… The four Han cypresses in the Situ Temple of Guangfu, located in the suburbs of Suzhou, are known as “Qing” (pure), “Qi” (strange), “Gu” (ancient) and “Guai” (weird), collectively meaning quaint yet eccentric. As survivors of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), their huge stature and towering stance elicit feelings of unbending belittlement, as if they were scholars, generals, or deities found within myths. For two thousand years they have graced the earth and seen the world. Yet they remain robust and verdant. Endless streams of domestic and foreign guests have rushed to the charming, little temple to admire the elegant and graceful demeanour of the renowned cypresses. “Qing” stands tall and clear, “Qi” is oblique, “Gu” is crouched over, while “Guai” lies prostrate. In truth, the four massive cypresses are all rather unusual, with their dry trunks and branches weaved into an interlocking web, indistinguishable from each other. Sections have grown anew out of the dead stems in the ground that have previously been struck down by lightning. Branches have morphed into roots, and roots into branches, manifesting a forbidding terrain through the tortuous back and forth of the shoots. The high branches are suspended from above, while the lower limbs climb upwards, grasping and embracing each other until cleverly interlaced into a tight twist. Overall, the landscape is full of changes and surprises. Simply by moving a step over do the observable forms transform drastically into a new spectacle. Many artists have embarked on long journeys, travelling from afar with their pochade boxes, circled the trees numerous times and still struggle to put pen to paper… The plastic arts are often unable to remove itself from procumbent shapes. It is the same reason why people are bound to like lying pines. From an overarching point of view, the key as to why the four cypresses of “Qing”, “Qi”, “Gu” and “Guai” are so attractive lies within the tree known as “Guai”. Its massive dragon-like body in a prone position poses as a stark contrast to the other three trunks, whose coiled and everchanging branches and vines serve as an appropriate correspondence, constituting a harmonious effect. This resulting aura hides the intense contrast, camouflaging it under a certain quality of veiled delight so that no one ever tires from viewing it. Allegedly, these four Han cypresses were hand planted by Deng Yu, minister over the masses, during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Meanwhile, the names “Qing”, “Qi”, “Gu” and “Guai” were designated by Emperor Qianlong during his inspection tour of the South in the Qing Dynasty. No matter, I am not concerned by who planted or named the trees. I only wish that they will withstand any wind, frost and lightning that may come its way to indomitably live on forever, and that their powerful figures will forever be the recipient of people’s admiration and reverence.
“Cypress” was painted at a matured point in Wu Guanzhong’s exploration of ink and wash, merely constituting one of many masterpieces during the artist’s pinnacle period. As an exemplar of China’s contemporary art world, Wu utilized unique techniques to express a wide range of feelings for the landscape, transporting viewers to a realm of pure beauty. The painting is bold and abstract, with thousands of free-flowing lines and specks flying in all directions. It is indicative of the painter’s flourishing work during the 1980s, showcasing his unparalleled sensibility and vision through quick-moving and powerful strokes.
Given the apparent spontaneous nature and daring gestures, it is easy to imagine that the painting came about as a stroke of luck. Yet this creation was deeply treasured by Wu, not only because of its expressive imagery, but for the profound symbolic significance of the four Han cypresses depicted in the painting. Wu visited the Situ Temple, located in the suburbs of Suzhou, to observe the quaint yet eccentric trees on multiple occasions and searched for the best materials for such a creative undertaking, embarking on the painting process as early as the 1970s. The trees reflect the resilience demonstrated by Wu throughout the trials and tribulations of his lifetime. Having been struck down by lightning and destroyed several times, through all the hardships of experiencing adverse political pressures that halted his artistic activities, Wu has stayed true to his ideals and his pursuit of the beauty of artistic forms. In both instances, they have emerged victorious in their struggle for survival, like fierce wild animals in combat. This painting was completed in 1988, after an environment finally emerged in the 1980s in China that allowed Wu to bring his artistic talents into full play. Wu claimed that “This entanglement of a painting must be the confluence of my countless experiences of sketching twigs and vines from nature.”
Careful consideration went into designing the shape and soul of the ancient cypresses, with various rapid strokes and staggered turns portraying the twisted branches and coiled vines. Meanwhile, the lush leaves are represented by an abundance of dynamic dots in varying sizes and colours dispersed across the page. Such a dramatic interaction between the splattered flecks of assorted densities and long flowing lines of negative space creates a rhythmic yet harmonious display, evoking feelings of a dreamlike unreality.
This is especially the case when paired with Wu’s adventurous use of colour. By presenting the spots in vivid hues, such as cinnabar, rouge and emerald, he successfully creates what appears to be a lively mosaic of precious stones. Coupled with the heavy grey lines trickled onto the paper with a self-made funnel tool, it overlaps and supplements the thick, black, ink undulations to reveal the weighted texture and massive stature of the old trees. By painstakingly selecting such suitable means of expression, these shapes and colours strategically add to the unconventional charm and appeal of the painting. Afterall, as Wu once claimed, “Abstract beauty is the heart of the beauty of figurative art. It is a natural thing to which we all respond. As a child loves to play with a kaleidoscope, so everyone likes pure form and colour.”
The composition is a true reflection of the artist’s dedication to the synthesis of Eastern and Western cultures, having been trained in both traditions – Wu studied in Paris on a three-year scholarship before returning to China due to homesickness and a sense of obligation with the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. While his new style of Chinese ink and colour bears little resemblance to the venerable tradition in terms of composition and brushwork, retaining the formal principles of western paintings, the essential spirit and tonal variations of ink are clear indications of a typically Chinese aesthetic expression. In other words, it represents the happy union of his western abstract theories and his Chinese sketching and painting experiences. Moreover, the vitality of execution in his implementation of colour and ink, along with the sheer beauty of form, line and colour in the painting, demonstrates Wu’s profound fondness for the landscape and, by extension, his motherland. The artist is very much at peace with himself, living and painting in joyful harmony with nature to transform reality into art.