- Wu Guanzhong
- Riverside Bamboos
- signed in Chinese and dated 78; signed in Chinese, titled and dated 1978 on the reverse
- oil on board
Shui Tianzhong & Wang Hua, ed., The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. 2, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, 2007, p. 140
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Riverside Bamboos by Wu Guanzhong
Wu Guanzhong ventured far and wide in his tireless pursuit of beauty. Often he found himself off the beaten path, a situation that resulted not only in an acclaimed body of work, but also shone a light upon these secret Edens, rarely known to the outside world. The late Ming dynasty geographer Xu Xiake also spent a lifetime traveling the country, creating a record that was both scientific and literary in nature, called Xu Xiake’s Travel Diaries; while Wu, through the lucid lens of the artist, feasted his eyes upon the country’s natural beauty, and created a series of outstanding paintings and travel notes. Between these two men, a resonant bond was formed and rings across time.
The city of Guilin plays a significant role in Wu’s body of work, a subject that the artist allowed to brew and ferment, and which he then refined over a course of twenty years. In studying the artist’s paintings, his Guilin series have become a classic subject of examination. In 1972, while the artist was stationed in Li Village for labour re-education, he and his wife took a month’s leave to visit his mother-in-law in Guizhou province. His stay in Guilin for a few days along the trip was the first occasion in which the city was a subject for the artist’s works. In 1977, Wu coordinated an excursion to sketch from nature with the Central Academy of Craft Art to Guangxi province. As there was ample time and adequate preparation, the artist was able to extract even more from this trip, and the works he created over a period of several years of Guilin and the Li River established a series that was complete in its depiction of the local landscape. Riverside Bamboos (Lot 1007) is undoubtedly a testament to the importance of this series in the artist’s repertoire – technically, aesthetically, and personally.
Conquering the Colour Hurdle of Oil Paints
There is a clear order of priority in Riverside Bamboos, which depicts a bamboo forest on the coast of Li River; the oft-centre-staged Li River, its surface still as a mirror, has retreated here to a secondary position, serving as a foil for the bamboo forest, directing attention to its density, towering height, and depth. In the foreground, the bamboo appears immediate and full of vitality; the swaying, hanging leaves appear as though gently beckoning to the viewer. While the scene, caressed by a gentle breeze, is depicted with an objective hand, the image is also bestowed with music and dynamism, the notes of a string and wind ensemble filling the atmosphere. On this spring day at Li River, the air is balmy, misty, its movements not only coaxing the bamboo stems to knock together, creating the spontaneous music of percussion, its force also tunnels into the centre of the bamboo, and bellows out the long, pensive notes of a reed instrument. Chinese music aspires to echo nature, to unite man with his natural environment; in observing Riverside Bamboos, the vague stirrings of a folk tune seem to linger upon the ear, transporting the viewer to the riverbank, where the artist once sat in solitude, quietly listening to the billowing of the water and the flapping of heron wings as the birds swooped for fish, pondering personal thoughts.
Wu’s paintings from the 1970s were frequently characterized by complex combinations of colour, depicting the detailed variations in colour in the actual landscape. The artist noticed then that the less variation there existed in the colours, the higher the level of difficulty in capturing the scene. In his essay Xianhua Huazhu (Some Thoughts about Painting Bamboos), he says:
“The colour of a bamboo grove is a single, verdant green, which makes it difficult to play on the colour advantages in the medium of oil; further, the slender and graceful reeds of bamboo, bending leisurely in the wind, seem also unable to express the uninhibited and bold nature of oil. Yet this verdant green is not a single shade of green, but its variance in tone is exceedingly subtle, reserved, such that only the clarity and richness of oil colours can do it adequate justice.”
After much experimentation, Wu discovered that overcoming this conundrum required meticulous observation of the bamboo forest, such that he could grasp the texture and tactile nature of the colour. In this way, even when applied to a large surface area, the colour would not appear monotonous. “In using oil paints to depict bamboo, what I want to accomplish is to depict that thick, bushy, wind-bending nature of the bamboo forest, that dense forest world of crisscrossing reeds and spring bamboo shoots”. In Riverside Bambos, the application of colour is performed with the finest attention to subtle variations. From the deep centre of the forest, the bamboo lightens in colour as it fans out, from a deep forest green to marine and aqua, and then light green. This methodical and thorough composition showcases the artist’s conquering of the single colour problem in his landscape paintings.
