Lot 20
  • 20

Wu Guanzhong

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 HKD
10,840,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Wu Guanzhong
  • New Bamboos Alongside the Li River
  • oil on canvas
  • 60 by 68 cm.; 23 5/8 by 26 3/4 in.
signed in Chinese and dated 79


Important Private Asian Collection


Shui Tianzhong & Wang Hua, ed., The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. III, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, 2007, p. 141

Catalogue Note

A classic landscape by Wu Guanzhong in the 1970s: New Bamboos Alongside the Li River

Wu Guanzhong was an unwavering pioneer in Chinese modern art.  Not only did he create many masterpieces during his 91 years but he was also an outstanding theorist. Through careful perception, thoughtful deliberation and precise use of language, he formulated an artistic philosophy uniquely his own. Just as Lu Xun, whom Wu had long admired, once wrote: “Originally there was no path in this world. As more people walk along, a path appears.”  Wu’s unceasing dedication to his own theories not only inspired his followers but opened entirely new vistas for Chinese art. Scenery in the Lijiang River, completed at the height of the artist’s career in oil painting, reflects Wu’s synthesis and creativity combining Chinese and Western art in its composition, subject matter, setting, use of colours, brushstrokes, spirit and charm. Among Wu’s many masterpieces, this is a much admired classic.

A traveller who witnessed the tides of time

Wu Guanzhong’s life reached an abyss in the 1960s. By 1970, circumstances began to improve. Despite living only with modest means, Wu could travel around China to record those landscapes he had longed to see. The foundation of his training in Hangzhou’s National Academy of Fine Arts, his further studies in Paris, and troubles he encountered after his return to China all converged into a dramatic starting point, providing a series of interesting twists and turns eventually leading to fruitful achievements. In 1972, after having been forbidden to take up the brush for six years, Wu was allowed to paint during the holidays. In the same year, he set off to Guiyang to visit his mother-in-law. A lifelong admirer of Guilin’s natural beauty, he stopped there for a few days to paint, initiating his Li River series that lasted for more than two decades. At that time, Wu’s creativity was at its most fertile, his art originating from pure passion and inspiration. In 1977 and 1978, he even brought students to Lijiang River on fieldtrips when he generated numerous cherished works, and New Bamboos Alongside the Li River is a prime example. Traditional Chinese painting is founded on the custom of embracing nature’s fullest, setting the scenery amidst mountains and rivers; Western artists often finish landscape sketches back in the studio. Scenery in the Lijiang River was a piece that was completed over a long period, adopting elements from both.By the end of the 1970s, as China turned toward reform, the whole society was caught on the cusp of modernization like an arrow in a drawn bow. As a leading representative of modern art in China, Wu stood at the forefront of changing times: In 1979, the artist held his first touring exhibition in China; he also painted murals for the Great Hall of the People and Beijing’s Capital Airport. Wu’s artworks were also published the same year in three books: Wu Guanzhong: Selected Paintings; Wu Guanzhong: Selected Pastels and Sketches; Wu Guanzhong: Oil Paintings. Although Wu was already over sixty, these events brought him worldwide recognition and catapulted his career to even greater heights. It was that year that New Bamboos Alongside the Li River was completed.

A polished work that broadly absorbs ancient and modern traditions

The composition of New Bamboos Alongside the Li River is carefully executed, displaying typical attributes of Western oil painting. The canvas is arranged geometrically: objects gathered in two overlapping circles, as the right side dominates the foreground; on the left are objects in the middle-ground and background, therefore forming a basic symmetry. At the same time, the artist employs an aerial perspective to establish depth. In other words, fine details and colour intensity are adjusted depending on relative distance, matching how objects would appear to the human eye. As a result, bamboo leaves and stems are depicted in the finest details, architectural details of the dwellings in the middle-ground are only partially visible, while mountains in the background only appear in profile. Aerial perspective was first employed by artists around the first century B.C.E. Compared with linear perspective, it is akin to the Five Dynasties’ Poem on Painting Landscapes describing “mountains afar [having] no creases, looking faintly like eyebrows; distant waters [having] no waves, standing as tall as the clouds.” In a way, it also encapsulates the Eastern spirit. To accentuate the wide expanse of Li River, the artist deliberately adds a bamboo grove in the foreground, highlighting the distance between the viewer and the dwellings. All three levels are interrelated, allowing the landscape to be solidly placed yet seemingly fluid. Even before travelling to France, Wu Guanzhong had shown a deep grasp of landscape painting. In 1946, his examination essay for the Chinese government scholarship analyzed that very subject. At that time, his examiner—noted educator Chen Zhifo—distinguished Wu’s essay as “the most outstanding answer in the government scholarship examination for fine art” for that year. During his stay in Paris, Wu spent a full year studying classical masterpieces, and two more learning about Modernism, familiarizing himself with the pros and cons of both Eastern and Western traditions. Although Wu had been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, New Bamboos Alongside the Li River is created with a thorough understanding of the larger context of art, re-examining the knowledge and skills he had acquired at an early age, referencing the world’s two major artistic traditions and forging a new creative path.

