Braving the darkest winter, I returned to my hometown, which I had not seen for over two decades.
My hometown was so much better. But I lacked the images and language by which to recall her beauty and goodness. There seemed nothing I could do.
Then a miraculous picture suddenly flashed in my mind: a round, golden moon hanging in the deep-blue sky, and beneath it an endless stretch of emerald watermelons on a seaside beach.
As our boat sailed forward, the blue mountains on both sides appeared dark green as they disappeared behind us.
In this haze, the emerald seaside beach opened before my eyes, and in the deep-blue sky above it hung a round, golden moon. I thought to myself, there is no such thing as hope to begin with, and yet it cannot be said not to exist. It is just like this path: there isn’t really a path, but as more and more people walk on it, the path comes into being.
Lu Xun, Hometown
As I was startled out of my sleep by the extremely cloud firecrackers nearby, I saw bean-sized yellow flames, which were followed by the sound of sequential explosions of bianpao. This was Uncle Four’s “blessing,” which told me it was about three o’clock in the morning. In my daze, I heard also the vague sounds of distant firecrackers, which seemed to envelop the entire town together with the dense smoke and falling snow. In the embrace of this bustle, I felt lazy and comfortable, as if all my worries of the day had been dissipated by the atmosphere of the blessing. I felt only that all the gods of the world, having been treated to sacred rituals and incense, were now enjoying themselves in heaven, ready to bestow infinite blessings on the people of Luzhen.
Lu Xun, Blessing
The Hometown of Lu Xun
‘I have painted the Tibetan highlands, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the layered mountain city of Chongqing, the festivals of Xishuang Banna, but what I love most to paint and what I yearn to paint every year remains my home of the Jiangnan region.’ – Wu Guanzhong, Returning Home
The scenery of the Jiangnan region provided Wu Guangzhong with his favourite landscape themes. His love for Jiangnan was due not only to his ancestral roots in Yixing, Jiangsu, but also to his admiration for Lu Xun, a native of nearby Shaoxing, Zhejiang. The artist once said, ‘Lu Xun is someone I deeply admire’, ‘Without Lu Xun, China would be without half its spine.’ Fearless of power throughout his life, Lu Xun criticized the ills of his time and opposed feudalism, ignorance, and superstition with his acerbic language. The settings of many of his classic novellas, including Sister Xianglin, Kong Yiji, Hometown, Medicine, and The True Story of Ah Q, were based on Shaoxing, which helped to cement Jiangnan’s crucial status in modern Chinese literature. Wu Guanzhong had regarded Lu Xun as his role model since his youth. Striving to reform Chinese art through modernism, he decided to abandon his studies in engineering for art and maintained a fearless opposition to the orthodoxies of his time, recalling Lu Xun’s turning from medicine towards literature and contrarian stance. Wu was proud to be from the same area as Lu Xun and, late in his life, even declared that ‘I should have studied literature and become a writer like Lu Xun.’ Naturally, the Shaoxing of Lu Xun’s literary universe was an important inspiration for the painter.
For Wu Guanzhong, Shaoxing was not only a beautiful water town but also the wellspring of Lu Xun’s creativity and the setting of his own life and the lives of his characters: the mischievous Ah Q, the self-sacrificing Xia Yu, the honest and simple Sister Xianglin, and the stubbornly blinkered Kong Yiji are such vividly imagined characters that they seem truly to have lived in Shaoxing. In 1957, returning to China from France, Wu Guanzhong spent time in Shaoxing sketching from life. He moved to Beijing afterwards and would not return to Shaoxing for two decades because of political tumult. It was only around 1976, at the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, that Wu Guanzhong had the chance to visit and paint in Shaoxing again. By this point he had reached a high level of maturity in life and art. The Hometown of Lu Xun (Lot 1024) of 1977 symbolizes the rekindling of his relationship with Shaoxing. It is of immense artistic and historical importance as the only extant oil study for the eponymous monument painting at the Lu Xun Museum in Beijing.
Shaoxing, in Zhejiang Province, was originally called Kuaiji. In the twelfth century, when the Song Dynasty’s capital moved to Hangzhou (Lin’an), Kuaiji was renamed Shaoxing after a title of Emperor Gaozong with the auspicious meaning of revival. Because Yixing and Shaoxing shared similar customs and local cultures, when Wu Guanzhong worked in Shaoxing he often combined his admiration for Lu Xun with a nostalgia for his own hometown.
Wu Guanzhong’s painting is based on real-life observations. There are few tall mountains in Jiangnan, which is marked by its flatlands and interweaving waterways. Accordingly, Wu tends to use a horizontal or upwards perspective in his depictions of the water towns, suggesting a viewpoint from a street, a bridge, or a riverboat. Unusually, The Hometown of Lu Xun is painted from a high vantage, from which the artist observes the entirety of Shaoxing. The broad rivers, still and mirror-like, wind left and right into the far distance and then merge with the sky, dividing the land into islands. The dense arrangement of white walls and black tiles extends to the other shore, creating a contrapuntal tension with the spaciousness of the waterways. The roads and paths are concealed by the buildings, but Wu Guanzhong suggests their existence with his signature red and green dots, which symbolize the roadside willows and apricot blossoms and the pedestrians rubbing shoulders with each other. These fine touches infuse the otherwise expansive scene with the everyday pleasures of the common people, enriching the painting.
