- Wu Guanzhong
- Lotus Flowers
- signed in Chinese and dated 73; signed in Chinese, titled and on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 60.8 x 50.2 cm
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 6 October, 2013, lot 538
Acquired directly from the above by an important private Swiss collector
Wu Guanzhong, Watercolour & Gouache Paintings, Sin Hua Gallery, Singapore, 1990, pl. 58
The Art of Wu Guanzhong, PG Publishing, Singapore, 1991, pl. 50
Shui Tianzhong & Wang Hua, ed., The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. II, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, 2007, p. 225
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Lotus Flowers by Wu Guanzhong
To see Wu Guanzhong’s art is to be drawn in by his charisma. As suggested by the Chinese idiom, “the style mirrors the person”, or the Western phrase of “The style is the man himself”, Wu’s proud and lofty nature is often reflected in his paintings of floral subjects, a subtle nod toward the traditional Chinese notion of flowers connoting scholarly cultivation. In early 1973, the artist returned to Beijing from his time in Hebei’s Li Village and resumed his artwork, creating a large volume of outstanding pieces. Among them, Lotus Flowers (Lot 1009) was particularly strong in its self-reference. In Chinese culture, the lotus is a symbol of purity and virtue, unadulterated by coarseness or vulgarity. Wu’s interpretation of the flower infixes it with yet another dimension of meaning. In the Paintings of Wu Guanzhong published in 1990, Wu describes his subject of the white water-lily as being “calm and docile, disliking dragonflies and frogs”, yet expounds emotionally upon the depiction of a lotus flower, saying that it is “a gentle flower, yet possesses a unique intensity of character”, that “with its rosy complexion, looks down upon its surroundings with haughtiness…there is a wildness, an intoxication”. This “intensity”, “wildness”, and “intoxication” stand in contrast to the more unidimensional description of the water lily. Wu’s own life was one of purity, coupled with a persistence and passion toward art that mirrors the nature of the lotus, upon which the artist has projected his own identity.
Unrestrained Rhythms of Colour
The composition of Lotus Flowers is meticulous and complete. A survey of the canvas reveals not only lotus leaves floating upon the surface of the pond, but long, erect stems, and even an emerald green reflection, rippling in the water. To create the brimming vitality in this scene, Wu made the bold and decisive choice to do away with surrounding scenery such that the viewer’s focus is drawn to the lotus flowers and their leaves, with a single lotus in the centre, like a central axis, creating symmetry between the left and right sides of the canvas, bestowing the painting with a sense of visual balance and tranquillity.
In the 1970s, Wu worked primarily with oil colours, using the techniques he learned at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts and in Paris, profoundly influenced by the principles of Modernism. After many years of painting from life, Wu developed a masterful grasp on portraying variations in the colour green. In Lotus, the lotus leaves – depending on their proximity to the viewer, their height, their angle from the light, their wetness, their age – are depicted with the free and effortless brush of the artist in varying hues, ranging from yellow to violet, clear blue, and grey. It is worth noting that the reflections of lotus flowers are rarely rendered in Chinese paintings; flower buds are depicted primarily through sketching and shading with the gongbi, yet in this work, Wu intentionally reserves the lower half of the canvas for the reflection of the lotus leaves in the pond, utilizing the thick texture of oil colours, reinforcing the density of the large lotus leaves in the background; the flower buds in the foreground are casually rendered with thick application of paint, creating a layered composition. In the Western art world, Monet is considered the master of water lilies, known for his portrayals of reflections of sky and forest upon the surface of the pond. Wu’s rich composition borrows from Monet’s wisdom, creating an exuberant symphony of colour.
