- Wu Dayu
- Untitled 5
- oil on canvas mounted on paperboard
- 38 by 26.5 cm.; 15 by 10 1/2 in.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Works of Representatives of Shanghai Artists in the Century: Wu Dayu, Shanghai Shu Hua Publishing House, Shanghai, 2013, p. 77
Works of Wu Dayu, People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing, 2015, p. 52
Wu Dayu’s Untitled 5
Wu Dayu's primary demand of art is "authenticity". He once said, "Painters do not have to be renaissance men, but they must be true men. They must be true observers who never stop striving to advance". This opinion recalls On the Childlike Mind, an essay by the Ming Dynasty philosopher Li Zhi: "He with a childlike mind is never false and always sincere, and one can read his heart at first glance [...] all the great texts of the world were written by such people". As Wu turned from figurative to abstract painting, the focus of his work shifted from external phenomena to internal images, allowing the viewer to more clearly perceive Wu's inner world through his artwork. In this way, Untitled 5 (Lot 1008) demonstrates the way in which Wu Dayu's genuine nature never changed throughout the various trials and tribulations he suffered.
The Projection of Self Image
Untitled 5 is one of Wu Dayu's semi-figurative works. A kingfisher can be discerned at the centre of the generally abstract composition. The bird seems to be in its nest, preparing to flap its wings and take off. Although it is only a nestling, it bravely advances, raising its head to the skies. Its eyes are round and open, and it seems resolved to progress. The bird is a symbol of Wu Dayu's self-image. Wu's original name was Wu Dai. In 1925, during his studies in France, he named himself Dayu (Yu: "feather"). After he returned to China, when Wu travelled to Nanjing with Xu Beihong, the two artists made puns about how their names were both bird-related: “Hong” means swan. Wu was also friends with Lin Fengmian, and the original spelling of Fengmian also included a bird name (Feng: "phoenix"). Consequently, whenever a bird appeared in Wu Dayu's artwork, it possessed a symbolic meaning, representing both the individual and his intimate friends in art and life.
The late-Ming and early-Qing painter Bada Shanren was another figure from Chinese art history skilled in painting birds. Bada Shanren was part of the Ming royal family, and following the fall of the Ming Dynasty, he became a monk. He painted birds in a peculiar, exaggerated style: their painstakingly enlarged eyes instil the impression that they, like him, were incorruptibly disdainful of the world around them. Wu Dayu was comparing himself to Bada Shanren as early as the war period, when he wrote in a letter to Wu Guanzhong, Chu Teh-Chun, and Min Xiwen, "I personally believe that art education, like religion, imparts rigour and respect for ancient methods. This notion can be traced back to the rigour of aggrieved persons such as Bada Shanren". By including himself in Untitled 5 in the form of a bird, it goes without saying that Wu sought to compare himself with Bada Shanren.
A Lifetime of Childlike Sincerity
The elegant profusion of colour in Untitled 5 is dominated by two hues of blue: indigo and azure. These hues are complemented by notes of orange, yellow, and green. Amid these colours, white feibai strokes create a sense of light and space that matches the dense colours. The result is a sense of balance between the concepts of "emptiness" and "fullness" that recalls the floral designs of exquisite chinoiserie. The effect is refreshing, lithe, and joyous. Wu Dayu's fortunes gradually declined after the 1940s and 50s, but he nonetheless retained his idealism. He shunned society and held fast to his beliefs regarding both art and morality. Indeed, the integrity of his character was tempered by his tribulations. His works from the 1980s bear no scars of the setbacks he suffered; rather, they seem yet more childlike and earnest. The purity and sincerity of Untitled 5 is representative of the artist's personality. Birds can be found in many of Wu Dayu's surviving oil paintings, but none of them are fierce birds of prey. Rather, they are fledglings that represent the artist's discerning ideal of maintaining his humane innocence.
The connection between Shixiang and Xieyi
As the masters at the National Hangzhou School of Art introduced their students to Western modernism, they simultaneously traced their roots within Chinese tradition. Bada Shanren and his contemporary, Shi Tao, were regarded as two fountainheads of Chinese modernism. Bada Shanren's freehand xieyi style precluded meticulous detail; rather, xieyi emphasises the expression of an object's spiritual state, as well as the artist's individual sentiments. The style embodies the words of the Song Dynasty painter Han Zhuo: "There are those who can say everything with simple and easy brushwork". In Quotations of the Bitter Gourd Monk, Shi Tao emphasises the notion that the artist must "respect" his or her own emotions during the creative process.
Wu Dayu's shixiang theory, which unites the abstract with the figurative, emphasizes a synergy of mind and matter. This notion is related to the freehand xieyi style of traditional Chinese painting as well as Shi Tao's ideas about respect. Untitled 5 is an oil painting and Bada Shanren painted his birds in ink; nonetheless, the birds created by the two artists seem connected in artistic spirit. In a few strokes, the bird forms come to life, possessing both shape and soul. They do not recreate life in a realistic style, but rather, they draw on the material form of the bird to express emotion and inspiration. Thus, the prominent figurative element of Untitled 5 conveys its artistic message.
Wu Dayu's childlike sense of wonder, in addition to filling his canvases, also filled his poetry. The following work was created during the Cultural Revolution period, during which Wu suffered many injustices because he had been labeled as part of the "landlord class". Nevertheless, the tone of his poetry did not change. Confucius said, "The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger, he cleaves to it". Wu Dayu's introspection and determination with regard to human values could be called a manifestation of such virtue.
Here, I would like to raise my brush , 1973
Here, I would like to raise my brush, I would like to make a mark here.
I want to bare my heart and draw something, though I wouldn't dare call it a contribution or something like that.
But I hope to do something sincere, to pour out my heart in front of you.
I am already an old man, and I also feel like a child,
Being poor but honest is a way to protect oneself. I have old grudges with the bean counters.
I will not require you to appreciate me, nor am I afraid of being slapped.
I have already waited seventy years, wishing only to share something for others to consider.
My clean hands hang loosely, with nowhere safe to rest.
I am certainly a son of the Creator, and I have no reason to forget the past and be indecisive.