- Wu Guanzhong
- Autumn onto the Wall
- signed in Chinese and dated 94; signed in Chinese, titled and dated 94 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 60.5 by 93 cm.; 23 3/4 by 36 5/8 in.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Kaohsiung, Mountain Arts Museum, Arts of Wu Guanzhong, 1997
Shui Tianzhong & Wang Hua, ed., The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. 4, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, 2007, pp. 100-101
Autumn onto the Wall by Wu Guanzhong
Despite the diversity of landscape across China, only Jiangnan, the region south of the Yangtze River, was able to truly captivate Wu Guanzhong, becoming the most enduring subject of the artist’s paintings. Wu was born in Yixing City of Jiangsu province but after coming back to China from France in 1940, the artist never returned to live in his hometown again. The canals and Jiangnan-style homes he painted became a direct outlet for expressing his longing for home. Looking at Wu’s oeuvre in The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong, one sees that his earliest paintings of Jiangnan date back to 1956, and continued until the turn of the millennium, as the artist tirelessly pursued and strengthened his lifelong bond with the region. In the 1990s, Wu’s artistic esteem rose to international prominence; he was awarded the French Legion of Honour by the French Minister of Culture in 1991, and one year later, he became the first Chinese artist to hold an exhibition at the British Museum. In the context of these successes, the extreme hardship he endured in the 60s and 70s during his labour re-education seemed to be of a different lifetime. Throughout these experiences, however, Wu’s yearning for home never diminished, and in his work Autumn onto the Wall (Lot 1008), completed in 1994, this passion presents itself, unattenuated. After roaming the world, Wu’s understanding of time, his meditations on aesthetic formalism, and his unification of Eastern and Western traditions came together in perfect unity, and resulted in this iconic work.
Suzhou’s Lingering Garden: The Start of a Fateful Relationship
The inspiration for Climbing Vines on Wall can be traced to the early 1980s, when Wu spent a period of time in Suzhou to paint from life. Lingering Garden was built during the Ming dynasty, and originally named East Garden. During the Qing dynasty, its ownership was passed to government official Liu Shu, who repaired and renovated the garden, and renamed it Liu Garden, after himself. Twelve years later, the garden was passed down to another official, Sheng Kang, who changed the name to Lingering Garden, which in Chinese is homophonous with Liu Garden, but describes the garden as a place of leisurely lingering. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Lingering Garden, along with Beijing’s Summer Palace, Chengde’s Mountain Resort, and Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden became renowned as the Four Chinese Classical Gardens. When Wu visited the gardens of Suzhou, he studied the rare stones at Lion Grove Garden; pondered over the wisteria at the Humble Administrator’s Garden, planted by Ming dynasty painter Wen Zhengming; and became enamoured with the Boston ivy that covered the white walls at the Lingering Garden. In his essay Chun Xiaoxi (Messages of Spring), he described the scene with great poetry:
“I’ve witnessed all of Jiangnan’s charms, but my favourite Jiangnan to paint is that of early spring or late autumn. When the leaves have been stripped off, and the trees stand, unconcealed, the curves of their bodies on full display, having gone from heavy to light clothing, and light clothing to nakedness, what they present is a beautiful nakedness that merits pride.
Inside Suzhou’s Lingering Garden, there is one side of wall entirely covered, to the very top, in Boston ivy. This expansive spread of ivy is a world of crisscrossing grids, with sentiments inextricably entangled within, containing no-longer-traceable eras of striations and braids, woven into the layers and folds. Yet the seemingly untrammelled extension of these lines of ivy are constrained by the physique of the wall; the vines refuse to shatter the building’s elegance, nor suppress the subtle grace of Jiangnan, which exudes an aura that is in deep contrast with the roaring, churning waters of the untameable Yellow River. These horizontal vines extend and twist, yet run in harmony with the horizontal edges of the wall, its vertical lines like rain, sprinkled over the Jiangnan sky; together, this clear and penetrating structure of lines creates an unexpected effect of mist and haziness.
The ivy upon the wall is a fishnet, a network of vessels, a wall rich with images. The artist’s trade has been hung on the wall, and it is the wall that conjures in him the thought of painting. Under the wind and light rain, this white wall is the perfect canvas, yet the artist has overlooked it, and the ivy has staked the territory first, so delighted it has forgotten its own identity, shed it to become a scaled dragon, a dancing snake.”
Time and Memories Buried within the Tangle of Vines
Autumn onto the Wall depicts a large stretch of a Jiangnan residential outer wall, it’s expansive white space covered in tentacle-like Boston ivy, extending from right to left, from the bottom to the top. Complexly layered, vines of varying thickness, of varying age, run through each other. Uniting with the blemishes and scars on the white wall, the image suggests that only experience derived through the ages could yield this spectacular joining of heavenly and manmade creations. The colours of the ivy, in addition to their true colours of brown, grey, and black, are presented also in the subjective tones of orange-red, verdant green, chestnut, appearing rich with vitality, like intersecting nerves, leading the viewer toward the abstract, in the direction of surrealism.
