Wu Guanzhong's confidence at the summit of his creative powers in the 1990s. In it he developed an ideal balance between abstraction and figuration, while controlling the overall pictorial space through finely judging its relative degrees of density and openness. He created well-ordered rhythms and a sense of lively movement and visual tension, and he expressed a unique kind of formalistic beauty in a striking conception with "new imagery". Wu Guanzhong gave traditional lines and points of colour a new meaning that fit the new era, expressed as part of the formalistic vocabulary of Western abstract art. The Zhou Village thus gives voice to a more modern ambience and introduces new possibilities even within its basically Eastern conception, making it truly a realization of the artist's belief in a "modernized" style of Chinese painting.
BLACK, WHITE, GREY, AND FOLK COLOURS
Wu Guanzhong was from Yixing, in the province of Jiangsu, a region crisscrossed by rivers, so that his constant depiction of Jiangnan scenery became a means of remembering his home. In his Village Canal depictions, Wu refined his black, white, and grey colour schemes; he marveled at the white walls and black tiles, while they stimulated new ideas in his colouristic imagination and brought new awareness of beauty in their deeply contrasting tones. But this was beauty already inherent in the Chinese ink painting tradition, and similarly, the daily lives and folk architecture of the Jiangnan region too were already steeped in this beauty. Wu reduces the degree of colour saturation within his principal palette of black, white, and grey in The Zhou Village, in part to escape traditional formulas associated with oil painting, but further to inject the sense, derived from ink painting, of profound meanings delivered by simple means. Borrowing from the idea of "the five shades of black", which is to say the different effects created by spreading washes of ink, Wu employs oils to express those same contrasts of black and white and the pure beauty of a minimalist colour palette. If Western Cubism was concerned with splitting the objective world into various blocked-out volumes, with which they shaped forms, and thick planes of colour, Wu Guanzhong borrowed the spirit of Cubism to organize his Jiangnan scenery purely by means of points, lines, and various geometrical forms. The sweeps of his broad brush across the canvas produce wide swaths of ink-like colours, while a rich formal structure and subtle shifts of hue emerge from within his black, white, and grey palette.
The Zhou Village strives for utmost simplicity in the composition of its pictorial space and its formal elements. The principal thrust of its composition lies in its intermixing of white and black lines and blocks of colour, while introducing the lyrical, flowing quality of ink into a composition based on the geometrical analysis Western modernism. But The Zhou Village at the same time has a vivid note of folk colour. Perhaps the folk-art and decorative colours of the Jiangnan region become especially eye-catching when found among these white walls and black tiles, but that folk element clearly inspired the multi-hued spots of colour that appear in this Wu Guanzhong work, and add to the visual tension of its East-West fusion. Amid the repeated layering of walls and windows in The Zhou Village, we find the red of Spring Festival couplets on doorways, the vivid colours of clothing hanging from windows, and the colour of the busy figures on the arch of the bridge. Embellished with these gorgeous, brilliant slivers of colour, the work displays even more the element of the artist's subjective feelings for the scene. The colours themselves derive from the traditional "five colours" that have been associated with the Chinese people since ancient times. The "five colours" include dark blue-green, red, yellow, white and black, all closely tied to the basic needs of the people in daily life and their common customs. The colours further embody auspicious symbolic meanings and the cultural consciousness passed down through generation after generation of working people. For this reason the use of these colours also becomes part of the living energy exuded by The Zhou Village and its visual language. This vein of cultural associations becomes woven into its concise structure, a further testament to Wu Guanzhong's ability to again break through the barriers between East and West and the typical limitations of the medium to create his own unique style out of these elements of form.
THE IMAGE OF THE BRIDGE
Given the intent of The Zhou Village to present all the beauty of this waterside scene, the bridge naturally becomes an important element of the composition. Wu Guanzhong handles the two bridges in the painting ingeniously, his portrayal something other than pure, direct realism; instead, the bridge in the foreground serves to link the viewer to the world of the painting, while the second bridge at its far right side causes us to engage in speculation about the unknown, and becomes a hub leading toward another imaginative space. Since ancient times, canals and bridges have been recorded as physical features of the Jiangnan geography and landscape. They allow connection with the far bank of the river, enabling communications, promoting trade activities, and serving people moving about on foot; they stand as symbols of southern China, its waterside settlements and unique local customs. In the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Northern Song artist Zhang Zeduan, an extra note of narrative detail is added by the bustling scene of commoners on the bridge, and becomes a high point of interest in the painting. German Sociologist Georg Simmel has noted, “The aesthetic value of the bridge lies in joining what has been divided, in bringing intention to reality, and in their direct visual presence. In objective reality, we depend on bridges to link to the sceneries of two separate shores, and from on top of the bridge, the scenery on both sides is apparent to the eye.” But the bridges in The Zhou Village serve not merely to join the two banks of the river; the bridges, which link to the very edges of the painting, serve as a silent invitation, inviting us to "leave our boat and enter the opening" (as in the Chinese legend of the Peach Blossom Land), and once over the bridge we seemed to have entered into the Shangri-la of Wu Guanzhong’s portrayal. The positioning function of the bridges in the painting connects the separate and opposing banks of the river, and in this sense they provide a hint that the Zhou Village of Wu’s painting is an idealized, transcendent world; through the link they provide, the viewer can for a moment put aside the concerns of daily life. Yet the scene Wu Guanzhong constructs still conforms to the traditional theory in Chinese landscape painting of a scene in which one can “walk, gaze about, travel, and live.” The figures on the bridge symbolize the presence of an ongoing narrative, and echo the implied meanings of the bridge and the suggested spaces lying behind it. Thus the bridges, as symbols of transition between real and imaginary spaces, transcend spatial divisions but also bring their own special aesthetic value and meaning. Based on the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting, they concretely expand the portrayal of the natural scene, while at the same time, their meaning as cultural artifacts further enriches the narrative means available to the painter and his presentation of physical space.