Humanistic spirit embedded in nature

From the 1950s onward, Wu Guanzhong devoted time to painting landscapes, but what he set out to portray lay beyond what the eye could see. Although he used Western media and technique, Wu knew full well that from the ancient times, European landscapes were merely fictitious scenery. Only in the modern era were there efforts in representing real nature. On the other hand, from the Song dynasty onward, the humanistic spirit was already displayed in Chinese traditional landscapes, themselves vehicles of poetic expression. This is also an important characteristic in Wu’s landscapes. The reason the Li River series took on a life of its own is twofold: apart from scenic beauty, the location is rife with cultural significance. Li River was known in ancient times as Lishui. As early as the reign of the First Qin Emperor, an edict was issued to connect Lishui and Xiangshui with the Lingqu Canal, which was subsequently recorded in the Shuijingzhu of the Northern Wei dynasty, identified as one of China’s earliest waterways. From the Tang and Song dynasties onward, numerous poets visited there left inspired rhymes commemorating the place. Even in the modern era, during China’s tumultuous decades under the nationalist government, this area was ruled by warlords such as Lu Rongting, Li Zongren, Bai Chongxi—all of whom provided much food for thought for an artist.

Wu’s 1946 examination essay alludes to the fact that China’s traditional ink painting flourished during times of turmoil, when people long to become hermits living amidst mountains and forests. Knowing Wu’s life experiences, one would not be surprised by the message embedded in New Bamboos Alongside the Li River. As mentioned, this composition comprises two overlapping circles. The area where the circles overlap is where people live. The bamboo grove in the foreground creates a similar effect as in a traditional ink painting, where mountains placed on one side anchor the entire composition, leading the viewer as he enters a utopian landscape. The eye first gravitates to the bamboo grove, then to dwellings in the distance that are visible yet blurry. This site entices the viewer’s imagination toward a place isolated from the rest of the world. This work shows clearly that Wu Guanzhong never shied away from injecting his own feelings into a composition, or combining different elements to create an overall effect.

Selecting the best to emulate, traversing the boundaries between East and West

Renowned art historian Michael Sullivan once asked Wu Guanzhong whether his oil or ink paintings better embody his genuine feelings of being Chinese. Wu answered without any hesitation, “When I pick up a paintbrush, I create Chinese paintings!” His Western education and training did not affect Wu’s esteem for Chinese art or his self-confidence. In Wu’s mind, there is no clear boundary between the two. Instead, he marvelled at their connection, of how traditions relate to each other. Although Wu devoted his life to injecting Chinese national traits into oil painting, he was not a Chinese nationalist in any narrow sense. To him, neither “utilizing the West in Chinese form” nor vice versa is important. Only through imitation could there be innovation, and from there quality works could be made. Thus, the artist constructs his landscapes through oil paints and composition. While he concentrates on the extended lineage of the Eastern spirit, he also adamantly avoids literary or poetic references, keeping the art of painting at its essence.

Although New Bamboos Alongside the Li River  highlights a bamboo grove in the foreground, the artist was not compelled to depict bamboo in the traditional Chinese way, because ink paintings tend to only depict a few stalks, not the collective power of an entire grove. At the same time, in his Notes on the National Characteristics of Oil Painting, he wrote, “I’ve studied Monet’s lilies and willows. I’ve studied Cezanne’s green forests. I admire their work, but their techniques cannot be applied to my willows and bamboos.” Since the bamboo plant is purely green, it presents some difficulties in the oil medium, which the artist toiled for a period to overcome. In the end, he discovered a solution: to elevate his own power of observation, to use sensitive and precise ways of handling the object through “shape, light, colour, body, surface, texture, and quantity” (Casual Notes on Painting Bamboo).  He even uses the subtleties of changing hues to build a textural sense, thereby re-creating abstract “power” within a realistic landscape. The foreground presents elongated bamboos filled with Eastern attributes, even to the point of discernible calligraphic strokes reminiscent of traditional ink painting. Yet just behind the thin stalks are rich textures including hues of yellow, grey, blue and sky blue, working together to create a power suggestive of mountain ranges without robbing the sinuous aura of the bamboo plant.