Colours from the Southern Seas: the Pearl of a Series
Wu Guanzhong’s travels to explore new material for his paintings expanded to new frontiers in the 1980s and 1990s, including long journeys to the United States, Great Britain, France, and northern Europe. Each of these trips resulted in distinctive works that together comprise a unique and inimitable series. In September 1994, Wu Guanzhong travelled to Indonesia, where he painted a number of rare and valuable oil paintings. According to statistics from the artist’s own publications, there are no more than ten such paintings in total, and even fewer have been released on the public market. Thus we can see that A Banyan and Lotus Flowers (Lot 1010), which has been cherished in a private collection for more than twenty years, is a very rare large-scale work that bears testimony to this precious period of exploration for the artist.At the time, Wu Guanzhong was already an international master of great renown in the painting world. He had formed a striking individual style during his earlier experiences painting from life in the Yangtze River basin. In the 1990s, mainland China was rapidly opening up to the outside world. Wu Guanzhong, following the trend of the times, increased his international interactions. By exposing himself to other cultures, he continued to propel his own artistic development. Indonesia, a country bisected by the equator, enjoys sunshine throughout the year as well as abundant rainfall. The tropical climate contributes to the country’s richly colourful natural scenery that completely differs from the muted beauty of China’s elegant vistas. In that sweltering land, the artist could play to the strengths of the oil paints he used, releasing torrents of feeling in A Banyan and Lotus Flowers.
The picture plane of A Banyan and Lotus Flowers is dominated by the lotus-covered pond in the foreground and the banyan tree in the middle distance. These two complementary elements each occupy about one half of the canvas. The old tree, upright and ancient, seems categorically different from the young, freshly sprouting flowers, but similarly rich in vitality. Together, they form a visual banquet of perpetual balance. In his own comments on this painting in The Art and Technique of Wu Guanzhong’s Painting, the artist’s tone is humorous but not lacking in profundity: “I acted as matchmaker between the tree and the lotus flowers, bringing them from different regions to share the same space”. Throughout his creative career, Wu Guanzhong subscribed to a philosophy of searching far and wide to find material for his drafts, and he gathered scenes from various places to fuel his inspiration. When it was time to paint, he liked to cobble them together, moving mountains to the seaside and flowers to the tree, in pursuit of the best possible result.
There is a stylus sketch by Wu Guanzhong titled The Giant Banyan of Borobudur inscribed with the words “Borobudur, September 1994”. This inscription indicates that the tree in the sketch is the massive banyan tree at the Mendut Temple, just to the east of the famous Borobudur Buddhist site on the Indonesian island of Java. This massive tree has stood for more than a millennium, and the local people believe that it possesses sacred powers. It looks exactly like the tree in the painting, except that it is located on land--not in a lotus-covered pond. Thus we see how the luxuriantly beautiful tableau of A Banyan and Lotus Flowers is in fact an idyll composed of sights collected by the artist from different places in Indonesia.
However, the tree and pond are both composed of large swaths of green colour. A slight misjudgement could have transformed harmony into conflict or led to indistinct confusion. Wu Guanzhong avoided these pitfalls through his career-long reliance on using form to create beauty. He applied completely divergent expressive techniques to the banyan tree and the lotus flowers. First of all, he chose different shades of green oil paint. The lotus-covered pond is presented in bright, jade-like hues of green, whereas the banyan tree has a richer, deeper colour, creating a sense of balanced light and shadow, matter and void, and tightness and slackness between the upper and lower halves of the picture plane. In order to give further prominence to the images of the tree and the flowers, the artist also used different brushstrokes in his portrayals of each. He composed the banyan tree of thick layers of paint, forming a decorous texture that emphasizes the solid, firm, and ancient image of the tree. In contrast, the lotus flowers are painted with quick and nimble brushstrokes to create a concentrated pointillism. Like piano keys quickly struck to form a melody, Wu Guanzhong’s rapid brushstrokes symbolize the vitality of the lotus-covered pond as it meets the sky and reflects the sun. Through this ingenious craftsmanship, the artist creates a contrasting yet harmonious composition that entrances the viewer at first glance and perfectly conveys the painter’s impressions of the magnificent Southeast Asian scenery.
In addition to being a master painter, Wu Guanzhong was a great art theorist. Beginning in the 1970s, he raised the great flags of “nationalizing oil painting” and “modernizing traditional Chinese painting”; he thereafter boldly published opinions such as “ink is equal to zero” and “the kite cannot leave its string”, repeatedly stirring the tides of thought in the Chinese art world. In the 1990s, the artist turned his attention back to ancient art history, exploring the origins of Chinese modern art and parsing the various networks of schools. In a 1995 essay My Reading of Shitao’s “Quotations on Painting”, he uses the theories of painting of the late-Ming, early-Qing painter and monk Shitao to shed light on the seeds of Modernism planted in China more than three centuries ago. Shitao put forward “the methods of the One-stroke” and emphasized the expression of individuality. His lucid theories further inspired Wu Guanzhong to break from outmoded conventions and reinvent himself.
Compared to his works from the 1970s and 1980s, A Banyan and Lotus Flowers clearly shows a move toward abstraction, and the artist’s approach to form is more clear and complete. If the banyan tree in the painting demonstrates an emphasis on “formal beauty” that continues the tradition of the artist’s paintings from the 1970s, then the points, lines, and planes that signify the lotus-covered pond clearly indicate an inclination in the direction of “abstract beauty”. This inclination is suggestive of the intrinsic spiritual rhythms and personal sentiments that characterize the artist’s more abstract work from the 1990s and 2000s. When we contrast this painting with Urban Love, Wu’s abstract masterpiece in the collection of the China Art Museum, it is abundantly evident that A Banyan Tree and Lotus Flowers is a crucial link between the painter’s early and late periods.