Wu Guanzhong is a leading Chinese painter, art educator and essayist
whose paintings represent the changing face of Chinese art in the 20th
century. Painted under the pen name Tu, his work combines western
abstract techniques and Chinese tradition. He is one of only a few
Chinese artists well known in the west and was the first living Chinese
to have the honor of seeing his work exhibited at the British Museum.
Born on August 29th, 1919 in Yixing, Jiangsu Province, Wu is the son of
a headmaster and a primary school teacher. But instead of following his
father's wish for him to be a teacher, he went to technical college
after he graduated from teacher's college where he had fallen in love
with literature. Wu seemed to forget his love of art concentrating on
mathematic and physics, hoping to contribute to the nation. It was not
until he met an art college student in Hangzhou that he found about art
schools and his love of art was ignited.
In 1935, Wu left technical college and joined the Hangzhou art college
where he studied Chinese and western painting and became a fan of
Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. In 1938, he adopted the pen name
"Tu", which he uses on all his paintings to indicate a great intensity
of character, half happy and half sad life and creations loaded with
In 1946, four years after graduation and further study about Chinese
literature, French and history, Wu was offered a place at the Ecole
National Superieure Des Beaux-arts in Paris on a government scholarship
where he mainly studied modern art. During his time in Paris, Wu formed
his own ideas about modern western art. He appreciated its novel forms,
acute perceptions of the world, diverse techniques of expression and its
popular use of abstract form.
Wu returned to China in the summer of 1950 and dedicated his whole life
to art in his home country. He encouraged his students at the Central
Academy of Art in Beijing to draw on both western and Chinese art to
create their style. But this idea went against the contemporary
prevailing Soviet- inspired social realism and Wu was heavily criticized.
In 1953, he was expelled from the Central Academy of Fine Arts but was
offered a position at the Architecture Department of Tsinghua
University, a gesture he still appreciates today. He found a new way to
satisfy the social need, gain political approval and fulfill his dream
as well -he changed from drawing figures to landscapes.
Although he taught traditional watercolor painting, Wu began to combine
western watercolors and Chinese ink painting techniques. The experiment
was successful and his watercolor paintings during that time integrated
eastern artistic concepts with western form discipline. This combination
made him famous as a watercolor landscape painter in China.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976) Wu was forced to work on a
farm and was only allowed to paint on Sundays. With a blackboard as his
palette and a manure basket as his easel, Wu worked on a series of
paintings of northern villages, in focusing on the beauty of form.
In April 1973, Wu and other painters were transferred to Beijing to
paint for restaurants and hotels. To his surprise, he was required to
paint Chinese ink drawings to emphasize distinctive national and folk
features. Believing eastern and western art styles share the same
spirit, he thought it was imperative to spread the use of oil painting
to modernize Chinese painting and lift it to a higher level
Wu started a new experiment, combining ink and oil painting techniques.
He tried to paint the same subject with ink and oil separately,
sometimes both were successful, and sometimes one's failure was the
other's success. Obsessed by his experiments, Wu didn't stop painting
even when Beijing was affected by the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. His
pictures during this time were in a transition period from expressing
things to feelings. He was trying to find his own way using either oil
At the beginning of the 1980's, Wu painted The Great Wall for Beijing's
Xiangshan Hotel. The painting exemplified an obvious change in his style
from representation to semi-abstraction. Traditionally the Great Wall
was painted as a mountain scene, like thin lacework put on the mountain
peaks. But Wu didn't like this formula. In his opinion the Great Wall
turns, winds and twists. He stuck to his own visual feeling and painted
a moving picture of the Great Wall. "At that time, many people thought I
had gone too far," he said, "even myself are not satisfied with it for
it is immature. But it is the first step on my new way."
[image] The Great Wall
Wu described his style as abstract and tries to embody the feelings and
view of his audience.
A lonely fighter
Wu is a famous fighter in Chinese art. He says attacking conservative
and narrow-minded people is the responsibility of artists.
But he once felt he was fighting a lone battle. His battle started when
he began to try to spread the use of oil painting in China after he had
finished studying in Paris. His expulsion from the Central Academy of
Fine Arts didn't stop him from studying the mixing of Chinese artistic
conceptions national aesthetics in oil painting. After the Cultural
Revolution, he questioned the idea that content determines form,
pointing out that plastic arts were the science of form; and the
independence of the form of beauty in paintings was very important. He
also published essays entitled The beauty in form in paintings and About
abstract beauty which started a five-year discussion on abstract beauty
and the relationship between content and form, leading to a
liberalization of art ideas in the 1980's.
Wu said recently he has developed a new idea which can only be published
after his death. But he said that he thought the idea that the more
belongs to a nation, the more belongs to the world, was true with the
condition that - only the best ideas and works survive. Wu believes that
the notion of 'Chinese Painting' will disappear one day. To portray
Chinese life in paintings which he used to pick up some forms of life,
he further developed a conception that connection between life and
artistic creation could be operated remotely.
(chinaculture May 26, 2006)
more on the 2005 shanghai solo exhibition:
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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