Collection from the Estate of Theodore J. Forstmann
China’s abstract expressionist master Wu Dayu
A pioneer amidst war and turmoil
Wu Dayu (1903–1988) was among the first generation of artists who studied abroad and introduced Western art into China. Along with Lin Fengmian and other likeminded artists, Wu was among the founders of the National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, the cradle for Chinese modern art, which nurtured a generation of artists including Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Wu Guanzhong and Chao Chung-Hsiang. Wu Dayu’s magnificent and engaging abstract expressionist works are like beams of light illuminating the path in innovation, fusing Chinese and Western art. His contribution to modern art history is invaluable.A pioneer’s long journey
Wu Dayu was born to a literati
family in Yixing, Jiangsu. In 1922, he travelled to France, enrolling in the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, where he studied oil painting with Professor Rouge and sculpture with Antoine Bourdelle. Wu was deeply influenced by artistic movements such as Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Nabis. Outside his studies, Wu and other artists, among them Lin Fengmian, Li Jinfa and Lin Wenzheng, formed Phoebus (later renamed Overseas Art Movement Society) and organized a Chinese art exhibition at Strasbourg’s Palais du Rhin. After returning to his homeland, he embarked on a career that deeply affected the trajectory of Chinese art.Dreams and aspirations at home
Upon completing his studies, Wu Dayu returned to China in 1927, where he set off to prepare the founding of the National Academy of Fine Arts. Together with Lin Fengmian and Lin Wenzhang, he also established the Art Movement Society, a national organization that fostered the publication of art journals. The Society became a platform for Wu and his peers in promoting their art, while the National Academy provided the venue to educate the next generation. On different occasions, internationally recognized masters such as Wu Guanzhong, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki all acknowledged the tutelage of Wu, who was clearly their role model and hands-on teacher, while Lin Fengmian steered the Academy at the helm.A drifting life weathering extraordinary times
The anti-Japanese War began in 1937. At that time, Lin Fengmian had left his post as the President of the National Academy of Fine Arts and Wu Dayu’s teaching contract was not renewed. Although Wu’s painting style leaned toward modernism during the war years, reminiscent of his colleagues during the first years after 1911, his output was characterized by a strong nationalistic trait in both philosophy and content, calling out to the Chinese people to stand up, be strong and protect the country against invaders. Immediately after the Second World War, Wu Dayu’s works were displayed in the Chongqing National History Museum, in an exhibition organized by Zao Wou-Ki. By 1947, Wu returned to teach at the National Academy of Fine Arts, but times were hard. In 1950, soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Wu was dismissed. Until his old age, Wu Dayu weathered many a storm because of China’s political turmoil.A great master’s swansong
Immediately upon the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Wu Dayu was denounced as a “formalist forefather.” His output that survived the anti-Japanese war was destroyed. Only when China entered into the reform era in 1978 did Wu enjoy his due, coinciding with the final decade of his life. Of Wu’s last works, most are unsigned and undated. These paintings are abstract yet imaginative, their composition rich and complex, with intense and vibrant colours akin to the Fauves. Wu’s spirited energy aptly matched mid-20th
-century Abstract Expressionism. He also advocated the concept of “images of impulse,” which according to Wu Guanzhong, was “the strong aura of Wu Dayu, the aura of China, China’s aura engulfing form and colour of the West
,” forging a new path for Chinese abstract expressionism. Wu Dayu’s two works on sale, Untitled - 37
(Lot 533) and Untitled - 16
(Lot 534), are classic examples of the legacy the artist left for posterity.Untitled - 37
The foreground of Untitled - 37
is a person with arms outstretched, facing his viewer head on, as if taking flight or breaking out of a cocoon. Behind the figure is a giant mask that is predominantly white, with patches of blue and black shadows extending to the chin, ending with a curved hook denoting a long black beard suggestive of a Peking opera mask. The four corners of the mask are filled in with blurred shapes, accentuating the depth of the canvas. Both legs of the foreground figure are hidden from view while his arms are elongated, creating the effect of flowing “water sleeves,” a visual shorthand for Peking opera characters. The figure appears as if getting away from the background or leaping forward. He is the embodiment of the solitary, seemingly insignificant, person summoning the courage and determination to forge a path against time and tide.
This work is built utilising geometric shapes and symbols, their juxtaposition creating distances near and far. The background is also differentiated according to depth, totalling three levels that spread from the middle of the composition outward. Numerous mathematical symbols on the canvas restrain our emotions, leading us to ponder questions that are far more significant. The giant mask in the background leads the viewer to associate with Cubism. The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti’s masterpiece L'homme qui chavire uses a frail human figure to reflect mankind’s fragility in the postwar era, when existentialism was all the rage. This ideology, however, was precisely the philosophy behind abstract expressionism. The ancient aura of Chinese art has been continuously refined to the point of incorporating modernism.