- Wu Guanzhong
- A Mountain of Colours
- signed in Chinese and dated 85; signed in Chinese, titled and dated 1985 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Zhou Daguang, ed., Searching for the Understanding Mind- Selected Works of Wu Guanzhong in 1990s, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1995, pp. 118- 119
Wu Guanzhong, The Landscape of Life Vol 2: Wu Guanzhong’s Album in Art, Joint Publishing, Beijing, 2003, pp. 18- 19
Shui Tianzhong & Wang Hua, ed., The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. 3, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, 2007, p. 216
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Wu Guanzhong’s journey in still life painting maps a path that reveals one trial after another. For the artist, traveling was not an act of leisurely enjoyment but a solemn and earnest pursuit. After returning to Beijing from Li Village in 1973, Wu – through a variety of means, including government sponsorship, institutional support, and personal initiative – made his way across much of China. All of the scenery and sites that passed before his eyes in this vast territory became subjects in his study and expression of beauty. Each time he returned from one of his pilgrimages, a new series of thrilling pieces would be born. Guided by the brilliance of his vision and creativity, Wu catapulted the two-thousand-year-old tradition of Chinese painting into the modern era with new media and new concepts, fulfilling his lifelong mission, which he called the “localization of oil painting.”
Wu documented many of the memories of his faraway travels. In viewing his art or reading his essays, one can imagine him, sitting on a rumbling train roaring to various corners of the country, embarking on all natures of perilous adventure, over high mountains and deep waters, returning at last with the treasures of his work, which he presented to the public. During his travels in the 70s and 80s, a few of his trips were of particular importance, including his journey from Suzhou to Chongqing along the Yangtze River, during which time he created the painting Ten Thousand Kilometres of the Yangtze River; the painting-from-life excursion to Guilin and Nanning in Guangxi province organized through the Central Academy of Art; and his 1981 trip to lecture in Xinjiang province. 1985 was yet another prosperous year for Wu. By that time, the artist was an instrumental figure in the art world, his essay Does Content Determine Form being the genesis of the youth-led 85 New Wave Movement. In the same year, the China Art Gallery held an exhibition titled Wu Guanzhong: An Exhibition of New Work. Through the liberalization of attitudes toward contemporary art – of both officials and citizens – Wu’s oil creations grew even more daring and bold in their adoption of abstract and Chinese art elements; and A Mountain of Colours (Lot1005), a work created during this period, is a manifestation of this evolution.
Flowing Colours, Streaming Light: The Thriving Vitality of Snow-Peaked Mountains
The Chinese possess a traditional concept that “poetry and paintings share an origin,” implying that the artistic experience of both should be identical, that it is merely the medium which is different. In A Mountain of Colours, the silver light glistens, the clouds and mist curl and linger, lines of cardinal red and emerald green tangle and intertwine, and together, the refined style of these elements invokes the famous verse whose popularity once swept across all of China:
“North country landscape: A thousand miles sealed in ice, ten thousand miles of swirling snow. / Inside and beyond the Great Wall, all is white immensity. / The Yellow River’s swift current – deprived entirely of movement. / The mountains dance like silver snakes, and the highlands charge like wax-hued elephants, jousting with the heavens for stature. / On a clear day the land, clad in white, adorned in red, grows all the more enchanting.”
This poem, Snow, sung to Qinyuanchun was written by Mao Zedong in 1936, inspired by a snowy scene during a visit to Shanxi province. Wu composed A Mountain of Colours during a visit to Changbai Mountain in Jilin province in the north, where the grandeur and majesty of the big waters and towering mountains have long served as inspiration for literature and painting. In his essay Shuo Tianchi, the artist reflects upon his experience of nature, invoking Mao’s classical quotation, and uniting poetry with painting, text and image, each echoing the other:
“When heavy snows descend from the skies, the expansive woodlands, the galloping mountain range, are cocooned entirely in silver. On this north country landscape, atop the surface of the white universe, are threads twisting and undulating.”