After decades of experience, working interchangeably between the oil and ink mediums and continuing to make creative advances, Wu Guanzhong received broad international recognition and acceptance. He came to represent Chinese art in the 20th century. The creation of Wu's The Zhou Village stemmed from his tireless search through the art of both East and West, and employs the formal elements of points, lines, and planes within a minimalist palette of black, white, and grey. It is a powerful symbol of his achievement in the late 1990s and the new creative summit he reached; in it, he brings together the seemingly incompatible mediums of Western oil and Eastern ink, transcending both tradition and modernism, to realize the "national" oil painting style that he had sought for so many years. Embracing the finest elements of Eastern and Western art, Wu developed an exceptional artistic vocabulary of his own with powerful appeal to both Eastern and Western viewers.
AN EPOCH-MAKING WORK—THE AESTHETICS OF NATURE JOINED TO THE HUMAN SPIRIT
The broad outlines of cultural evolution are determined by humankind's relationship to nature. The development of Chinese painting over the millennia, beyond the growing body of techniques and concepts accumulating in different eras, has also been concerned with the artist's own spirit as a subject of art, and in particular, the artist's awareness of and feeling for nature. Wu Guanzhong interpreted landscape scenes and the aesthetics of nature through his own expressive mode, his particular kind of formal beauty, projecting deep spirituality and emotion into the scenes he portrayed. As vehicles for the artist's thoughts and feelings, Wu's works surpass the traditional ink-and-brush renderings of nature; what he sought to express was a realm of Chinese cultural awareness and feeling, a humanistic outlook with rich historical and symbolic meaning. The Zhou Village confronts an era in which old and new intermingle. In the conflict between or the fusion of traditional ink painting and Western modernism, or in the choice between realism and abstract techniques, we find the artist defining his own unique sense of aesthetics, his own awareness of self, and his position within the broader culture. As one era ushered in another, the artist wrote a new chapter in the history of art with this work of startling dimensions and scope, further broadening the possibilities for new development in Chinese art.
Whether in the themes of his early oil paintings, as he searched for inspiration above and below the Yangtze River, or in the abstract ink works of his later periods, Wu Guanzhong always imbued his work with a rich vein of national feeling, giving concrete expression to his advocacy of a "nationalized" Chinese style of oil painting. The humanistic feeling of The Zhou Village derives from the overlay of human activity within its presentation of natural scenery; its subject, drawn from real life, is thus transformed artistically and enters a new sphere of meaning. Despite being presented by means of the Western oil medium and a modern formal vocabulary, the work nevertheless highlights the union of its humanistic concerns with its creative subject matter. The Zhou Village, even with its layered, abstract rows of houses and its geometrical shapes, conveys to the viewer a strong feeling for the gentle, warm beauty of this Jiangnan waterside village, and its classical grace and charm. Despite the tendency toward minimalism in composition and brushwork, its central subject remains present throughout in the feeling and the conception of the work, and vividly conveys Wu Guanzhong's yearning for his old home and his deeply rooted sense of his own culture.
The Zhou Village, beyond being one of Wu Guanzhong's own great breakthrough achievements, interprets for us some of the central meanings of an entire era. After a century of growing Western cultural influence in China, The Zhou Village emerged from the artist's own rich, detailed imagination and observation of our universe, human life, and physical surroundings, and in it he transmits, subtly and profoundly, a certain kind of zeitgeist and its beauty. It is the union of Eastern and Western aesthetics, the happy coexistence of tradition and modernism, and the appeal of both nature and human concerns. It guides us back through a grand and ancient civilization and its slow development over thousands of years, as the artist seeks within it his own sense of personal and cultural belonging.