It was at the end of 2004 when I first heard that Professor Wu Yongliang had taken ill due to over exhaustion while in the midst of preparing his latest large-scale painting Ceremony of Thanksgiving. At 70 years of age, Professor Wu had been working continuously for three consecutive days. Whilst filled with respect and admiration for this forthright and diligent artist, I was also deeply concerned about his health. Hence last autumn I decided to make a special trip to visit him in Hangzhou. That was before I left China to assume my new post in Singapore, a place where Professor Wu had previously stayed. Though recovered from his illness, Professor Wu still appeared visibly frail. However, he was happy and excited to show me his new work. With tender care, he slowly unrolled the large painting for me to have a closer look. The work then, half completed, featured a religious theme common to Southeast Asia. It encompassed an essence of grandeur and an invigorating stylistic approach. Indeed, the piece has since become recognized as one of the few masterpieces of contemporary Chinese art.
Bali, Home of Sculpture, 2004, 34×34cm.
Professor Wu is been widely regarded as the leading artist among the second generation of artists of the school of Zhejiang figure painting. Hailed as one of the prominent art groups in China, the school is renowned for resolving one of the now longstanding and controversial issues of traditional versus modernist innovation. This is largely attributable to the group's steadfast focus on preserving the traditions of ink and brush painting, whilst incorporating elements of western painting. Additionally, the group was known for depicting contemporary lifestyles based on their keen observations of their surroundings. Not surprisingly, such unique artistic attributes permeated through into Professor Wu's artistic practice. His earlier works, mostly depicting subjects like child shepherdesses, were lively rendered works. They were executed with a masterly application of ink and color, which further accentuated the vivacity of the chosen subjects. Professor Wu is also famed for his depictions of Lu Xun, one of China's key modern literary figures. In these paintings, Master Wu frequently portrays Lu Xun with minimal but definitive brush strokes, capturing the quintessential nature of his subject's personality. He also managed to portray his subtle personal perceptions of the world with these works.
Knowledge on Lesser Bairam, 2003, 34×34cm.
Professor Wu deeply missed the period of his almost 10-year sojourn in Singapore. It was a tranquil time, although naturally he would occasionally pine for his hometown. He found solace in readings such as classical literature and writings on aesthetics studies. He also sought spiritual and intellectual fulfillment by developing new works featuring literati portraits, as well as works of classical and poetic essence. This period marked a phase representative of Professor Wu's passions toward the traditions of Chinese culture and his high regard and respect for his country and people.
Notably, it was also during the same period that Professor Wu became interested with Singapore's multi-racial society and its vibrant multiculturalism. He started to explore ways of incorporating Southeast Asian themes into his art. With his decisive swiftness and determination, Professor Wu soon applied these new thoughts into actions. His artistic practice saw a new change when he continued to hone his skills, producing the work shuai nian bian fa (translated as: "attempts in the later years of an artist to make a drastic change" as compared to his/her past artistic practice).
The Old Man of Singapore, 2003, 34×34cm.
Singapore is a society where Chinatown, Little India and Malay Village harmoniously co-exist. These diverse cultures and their respective values are well-protected. In his efforts to better understand and to gather more materials for his work, Professor Wu often visited the shop houses, old streets, temples and wet markets commonly seen in Singapore. To experience the varied lifestyles of different races, the diligent artist also made frequent trips to nearby places such as Malacca in Malaysia, and Bali in Indonesia. His works such as Bali, Home of Sculpture, The Old Man of Singapore and Scenes of the Equatorial Tropics evidenced his new focus which reflects the daily lifestyles of the people in these regions. The subject matters are visual treats, combining confident brushwork with resonant color. This stylistic oeuvre differs from his earlier works of young shepherds as well as other, more poetic renderings. Nevertheless, this new approach is still very much in line with the school of Zhejiang Figure painting. Essentially, the school was based on the developmental foundations inspired by its first generation artists of Zhou Changgu, Li Zhenjian and Fang Zengxian.
In today's art, there are many who continue to repeatedly depict superficial subject matters despite possessing an accomplished ink painting technique. In contrast, Professor Wu remains deeply rooted in his heartfelt concerns toward real people and their society. These sentiments are often apparent in the works of Wu. With such a unique approach and independently-minded style of working, he has the courage to constantly challenge himself and continue in his firm belief that art should mirror the present. In such a changing society, where artists face a period of struggle to find ever new ways of expressing themselves, these qualities are indeed worthy of praise.
Wu Yongliang - a Background
Born in 1937 in Yinxian County，Zhejiang Province, Wu Yongliang graduated from the China Academy of Art in 1962, majoring in traditional Chinese painting. His works have been displayed at many important exhibitions, and collected by many domestic and overseas museums, such as the National Art Museum of China, Luxun Memorial, Zhongnanhai (The seat of Chinese politics in Beijing) and the Japanese imperial palace. Wu is now professor of the China Academy of Art, a visiting professor of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Singapore), a member of the Chinese Artists Association, and a consultant to the Taihua Artists Association (Thailand). His publications include Selection of Wu Yongliang's Paintings and Collection of Wu Yongliang's Paintings.
Author: Zhu Qi, Cultural Counselor of Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Singapore and PhD of China Academy of Art
(China Pictorial July 21, 2006)