Chinese Paintings – Modern

Wu Guanzhong: 15 Facts About the Modern Painting Master

By Sotheby's

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) was an accomplished modern Chinese painter, widely respected and recognized for his importance in China’s contemporary art world, which was shaped by his ideas of abstraction. As an artist of unique sensibility and vision, his work embodies the synthesis of traditional Chinese and Western ideas and techniques. Here are fifteen facts about Wu Guanzhong and his work ahead of our upcoming auctions at Sotheby’s.

1. It was purely by chance that Wu Guanzhong discovered his love for art.


Wu Guanzhong was born on August 29, 1919 in Yixing, Jiangsu province and was the son of a primary school teacher in the village. Having passed the examination to enrol at the Industrial School at Zhejiang University for their electrical engineering programme, Wu was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, while at school, he met an art student by the name of Chu Teh-Chun, who took him to visit an oil paintings exhibition at the Hangzhou Academy where he attended. It was here that Wu stumbled upon his love for art, transferring to the art school in 1936 despite his father’s concerns about the poverty of a life as an artist.

2. Wu Guanzhong studied at the Hangzhou Academy for six years amidst wartime chaos.


From the age of seventeen, Wu Guanzhong was completely devoted to the study of art at the Hangzhou Academy. Under Lin Fengmian’s presidency, the school was heavily influenced by French art of the 1920s and 1930s, with the faculty consisting of many artists who had previously studied in France. As such, Wu was exposed to both Western and Chinese art, studying oil painting under Wu Dayu and traditional Chinese painting under Pan Tianshou. Despite interruptions to his studies during the Sino-Japanese War, such as with the school’s relocation to Yuanliang, Hunan province in 1938 followed by the merger with the Beijing school to form the National Art Academy at Chonqing, Sichuan province, Wu successfully graduated in 1942.

3. Wu Guanzhong was awarded a three-year scholarship to study in France (1947-50).


In 1946, the Ministry of Education held its first examination for students to study abroad since before the Sino-Japanese War. As one of three art students selected, in 1947 Wu boarded a boat bound for Naples, where he would then travel by train to Paris. It was his first time abroad and upon his arrival he was, in his own words, 'completely intoxicated by art after looking greedily at it all'. Wu studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts under Professeur J.M. Souverbie, but spent time visiting Italy, Switzerland and England to fully immerse himself in European art culture. He became inspired by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Sandro Botticelli, Georges Braque, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, among other artists. In particular, he was intoxicated by the passion expressed in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, which altered his perception of art and his aesthetic sense. By the end of his time in Paris, Souverbie offered to extend Wu’s scholarship.

4. Wu Guanzhong struggled to assimilate upon his return to China.


After a bitter inner struggle, Wu Guanzhong returned home in the summer of 1950 because of homesickness and a sense of patriotism. Upon returning, he was allocated a government position, lecturing at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing until 1953. However, he discovered that during his time away, he had become discordant artistically. His experiences abroad hindered his ability to adhere to the idea of Socialist Realism as he struggled immensely to paint convincing labour heroes of the Soviet model. He received criticism for promoting artistic ideas of the West and was denounced as a poisonous 'bourgeois formalist'.

5. Wu Guanzhong was a self proclaimed member of the 'Dung-Basket School' during the Cultural Revolution.


During the Cultural Revolution, Wu Guanzhong was sent to the countryside of Hebei province for hard labour. For three years, Wu was forbidden to paint in the remote settlement and had to suppress his urge by composing poetry in his head. It was not until 1972 that he was finally allowed to paint for enjoyment once a week. Although materials were scarce, Wu managed to obtain brushes and paint, buying blackboards from the village shop to paint on. Using a dung basket as a makeshift easel, Wu, along with other artists, formed what they jokingly called the 'Cow-Pen School', creating oil paintings of the village scenery, trees and fields.

6. Wu Guanzhong and Chu Teh-Chun developed a long-lasting friendship.


Wu Guanzhong and Chu Teh-Chun were firm friends for close to 75 years, having met at a military training camp in 1935. It was Chu that inspired Wu to switch disciplines, as the two bonded over their mutual dream of pursuing art in Paris while studying at the Hangzhou Academy together. However, by the time Chu moved to Paris in 1955, Wu had already returned to China and the two lost touch for the next 30 years. It was not until the 1980s that they were reunited, rekindling their friendship over mutual appreciation of each other’s work. They supported each other’s exhibitions and exchanged artwork. In fact, Wu’s first exhibition at the Musee Cernuschi, Paris in 1993 was only made possible by Chu, who held four of Wu’s paintings in his private collection that are emblematic of their lifelong friendship.