Fond Memories Found in Reality
Although Lotus Flowers is a landscape painting from life, the sentiments that permeate the work are the long-suppressed emotions of homesickness and nostalgia. During the 1960s and 70s, the artist explored the undeveloped countryside, many of his works featuring the yellow sand and arid climates of his landscapes; yet Lotus Flowers intentionally draws the viewer’s focus to the lotus pond itself. If it were not for the annotation on the canvas, one would be hard-pressed to imagine this scene in Beijing. In the beginning of 1973, Wu returned to Beijing, but by the second half of the year, he was appointed to participate in the painting of the mural Ten Thousand Kilometers of Yangtze River along with Huang Yongyu and Yuan Yunfu, together embarking south to paint from life. Wu’s Lotus series was begun in that short period he had in Beijing. Among the works in this series, some have been recorded as being painted at Purple Bamboo Park. Beijing is a city scarce in water sources; Purple Bamboo Park, located outside Beijing’s Xizhimen Gate contains a vast lake, its scenery similar to that of Jiangnan, and the scene evoked in Lotus Flowers can very likely trace its origins to this location. Wu was raised in Yixing city of Jiangsu province; the scenery in Purple Bamboo Park must have aroused deep feelings in the artist, who used this pond to express his memories of his home.
For the Chinese, the image of the lotus pond is one rich with poetry feeling. For the sentimental Wu, the lotus pond was also bound to some of his fondest memories. While at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, the pavilion and lotus pond of the West Lake, where he often spent his afternoons, was one of his favourite subjects for painting from life. His first mentor, Lin Fengmian, was similarly devoted to the painting of lotus ponds. Wu was well-versed in Chinese literature, with a clear grasp on the classical verses pertaining to the lotus, yet in his younger years, he was more enamoured with contemporary literature, deeply moved by Zhu Ziqing’s Moonlight Over the Lotus Pond, the first poem to update and imbue the lotus pond with modern poetic sentiment. On his journey of oil painting, the Impressionists were the first Western school to influence Wu, and Monet’s Water Lilies were his preoccupation; Wu’s yearning was enlightened by his contact with these classic works while studying in Europe. On the long road of his artistic career, the lotus flowers accompanied him, always, appearing in various forms, symbolizing the memories accumulated prior to his return to China. The flower buds in Purple Bamboo Park must have evoked for the artist many of these memories from his youth.
Vitality Rooted in the Vast Landscape of Mother Nature
Among the contemporary Chinese masters, Sanyu is one who has also used flowers as a frequent subject of his paintings. While studying in France, Wu once visited Sanyu, after which he wrote the essay About Sanyu, pointing out that “Sanyu has painted so many potted plants…configuring the form like a tailor, making them complete and full; dense and flourishing leaves and flowers are often planted in disproportionally small pots, prompting some to remark that this is the tragedy of losing the big lands of nature, of being confined to a small space…I believe Sanyu himself is a potted plant, a Chinese plant in a Parisian flowerbed”. Sanyu’s plants made a deep impression on Wu, and after returning to China in 1950, he decided that the artist must be on his motherland to best express his thriving vitality.
Wu often compared himself to the Greek god Antaeus, saying, “Accomplishment in art is not a matter of will; when Antaeus’ feet no longer touched the ground, he lost that which made him heroic. Don’t I always feel the spectre of emptiness? I must return; my artistic career is in my homeland. Not to mention that my homeland is beckoning me to come back” (Wangjin tianyai lu). All of Sanyu’s flowers are planted in pots, existing under roofs, giving them a feeling of solipsism, of having isolated themselves from the world. Wu’s lotus flowers exist in the outdoors, and whether in the bloom of spring or the withering autumn, they appear in a nature that is tranquil, yet bursting forth with vitality. In Lotus Flowers, whether or not each flower bud is in bloom, what is interesting is that while Wu’s later depictions of lotus ponds include those with blooming flowers, those whose flowers have withered, those with only leaves, it is rare to see in one of his paintings entirely composed of lotus flowers. This image reflects Wu’s life journey. One increasingly feels, upon encountering Wu’s paintings, that the artist had reinvented himself, his career like the lotus flower before our eyes, revealing its brilliance and talent, radiating with stunning charm.