Wu Guanzhong was very familiar with the geography of Shaoxing, and his affinity with Lu Xun made sketching scenes of his hometown far from a chore. As the painter writes in his essay Returning Home, “To get inspiration and gather materials for my paintings commemorating Lu Xun, I sought scenes and areas described in his fictions. I needed to visit rural villages farther away from urban areas and reachable only by small motorboats rather than cars; they probably better preserve true aspects of the past!” In The Landscape of Life, published in 2003, he describes in further detail his process of creating The Hometown of Lu Xun :
‘When I was creating The Hometown of Lu Xun, I climbed several hills around Shaoxing, which expanded my views of the city and the scope of my composition. But is a bird’s-eye-view ever reliable for composition? An even division of space into flat planes makes a painting loose and unfocused, and so I needed to compose my painting around a few large areas densely packed with houses. Then I had emerald waterways wind between and around the houses, such that the painting gained both masses and circulation and an incipient composition. Visible from hilltops, the black, white, and gray blocks of Shaoxing formed moving and rhythmic patterns.’
There were few prominent hills around the broad waterways and dense residential areas of Shaoxing. Wu Guanzhong likely sketched the city from Mount Ruokui next to East Lake. One of the famous lakes of Shaoxing, East Lake is oblong in shape and rather resembles a broad passage of a river. On its side is the steep Mount Ruokui, whose name derived from the legend that The First Emperor, on his eastern expedition, gave his horses food and water here. After the Han Dynasty, Mount Ruokui became a quarry, and by the Sui Dynasty it had become a precipitous cliff. Water sprang from its base, creating East Lake. This topography lent itself to the comprehensive vista that Wu Guanzhong wanted. The current view from East Lake remains recognizable in this painting. After the 1970’s, Wu Guanzhong often painted scenes vaguely reminiscent of this view; these may well have been creative departures from what he saw on Mount Ruokui.
The high vantage of The Hometown of Lu Xun may relate to Wu Guanzhong’s earlier experiences of life sketching. In 1974, he, Yuan Yunfu, Zhu Danian, and Huang Yongyu were tasked by the central government to record scenes along the Yangzi River and create the monumental mural A Thousand Miles of the Yangzi. Dating from 1977, Lu Xun’s Hometown seems to incorporate this experience. Whereas the earlier painting combines several bird’s-eye views into a landscape of vast horizontal expanse, The Hometown of Lu Xun adopts a fixed high viewpoint to create a sense of a receding into deep distance and to encompass all the winding waterways and dense houses.
The breadth and depth of The Hometown of Lu Xun is not entirely due to the use of Western one-point perspective, and is in fact closer in effect of the “three distances” (sanyuan) of classical Chinese landscape painting, especially the ‘deep distance’ (shenyuan). The Northern Song painter Guo Xi wrote in his Linquan gaozhi that ‘To see around the front of a mountain and see its rear is “deep distance”… Deep distance is dark in colour … layered in effect. Deep distance is about fine details.’ In classical Chinese painting theory, ‘distance’ is not a matter of the physical distance between two objects, but more importantly the extension of imaginary space into infinity, from reality into emptiness and into the very origins of the universe. ‘Distance’ leads human vision into metaphysics and infinitude, and the human spirit into freedom and liberation. The theory of the ‘three distances’ laid the foundation for the subsequent development of Chinese landscape painting. Wu Guanzhong, who studied Chinese painting with Pan Tianshou at the Hangzhou Academy of Art, never abandoned an Eastern flavour in his oil paintings. Indeed, the composition of land, waterways, and bridges in The Hometown of Lu Xun recalls A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains, a masterpiece of Song-dynasty blue-and-green landscape. This demonstrates Wu Guanzhong’s aspiration to ‘modernize Chinese painting’ by incorporating classical Chinese aesthetics in modern art.
The major challenge that Jiangnan scenery posed to Wu Guanzhong was that its palette of black, gray, and white was incompatible with the chromatic vibrancy of modernist Western painting after Impressionism. One of Wu’s signal contributions to the history of oil painting in Chinese was his successful expression of the subtle beauty of Jiangnan through monochromatic tones. In his essay Reviewing Painting of the Past Fifty Years, he writes, ‘I am a native of Jiangnan and love its water villages. The scenes and manners of Cézanne and van Gogh, whom I also love, are a far cry from Jiangnan’s misty and veiled beauty. So I use diluted oil pigments to evoke the colours of lakes and mountains, and silver and gray tones to suggest the spring scenes of Jiangnan.’ The subtle beauty of Wu Guanzhong’s paintings is due also to his abundant use of geometric shapes, which are resonant with Minimalism and Cubism. The composition of The Hometown of Lu Xun can be divided into geometric forms of various sizes, which at once suggest texture and depth and motivate a rhythmic dynamism. In this masterful work, Wu Guanzhong manages to convey the beauty of abstraction in and through the beauty of natural scenery, not only relating himself to Lu Xun but also reconciling the aesthetic ideals of China and the West.
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