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 meaning.
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 or water.
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."
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)