Because Wu’s visit to Changbai Mountain was during the summer, he saw very little of snow, discovering, instead, the abundant vegetation, the overflowing signs of vitality. Thus, while the overall colour composition of A Mountain of Colours are tones of silver and steel, permeating it are hues of olive green; this combination expresses the characteristics in the polar climate region: its soil, light and vegetation; and through the artist’s rendering, the image appears refreshing, full, rather than dry and brittle. The various red and green lines have been wielded by the hand of a master, like strips of coloured waterfalls, curving endlessly, winding infinitely downward, embodying the form of the mountain, the snaking trails, the colours of the grass, the spirit of life. All of these complex elements have been captured and united with a simple, controlled mastery, its poeticism imbued across the canvas. It is as if the viewer has been brought along on the artist’s travels, sharing the artist’s experience of Changbai Mountain, it’s cool, pleasant and, teeming vitality.
A Magnificent Range: The Artist’s Unceasing Foundational Evolution
Wu often invoked painter and poet Shi Tao’s “tireless search for strange summits” in describing his own journey of painting. The summit, it seems, became an important symbol and the core of his landscape paintings. To arrange his mountain paintings chronologically is to sketch an uninterrupted, continuous path that began in the 1950s and runs through the present, one that reflects the varying characteristics that the painter adopted during different periods. From the perspective of Chinese culture, this fixation with mountains is directly connected to the tradition of Chinese landscape painting, as well as to the Confucian notion that a “good man delights in mountains”. Yet this interest can also be traced to the artist’s origins in oil painting, his deep admiration for Cezanne, and in particular Cezanne’s Mont Saint Victoire series, for which Wu described the colour theory utilized in the painting as being “Western hatcheting”, a technique that resolved to the same ends as the Chinese “texturing method”. In this way, Wu became a channel for communication between Eastern and Western artistic traditions.
Wu’s early mountain paintings emphasized the depiction of texture in mottled layers of rock and the coloured layers of vegetation; as well as the appearance of depth. His creations were founded upon notions of objective, realist representation. By the time he created A Mountain of Colours, however, his style had undergone a visible change. The textural qualities of his mountains were no longer the most significant aspect of form, and were virtually rendered smooth and flat. In its place are the natural and flowing lines that can be seen in A Mountain of Colours, depicted such that Changbai Mountain is no longer merely a piece of scenery, but an organism with an individual life, manifesting the artist’s subjective feelings.
Dense, Winding Lines: Oil Painting with Ink-Wash Sensibilities
Wu’s dynamic method of portraying a still image had clearly departed from the Western artistic tradition of rendering landscapes. Embedded within the painting is the Taoist spirit of the so-called "adjustment for controversies", in which "Heaven, earth, and [human] are born of one"; the appearance of the lines in the work allude to Chinese landscape paintings, transcending the tradition of oil painting techniques and displaying a novel creative approach. Wu’s foundations in ink-wash date back to his time at the Hangzhou Art College, where he studied under the tutelage of Chinese master Pan Tianshou, and later, in 1974, after decades of meticulous study in oils, the artist returned to ink-wash. By the 1980s, he was devoting equal time to oils and ink, and even the oil paintings completed during that time reveal clear Chinese painting characteristics.
The creative concept behind A Mountain of Colours combines the strength of oil in depicting “lines that run free and untrammelled, lines rich with sentiment”, while also embodying the “crisscrossing tendencies of ink-wash painting and Chinese calligraphy”. If one were to look at this piece alongside the artist’s ink-wash works from the same period, one could see how the two media formed a mutually inspiring and renewing relationship. In addition to its lines, Mountains of Colour also derives its wafting form from the wisps of curling mist on the lower right of the canvas, appearing as windswept snow or silk, accentuating the mountain’s height, the circulation of wind, its distance from the viewer, as well as its magnanimity and penetrating light. Its position forms a perfect point of junction with the colourful lines winding down the mountain. The mist in the painting was a sight the artist had witnessed in Xinjiang province, which he chose to include into this work. To look at this painting alongside Northern Song dynasty artist Mi Youren’s The Spectacular Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, one notices that both use a layering effect of clouds to create an atmosphere of mist and haze, intentionally smoothing out the mountains’ cragged textures, displaying instead a delicate, gentle scene, which embody Mi Youren’s iconic ethereal “bonelessness”. When viewing A Mountain of Colours, one feels transported, as though standing right alongside the artist, experiencing the movements of weather in the mountains of Xinjiang, roaming and enamoured with the creations of the gods.