Left: WU GUANZHONG, CHONGQING, THE MOUNTAIN CITY, f rom Chu Teh-Chun’s personal collection . Painted in 1979 and gifted to Chu Teh-Chun ten years later, 68.3 x 137.5 cm, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October, 2020 for HK$50.3 million. Right: WU GUANZHONG, Primitive Woods , painted in 1988, a highlight of Wu Guanzhong’s exhibition at the Musee Cernuschi in 1993, later gifted to Chu Teh-Chun, 95.4 x 178.4 cm, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October, 2020 for HK$28 million.

7. Wu Guanzhong was part of what was undoubtedly one of the most important mural painting movements in modern Chinese history.


In 1972, Wu Guanzhong, along with a group of major painters – such as Li Keran, Wu Zuoren and Tao Yiqing – were invited to produce paintings for public spaces in the lead up to the opening up of China to the West. Gigantic murals were commissioned to decorate hotels and airports, such as Ten Thousand Miles of the Yangtze River in 1974 for the Beijing Grand Hotel. For this work, Wu travelled upriver with Huang Yongyu, Yuan Yunfu and Zhu Danian from Shanghai to Chongqing for inspiration and to explore the river in depth. This painting is often considered the predecessor of Scenery of Northern China (1979), a mural stretching six metres long for the Beijing Capital Airport’s western restaurant that reflected the artist’s hopes for reform.

Wu Guanzhong, Scenery of Northern China , painted in 1973, property from an important private Asian collection, 71.7 x 160 cm, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October, 2020 for HK$151.4 million.

"Studying art does not take place in Europe or in Paris, or in a master’s studio. It happens in your homeland, in your hometown, in your home, and in your heart."
Wu Guanzhong, 1949, Excerpted from a Letter to Wu Dayu

8. Despite his devotion to Western oil paintings, Wu Guanzhong returned to traditional Chinese brush and ink in the 1970s.


Upon his return to Beijing from his period of manual labour in 1972, Wu Guanzhong made the switch back to the traditional Chinese style from oil paintings, a medium to which he had devoted his early career. In part, this was due to his discovery that almost all the other painters were working in Chinese ink on paper. Additionally, it was simply a matter of practicality. At the time, his home in Beijing was too small for storing large canvases, whereas traditional Chinese paintings on xuan paper could be folded and stowed away. Most importantly however, Wu’s return to the Chinese medium stemmed from his desire to convey moods and feelings beyond the technical scope of oil paints. During this transition period, Wu strayed from traditional Chinese brush modes and continued to incorporate elements from oil paintings. Since then however, Wu has become equally at ease with both media and his work is a true reflection of the interaction between Chinese and Western art.

Left: WU GUANZHONG, THE LION GROVE GARDEN . Lot sold: HK$7.4 million Right: WU GUANZHONG, GARDEN IN SUZHOU, Estimate:600,000 - 800,000 HKD, Lot sold: HK$1.4 million.

9. Wu Guanzhong was a force facilitating the fusion of Chinese and Western art.


Following in the footsteps of Lin Fengmian, Wu Guanzhong’s art belonged to what he called 'a hybridised breed', serving as a bridge between Chinese and Western art. As an exponent of evolving Chinese paintings through the injection of aesthetic concepts, ideas, forms and techniques from the West, Wu used the equipment of both oil and ink paintings in his work, claiming that they were merely 'media used by artists to express their inner souls' (Wu Guanzhong, Beijing, 1988). He has gone further than any of his predecessors in achieving a harmonised unity of the two artistic styles to create a complete entity, generating paintings that are both Chinese and contemporary in spirit. Yet despite the enrichment of his art by his Western sense of colour and composition, Wu asserted: 'I am Chinese. When I pick up a brush to paint, I paint a Chinese picture.' The incorporation of Western principles was simply the means through which he evolved the Chinese style of aesthetic expression, especially with the introduction of new subjects into this sinicised mode of traditional painting.

