"The Infinite Aestheticism: An Exhibition of Wu Guanzhong's Life of Art" -- the largest ever exhibition of the 83-year-old artist's work -- is currently on display at the Hong Kong Museum of Art through May 12. Sponsored by the Bureau of Entertainment and Culture in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the exhibit opened March 14.
An expert at freehand brushwork and abstract expression, adapt at both traditional and modern technique, and at home in the traditions of both the Orient and the West, Wu sublimates his reflections on life into artistic forms, and consequently injects more philosophical implications into his works.
"In retrospect, viewing from the angle of images and mode of expression in the beginning, I devoted myself to exploring the beauty of mode, and tried to create an unusual ambience purely in artistic forms," Wu said.
Many museums around the world have exhibited and collected Wu's works. Breaking with its convention of displaying only traditional masterpieces, the British Museum once held a solo exhibit of Wu's works where some of his pieces sold at auction at record-setting prices.
Having studied as a youth in Paris, Wu Guanzhong in 1950 returned home to serve his homeland at a time just before an Anti-Rightist Campaign was about to sweep over China called the Rectification Movement in Art that included a denunciation of Hu Feng and of the movie of Wu Xun. As someone well-versed in Western art, Wu was branded as "advertising bourgeois ideas." Quite at a loss, Wu devoted himself to teaching, character sketching and drawing New Year pictures without any true artistic creation.
After considerable reflection, Wu Guanzhong -- following the policies of "art in close contact with life" and "nationalization of oil painting creation" promoted by the late Chairman Mao Zedong during the 1970s -- threw himself into the embrace of the natural world and was passionately immersed in the exploration of perfect artistic forms. In his drawing, Wu used collage composition to arrange trees over here with houses over there to both display artistic beauty and depict local realities. Starting in the 1980s, he tried to transfer oil painting techniques to the drawing of Chinese ink and wash. However, because some subjects of the traditional Chinese painting cannot be expressed perfectly and completely by oils, in the 1990s Wu's artwork was divided into oil painting and wash drawing.
Wu Guanzhong once said, any creative work is the result of the life-and-death struggle. Indeed, for the sake of art, he has disciplined himself to an extraordinary degree. In the 1970s, he went to draw from the then desolate Zhangjiajie and lived in the work shed along with lumbermen. The landscape of Zhangjiajie depicted in his paintings immediately won the favor of the local government, and subsequently Zhangjiajie developed into a well-known tourist city.
Once when in the 1980s Wu was sketching accompanied by his wife, he found an iron-roofed grocery that marred the splendid landscape of Zhouzhuang Village, a scenic spot that had not yet become popular. Wu fired off an article to China Tourism News entitled The Eyesore in Zhouzhuang Village, which attracted the local government’s attention. When sketching in the daytime, usually Wu does not eat and drink, even refuses to go to bathroom. Apparently, circadian rhythm has given way to his artistic mania because the 83-year-old Wu is still in the habit of going through the day without taking a siesta. Once on the train from Guangzhou to Beijing, Wu located his treasured paintings on the seat while he himself stood on swollen feet.
In the 1950s, Wu told the reporter, in the Jinggang Mountains he made a batch of oils which were reproduced in some ten copies and printed as picture postcards by the local administrative department. Afterwards he was so unsatisfied with his immature brushwork that he destroyed the original paintings. Unexpectedly, the replicas of those Jinggang drawings circulated at high prices. Carrying his painter's heavy paraphernalia on his back, Wu has trekked in the wind and rain. No wonder sometimes on the road he might be taken for an umbrella-mender or a cobbler.
"Infinite Aestheticism: Exhibition on Wu Guanzhong's Life of Art" is Wu's second art show to be exhibited in Hong Kong. The first was in 1995: "Rebellious Inheritance: Exhibition of Paintings by Wu Guanzhong." Wu said that some works created during the 1970s and 1980s came from overseas, and some were even borrowed from individual collectors. A painting Wu finished recently is entitled Double Happiness, depicting Wu's impressions about his trip to Gucheng (Ancient City), Anhui Province last year.
(北京晚报 [Beijing Evening News] by Zhao Lihong, translated by Shao Da for china.org.cn April 5, 2002)