- Wu Guanzhong
- A Tree in the Li Village (II)
- signed in Chinese and dated 72, signed in Chinese, titled and dated 1972 on the reverse
- oil on pasteboard
Shui Tianzhong & Wang Hua, ed., The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. II, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, August 2007, p. 183
Wu Keyu, ed., World Famous Master of the Arts: Wu Guanzhong, Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House, Shijiazhuang, June 2008, p. 15
Wu Keyu, ed., World Famous Painter: Wu Guanzhong, Hebei Education Publishing House, Shijiazhuang, November 2010, p. 78
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A Tree in the Li Village (II) by Wu Guanzhong
“Li Village, where we live, in Huolu County of Hebei Province, is all mud huts, but planted amid them, everywhere, are pomegranate trees; in May their flowers are ablaze in a fiery red, as though the village were in the midst of a festival. I’ve painted the pomegranate blossoms of landlords and those of non-landlords; all of them, it feels, belong to me; they were the only red blooms during that period in my life.”
Wu Guanzhong, Pomegranate
1972 was a monumental watershed year in Wu Guanzhong’s life. The artist had previously spent nearly all of his time within the borders of university campuses. In 1942, he graduated from the Hangzhou School of Fine Art (now known as the China Academy of Art), and in 1947, he left to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris on government scholarship as the top-ranking student in China. Wu returned in 1950, settling in Beijing and serving, consecutively, on the faculty of Tsinghua University’s architecture department, Beijing Normal University’s art department, and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The eruption of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, however, twisted the fate of Wu’s life. In February of that year, a panel was held by the Army Fine Arts Unit, categorically denouncing Chinese contemporary art, following which Wu was forbidden from painting, publishing writings, or teaching. Anticipating a search of his home by the Red Guards, Wu destroyed all of his oil paintings and sketches of nudes, as well as the works he had completed in Paris. The artist was the target of a formal criticism at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and in 1970, along with other educators and students, he was ordered for re-education and sent to Li Village in Hebei province at a People’s Liberation Army encampment. This was a test of enormous proportions, for Wu’s career as well as his health. It was also an utter negation of the entire body of work he had created to this point. Through the tenacity of his will and determination, however, Wu persevered, and in 1972, when the country’s prohibitions on art were slightly relaxed, the reserves of passion within the artist’s veins came rushing forth. A Tree in the Li Village (II) (Lot1004 ) thus heralds the start and summit of a new era in the artist’s career, which gave birth to a series of new works.
Embedded Joys and Sorrows
A Tree in the Li Village (II) is marked with unique historical meaning. Referring to his article Wangjin Tianyai Lu, Wu describes the environment in which he was working during that time:
"Towards the end of the labour training, we were allowed some free time on Sundays for our own work. That meant I could paint again. I had some colours and brushes that someone had brought, but no canvas. So in the small village shop, I bought some small blackboards that were used in the fields, constructed out of cardboard and very light; I applied a layer of glue to the surface, and used them as canvases. The manure baskets used in the countryside, equipped with tall back handles, could be used as easels. Using the basket to contain some of my miscellaneous materials, I would take it into the fields to do still lifes; it was quite handy. The others laughed and called me the 'manure basket artist', but there were many copycats, and together we formed the 'Manure Basket School'. The painting I did on Sunday was entirely reliant upon the conception and planning I did on the other six days. And during those six days, I had only the half hour of free time allowed after dinner.”
During an era in which every move was a precarious one, Wu resumed his creation of art by the unusual rhythm he described: six days of planning for one day of work. His courage ignited the passions of other instructors and students at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, including Yuan Yunfu, Wang Huaiqing, and Huang Guanyu, who, together, overcame and conquered the material deficiencies of their circumstances, establishing a chapter in Chinese contemporary art that was rife with extreme hardship, yet stunning with radiance. Still visible, on the backside of the panel of A Tree in the Li Village (II), are the words “Dongcheng District Jianguomen People’s Commune Stationery”, reflecting the origins of the materials used by the artist, the words themselves a testament to the special circumstances of the times and possessed of great historical value. The vitality that teems from A Tree in the Li Village (II) is the culmination of experience acquired by the artist during his time in the countryside, containing his optimism and hope toward life.
Freehand and Realist Renderings of Pomegranate Blossoms
Li Village, the artist’s home during the Cultural Revolution, was not known for the appeal of its scenery, yet with keen sensitivity the artist heard the silent roar of the village’s beauty. By clipping and cobbling from and restructuring his real life experiences, Wu created an aesthetic sensibility and form for his paintings. In A Tree in the Li Village (II), the dense emerald-green hues and abundant flowering of the tree is a realistic depiction of a blossoming pomegranate tree, its flowers a striking red, in front of a neighbour’s home in Li Village. Recalling his time in Li Village in 2006, Wu said this: "This pomegranate tree has a home and a background; it is deeply rooted in Hebei’s Li Village, the site of our re-education during the Cultural Revolution. Day after day we laboured on the riverbank. In May the pomegranate flowers would blossom like a red blaze of fire, bearing more fruit than one could count". The pomegranate tree is closely tethered to the artist’s memories of Li Village.
A Tree in the Li Village (II) amply expresses the paint’s thickness and substantiality. Through whimsical layering and generous application of paint, the artist renders the complex jumble of the pomegranate tree’s texture, so effective as to seem sculpture-like; to the viewer’s eye, the tree appears virtually to have been chiselled from a piece of emerald jade. The flowering buds have been treated with the brush of abstraction, manifesting as dazzling spots of colour that have abandoned their concrete form. The accents of red, varying in size, covering the entire canvas, appear on first glance to be free, spontaneous doings, but upon closer inspection, one can appreciate the variance in size, weight, spacing, and volume, all rendered in an exquisite balance that sits between the concrete and the abstract, between freehand and realist styles of painting. Like musical notes dotting a green score, they sound out a pure and genuine folksong.
In this piece Wu utilizes the wisdom of contemporary art, deliberately choosing red and green as the dominant colours in the painting. They not only represent the colours of fortune in traditional Chinese aesthetics, but these two opposing colours on the colour wheel are used to create a sense of dramatic contrast, each adding emphasis to the other. The houses in the background are in the classic bungalow style found in Li Village, rendered in the image of the home in which Wu resided during that era. In the image of the tree and its flowers, the artist has planted, condensed, and bound the bittersweet memories of his Li Village days to his life, commemorating a place of unforgettable experience.
A Painting that Reveals the Artist
The brilliant dashes of red in A Tree in the Li Village (II) represent not only the blossoming flowers, but they are also the fruits, the bitter and the sweet, the scars left behind by the rinse and rigor of time. In that era, one that was enormously difficult for artistic expression, Wu persisted in his creations with an inextinguishable passion. His discovery of the beauty in his surroundings was at the same time a manifestation of his own brilliance. In later essays, Wu never shied from speaking about this tumultuous period in his life, instead expressing gratitude for the challenge and trial, which he credits with helping him recognize the unwavering, unflinching nature of his commitment to art. And with this recognition, the artist paved his individual, singular, creative path. It is this magnanimity that viewers of his work – both past and present – sense in his work, his staunch strength of character, his strong national identity. The old bungalows in Lee Village have long since vanished, but A Tree in the Li Village (II) remains, serving as a testament to that period in history.