A Blend of Eastern and Western Composition
Compositionally, Riverside Bamboos has united the essence of Eastern and Western art traditions. As a whole, it adopts the traditional Chinese art aerial perspective used in landscape paintings, in which the detail and illumination of objects in the picture diminish as they move toward the background, mimicking our visual experience in reality. The river and the patch of grass to the right are the painting’s middle ground, while the bamboo on the opposite shore and the mountains in the distance are the background, depicted with minimal, broad strokes, a choice that coincides with the tenants of Essay on Landscape Painting (Hua shanshui fu) from the Five Dynasties period, which prescribes “distant mountains with no crevices, appearing faint, like eyebrows; distant waters with no ripples, high and level with the clouds”. This stands in direct contrast with the bamboo grove in the foreground, meticulously detailed and textured, expertly creating the illusion of depth. Even with the viewer’s eyes fixed on the foreground, the composition allows one’s imagination to experience the vast expanse of space that exists in the background. To observe this work alongside Winter Landscape by Song dynasty artist Guo Xi is to appreciate Wu’s adoption of the artistic wisdom of the ancient Eastern artists.
On the other hand, Wu’s treatment of the bamboo in the foreground and the mountain range in the back invokes the proportions of the golden ratio, a principle first established by mathematicians in ancient Greece between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC, and later widely adopted in artistic endeavours. Western painters, past and present, have used this divine ratio (1.618:1) in pursuit of compositional harmony. In Riverside Bamboos, the vertical central axis along which the foreground of bamboo is arranged and the horizontal axis upon which the cluster of mountains sits form a proportion upon the canvas of 0.618. And the quadrants formed by these two axes precisely split the scene into four independent elements: the river, the expanse of grass, and the two sides of sky, creating a balanced yet highly dynamic composition.
An Homage to Both Mentors and Home
When Wu was painting in Guilin, he frequently chose bamboo groves as his subject, such as in Scenery of the Lijiang River, which features a different composition from Riverside Bamboos. Within the span of twenty years, the artist painted this scene over six times. The impetus for this fixation grew not only from Wu’s determination in refining his ability to wield colour, but also points to details and yearnings in his personal background. The artist grew up in Yixing city of Jiangsu province, a place with abundant bamboo, and when he came to Beijing after the 1950s, surrounded by the arid air and sandy grounds of the area, the artist longed for scenes that reminded him of his home in Southern China. Further, while studying under the tutelage of Chinese painter Pan Tianshou at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, the aesthetic of the bamboo became etched indelibly upon Wu’s artistic sensibilities:
“My intimate and enduring bond with bamboo was developed when studying Chinese art with Master Pan Tianshou. In Chinese painting, structure is created primarily through the thickness of lines, and the creation of the form of each object relies also on lines and dots, or at least structures that resemble ink-drawn dots or lines. Master Pan particularly emphasized the magnolia and the bamboo in the basic training of rendering leaves and intersecting branches.”
Wu held his artistic teachers in the highest esteem, reserving particular reverence for Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu, and Pan Tianshou. Following the Cultural Revolution, when possible, the artist paid visits to Lin and Wu, though Pan had passed away in 1971 while Wu was in Li Village for re-education. Wu did not hear of Pan’s passing until 1972, and in the period of his grief, he commemorated his mentor with an ink-wash painting rendered in Pan’s style, titled Li Village, which he inscribed with words of gratitude for his teacher. Later, Wu also composed several essays praising Pan’s artistic accomplishments. Wu used the symbol of the bamboo to represent his teacher’s humble, lofty strength. It was not the only time Wu commemorated a friend through his paintings, as he later painted works in honour of his old classmate and Taipei National Palace Museum Vice President Li Lincan, as well as Li Fengmian, who he commemorated through a depiction of lotus flowers. It is not hard to imagine, then, that Wu’s return to bamboo time and time again was also an act of memorialisation, a way for him to express his highest respects to the contemporary ink-wash master.