The vines on the walls of the Lingering Garden in Wu’s paintings are not merely beautiful in form, they also represent an abstract exploration of time and memory, broad strokes that, in a simple manner, capture and wield the complex. Vines grow slowly, standing for the elapse of time. The Ming dynasty dramatist Ma Zhiyuan’s famous lines, “A withered vine, an ancient tree, crows at dusk” similarly invoke the extension of vines to serve as concrete forms for the abstract concepts of age and death. The twisting and intertwined vines in Autumn onto the Wall express the concept of a life, ever-diminishing, but when interpreting it in conjunction the artist’s ink-wash painting Message of Spring, which depicts the same wall during mid-Spring, one sees that it also connotes the cycling of seasons, the metamorphosis and change that comes with age, and a tracing back to the past, into the depths of memory. At the top right of the painting, Wu has intentionally positioned a pair of swallows; this not only suggests that the painting is a partner to another one of his Jiangnan works, Two Swallows, it reinforces the idea of gazing back upon old memories. As if seeing the return of swallows he already knows, the artist is full of deep sentiment, and the painting makes palpable his feelings of nostalgia, the longings for home that arose while visiting the gardens.
Elucidating Jiangnan Aesthetics with Western Modernism
In his depictions of Jiangnan scenery, Wu stands peerless. His observations penetrate down to the finest details, his deep understanding of Western contemporary art serving as the theoretical framework for his deconstruction of Jiangnan. The beauty that is expressed in Autumn onto the Wall hinges upon the clean and plain white wall of the Lingering Garden. The geometric composition upon the flat surface can be appreciated through the same analysis that the artist offered regarding Two Swallows, saying:
Many of my paintings feature Jiangnan neighbourhoods with black tiles against white walls. To touch on the elements of form, one of the main features to note is the contrast between black and white, as well as the geometric composition, which includes squares, rectangles, triangles, vertical shapes, horizontal shapes…this intricate assembly of simple elements combines to create a diverse yet unified aesthetic form.
Here, the Jiangnan residential neighbourhood has been simplified into geometric shapes of varying sizes, establishing a rhythm upon the canvas. If one were to place Autumn onto the Wall next to a Mondrian, the connection between the two would be readily apparent; upon Mondrian’s simple and pure style, Wu has inserted strong elements of Eastern feeling, creating an effect that achieves perfection in its unity of feeling and place.
Evolutions in Skill and Attitude
Autumn onto the Wall is an iconic work among Wu’s Jiangnan canal paintings. Before the artist completed this work in 1994, he had created an ink-wash version of the scene in 1982. This simultaneous practice of both ink-wash and oils was not by accidence. By the start of the 1970s, Wu had already developed a masterful expertise in both Western oils and Chinese ink, and he began alternating the two, exploring both at once, explaining that they were ‘two blades on the same pair of scissors, experimenting with new ways of cutting. From [his] perspective, the localization of oils and the modernization of Chinese painting were two sides of the same entity’. (Frosted Leaves Spitting Red Blood) In comparing his ink-wash and oil paintings of Autumn onto the Wall, it is evident that in the ink-wash painting, it is the lines that are emphasized, their density and spirit; while in the oil painting, it is the brilliance of the colours that are the focus, their variation and texture.
Completed in the 1990s using oil, Autumn onto the Wall is a vast stylistic departure from the artist’s early works. In the late 1980s, the artist stepped out from the gates of his country again, traveling to India, Singapore, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, and London, engaging in painting-from-life as well as holding exhibitions. His esteem in the international art world grew rapidly, and the unrestrained, variegated styles of art that he encountered on foreign soil provided a different sort of stimulation and impetus from what he had encountered in his home country, adding dimension to his understanding of "localization of oil painting", such that the wisps of memory in Autumn onto the Wall are not merely yearnings for home, but his complicated, weaving sentiments toward life. His life, which spanned over 70 years, was a series of climaxes. There was the hardship he endured during his years at Li Village, his later return to Beijing to begin completely anew, then his years of travelling around China in pursuit of new landscapes, and finally, near the closing of his life, his last venture into foreign lands, in search of a kindred spirit in the universe, magnanimity and optimism blowing in his sails. If one were to remove the context in which Autumn onto the Wall was painted, and the vines were regarded simply as abstract lines, one could detect in them the methods of Pollock’s action painting, their expression of the artist’s tangled, intertwined emotions. The paths of the vines are winding, but not fluidly so, bearing an intentional unwieldiness, suggesting a knot of conflicting emotions. This sentiment, obscured, is made concrete by the backdrop of the white wall, making it accessible to the viewer. As Wu had stated was one of his objectives, he wanted his work to be like the "kite at the end of a string", never leaving the viewer too far behind.