10. Wu Guanzhong had a unique connection with Hong Kong.


Particularly from 1981 onwards, Wu Guanzhong visited Hong Kong on many occasions to sketch, attend seminars and hold art exhibitions. In particular, the artist was invited by the Land Development Corporation to document his impressions of the city in 1990. Despite the tightly packed skyscrapers that pose as a stark contrast to the artist’s usual rural landscape paintings, the city serves as the subject of many of his works because of its cultural environment. In many ways, the city mirrors his art in that both exhibit elements from the East and West. Over the years, he has donated many paintings to the Hong Kong Museum of Art, constituting a massive collection of more than 450 items.

11. Wu Guanzhong is most famous for his landscapes, travelling widely across China for inspiration.


Hitherto a master of the nude, Wu gave up figure panting for landscapes because of ideological controversies upon his return to China. At the core of Wu Gunazhong’s creative process lay his emphasis on painting from nature, reflecting a convention deeply rooted in the Chinese tradition. This practice was especially prevalent after the establishment of the Communist regime, as artists were sent on trips around the country to sketch the people and the motherland. Carrying his painting equipment on his back, Wu would often spend up to six months at a time travelling the length of China for artistic inspiration, successfully establishing himself as a renowned artist of landscapes.

"Through painting landscapes I have grown to love my motherland even more and I wish to be intoxicated in her embrace."
Wu Guanzhong, Beijing, 1988

12. Wu Guanzhong’s love for his homeland added to the emotional depth of his paintings.


Wu Guanzhong is most well-known for painting landscapes of his homeland. All his paintings are eulogies of sorts, promoting his love for China and its people. This unrequited love creates an unbreakable bond between the artist and the landscape, providing an emotional dimension to his paintings capable of moving audiences.

13. Wu Guanzhong advocated for the independence of formal beauty.


Despite experiencing adverse political pressures that halted his artistic activities, Wu Guanzhong remained true to his ideals and pursuit of the beauty of artistic forms. He felt responsible for educating people about modern art and to teach them that 'formalism' was not a manifestation of bourgeois corruption. Instead, he asserted that it is an essential part of our natural response to visual beauty. By drawing on the example of the delight of a child playing with a kaleidoscope, he claims that everyone likes pure form and colour. As such, Wu claimed that artists should feel free to utilise all sorts of techniques and styles available to respond to the demands of each subject. Different types of beauty call for different means of expression. This is the reason why Wu was so comfortable with freely using broad brushes, pens, felt tips, traditional soft-tipped brushes and even drippers in his work.

Climbing Vines on Wall, ink and colour on paper, framed, 1983, 45.4 x 111.4 cm ( Wu Guanzhong, Climbing Vines on Wall, Lot sold: HK$8.6 million )

14. Wu Guanzhong’s chief contribution to the development of Chinese paintings was his endorsement of abstraction.


As time progressed, Wu Guanzhong’s naturalistic treatment of forms gave way to greater abstraction, as reality was reduced to a rich display of lines, dots, ink washes and colour in his work. He claimed that pure form, without content, fails to truly encompass reality. At the heart of figurative art, there must lie a certain degree of abstract beauty. As such Wu has exploited abstract structures of delicate lines and rounded forms in his art hitherto unseen in traditional painting. Yet he warns of following the West blindly towards total abstraction. He describes the relationship between the artist’s vision and objective reality as being akin to a kite attached to an unbroken string. Abstraction should be limited to extracting the “essence” of the form. Therefore, in his art, Wu draws our attention to the subtle abstract beauties found within the Chinese tradition, such as patterns on marble, decorations on pottery, calligraphy, splashed-ink techniques and garden rocks of Suzhou.

15. Wu Guanzhong is a highly acclaimed artist whose achievements are recognised both in China and abroad.


Wu Guanzhong is considered as having been one of China’s greatest modern painters and was highly respected for his many exhibitions over the years. This began with his first one-man show that travelled across China in 1978, organised by the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Beijing. Wu expanded his influence abroad over time, such as through his first touring exhibition in the United States organised by the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco in 1989-1990. Most notably, he became the first living Chinese artist to have a one-man exhibition at the British Museum in 1992. Along the way, Wu has also accumulated numerous accolades, such as when he was decorated with the “Officier de l’Ordre des Arts and des Lettres” in 1991 by the French Ambassador M. Claude Martin for his contributions to modern Chinese painting.

Wu Guanzhong with Chu Teh-Chun at the British Museum in 1992. Wu Guanzhong was the first living Chinese artist to be granted a solo exhibition at the museum.

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