Plum Blossoms by Wu Guanzhong
“Each of Professor Guanzhong's paintings contains his unique understanding of life and vitality, and an urgent passion burns like wildfire across his canvases. He holds a tight grasp on the essence of objects and uses extremely refined brushwork and colour to express intense forms. His understanding of aesthetic form is the voice of his inner world. He tirelessly explores dialogues and collisions between Eastern and Western emotional expressions, ultimately finding his own emotional language to shape a poetic realm of his own creation.”
Nobel Prize Winner, Tsung-Dao Lee
Throughout his life’s work, Wu Guanzhong strove to regard life with sincerity and authenticity. Kindred spirits, the artist and the eminent physicist Tsung-Dao Lee formed a close friendship on the basis of mutual admiration, and in 2003, when Wu published an art album The Landscape of Life, Lee wrote the preface, including the above quotation. Lee's profound understanding of his friend's essence is also the perfect footnote to Plum Blossoms (Lot 1006), because it elaborates the way in which the artist observed nature in order to fuel his own vitality and ignite a spirit of hope in his viewer.
A Creative Harvest of Complete Absorption
Plum Blossoms was painted in 1973. At the time, Wu Guanzhong had just returned from to Beijing from Li Village. The universities were closed, so Wu, unhindered by teaching responsibilities, travelled to the outskirts of Beijing in order to paint from life. In the second half of the year, he received a government assignment to travel south and collect material for Ten Thousand Kilometres of the Yangtze River, limiting his time in Beijing to only a few short months. Nonetheless, propelled by his single-minded work ethic, the artist was able to create a series of outstanding paintings of the city and its surroundings. Two paintings in this season, Plum Blossoms and Lotus Flowers (Lot 5009), were completed during this period.
A Luminous Spring Morning in the Capital
Plum Blossoms reflects the artist's state of complete creative absorption at the time of its creation. Its dominant colour is a resplendent, eye-catching pink. The picture plane presents a plum tree in full bloom, its trunk strong and sturdy, its branches proudly stretching toward the sky like golden threads and iron wires. Densely crowded within are miniscule plum blossoms that float in the air like snow, resembling, from a distance, the flames of a torch. Their delicate fragrance attracts circling butterflies, symbolizing the end of winter and the arrival of spring: the renewal of the myriad things. The effect, in addition to being visually pleasing, delivers a message of inspiration straight into the viewer's heart.
Wu Guanzhong's use of colour is consistently restrained, particularly in his nature paintings from the 1970s. He generally refrained from painting great swaths of red, for example, not only because he was living in the arid north, but also because he wanted to avoid the vulgarity of saturation. The bold hues of Plum Blossoms are no accident. The plum tree is indigenous to the Yangtze River basin and the regions to the south of the river. Like the plum tree, Wu was a transplant from the south. When he returned to the capital from Lee Village in early 1973, the wildly blooming winter plum trees of Beijing welcomed him back from his travails and foretold a flourishing springtime. It goes without saying, then, that Plum Blossoms was intended to express the artist’s cheerful feelings.
Mastering the Past to Embellish the Present, Filling the Canvas with Expert Brushwork
Wu Guanzhong's artistry originates in painting from life, and painting from life originates in observing reality. But Wu did not stick to one pattern of technique when creating images of objects. In his own words, "By not choosing one method, one chooses all methods"—whether they be methods of concrete, abstract, or even distorted portrayal. Wu would even switch mediums in order to achieve his goals of expression. The subject of Plum Blossoms is the sort of plum tree that can be found in the Beijing suburbs, but the image presented in the painting also recalls the composition of traditional Chinese paintings. Similar to Plum Blossoms by the Ming dynasty painter Wang Qian, the trunk of the tree rises from the lower right of the canvas before straightening upward in the centre of the painting, a conventional pattern of traditional Chinese art. Wu built on this foundation by strengthening the broad coarseness of the trunk and increasing the density of the branches in order to portray a sturdy and robust plum tree in the wild. His technique reflects the tree's natural essence, unfettered by human interference.
Extracting the Finest Essence: Pointillistic Abstract Beauty
Aside from its traditional underpinnings, the key to Plum Blossoms is its abstract beauty. Remove the trunk and the branches, and all that remains of the painting is a patch of light blue at the top, an olive-green texture at the bottom, and a great quantity of vivid red and green dots. These three elements are all part of the basic dot-plane structure of the tableau. In particular, the colourful dots that represent the plum blossoms, viewed in isolation, approach the idiom of Abstract Expressionism, clearly embodied with the strength, speed, and emotion of the artist's creative process. The viewer associates these three elements with sky, hillside, and flower petals only because the picture plane also contains the more figurative trunk and branches, which link the abstract parts back to reality.
A New Vision Boldly Emerges from the Cold
A review of Wu Guanzhong's landscape paintings reveals certain thematic consistencies: the spirit of towering mountains reaching into the sky, the untarnished audacity of lotus flowers, the integrity and loyalty of a bamboo grove, and so on. Trees, as a central natural motif, play a particularly prevalent role. Wu was skilled at using tree images, and because his landscapes rarely contain people or animals, it is his trees that often provide the dynamism that brings the canvas to life. In addition to using trees as a structural component of the picture plane, Wu was fond of painting close-ups of individual trees. Both in China and abroad, from ancient trees in desolate urban outskirts to the old pines of Beijing and the parasol trees of Paris, he enjoyed observing and expressing the myriad variations of the tree form. He deeply cherished these images and indulged them much as Sanyu indulged the vase of flowers. Plum Blossoms employs a close-up composition that places the magnified tree at its centre, emphasizing its deep roots, sudden rise from the ground, and flourishing flowers. It is a painting that reflects the artist's positive and dynamic approach to life.
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