‘Art is expressing one’s deepest feelings. At the end of my life, I have painted a Self-Portrait to devote to nature, or to give to society. That is all.’
Wu Dayu, excertp from Shidao
Wu Dayu’s art was grounded in philosophy, and his paintings were crystallizations of thought. Wu Guanzhong was a deep admirer of his teacher Wu Dayu and described him as follows: ‘Artists who are profound thinkers are rare. I know very well that Wu Dayu was a true poet and a thinker. He did not care about the title of painter that he had earlier on. Late in life he never even signed his works. He was Zhuangzi.’ This tells us that in Wu Dayu’s intellectual maturity, his art was beyond poetic expression and was rather a medium of philosophical thought.
Untitled 12 (Lot 1022) is one of the few abstract oil paintings by Wu Dayu to incorporate elements of portraiture. Such works number no more than 5 or 6. This particular painting is unusual also because of the tenuousness of its theme. Unlike the aforementioned Untitled 24 (Lot 1021), Untitled 12 incorporates more forceful long arcs and large surfaces. In the fraught interweaving of olive green, ultramarine, and lead white surfaces, the space of the painting seems to increase in depth from left to right. Behind the curtain-like lines on the left, a figure with a half-concealed face, notable particularly for its left eye-socket and square hat, appears. Half smiling, it appears to brush aside the curtain to approach the viewer. Behind it on the right is an ambiguous deep space that adds a strong sense of drama and suspense.
Is the figure in Untitled 12 Wu Dayu’s self-image in a mirror, a person he painted in front of him, or a purely fictional character? Wu was a proficient figure painting since his early days, and his extant works from the 1930’s and 40’s show the influence of Cezanne. Among his few abstract compositions with figural elements, Mirror Image is self-portrait-like. The face is Untitled 12 is barely recognizably human; here Wu Dayu no longer seems interested in representing a figure, but instead creates an unreal, dream-like space using cubistic dissection and recombination. Wu Guanzhong related Wu Dayu’s late work to the famous story of Zhuangzi dreaming that he was a butterfly, which is a beautiful expression of an ambiguous state of being in which subject and object, self and non-self become inextricably blurred. Without resolving as a strict self-portrait, Untitled 12 seems freighted with a lifetime of experiences. Its striking visual impact invites the viewer to dwell and meditate on it, slowly entering an ineffable and ambiguous mental realm.
Untitled 12 demonstrates Wu Dayu’s unique proficiency in brushwork and use of colour. During his early years as a teacher at an art school, he was already insistent on his calligraphic training. In his oil painting on canvas, we can still see his masterful control of the brush as it varies between thick and thin, heavy and light, forceful and delicate. The “flying white” passages on both sides, in which a dry brush leaves streak-like textures on the raw surface, are exhilarating and expansive. The central figure, by contrast, is heavy, unmoving, and dense. The central passages are the darkest but also the most arresting—the ultramarine tones are richly and subtly varied, creating a sheen above the darkness. The dark and light, quiet and forceful, saturated and light, dynamic and stable passages are unified in a tensile but harmonious composition.
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