- Wu Guanzhong
- Peach Blossoms
- signed in Chinese and dated 73
- oil on canvas
- 61.1 by 46.3 cm.; 24 1/8 by 18 1/4 in.
Wu Guanzhong Peach Blossoms
“A peach tree, verdant, flourishing, blossoming red flowers. A radiant bride brings happiness to her home.”
Shijing (The Classic of Poems): Zhounan, Taoyao.
The peach tree, in Chinese culture, has always been a symbol of jubilation and good fortune. As early as Shijing (The Classic of Poems), written during the Zhou dynasty, the peach tree was invoked to represent the joy of a new bride. In 1973, as artist Wu Guanzhong concluded the most torturous chapter of his life – having just returned to Beijing from Li Village, where he spent his labor reform, his health gradually recovering from the brutality of his experiences – he reclaimed a much-longed-for freedom for artistic creation. At the time, classes had yet to resume in the Beijing schools; that meant Wu was free to roam in and about the city, finally giving release to a reservoir of pent-up passion and inspiration. Later that year, Wu was commissioned to the south, along with Zhu Danian and Huang Yongyu, to work on the large-scale mural Ten Thousand Kilometers of Yangtze River, but in the months prior, Wu created many works in and around Beijing, works that were bursting forth with color, brimming with vitality. These paintings, including Peach Blossoms, (Lot 1033), were a true reflection of the artist’s liberated spirit, announcing the arrival of a new chapter that left his sorrows behind.
Wu Guanzhong has often expressed nostalgia for that first half of 1973, when he was painting around the city of Beijing. He once reminisced, “Riding my bike far out of the city, just searching. If there was nice scenery, I’d stay for a few days, the easel erected upon a lonely hill, nobody else around, my mind at peace. Immersed in the yin and yang of the painting, the worries of the world would be wiped clean. I’d be able to stand there for eight hours, no food or water. The exuberance of this energy, the absorption in this joy, how hard it is to come by.” Like the flourishing of springtime, Wu’s mood was exultant, and he completed many paintings teeming with vibrant natural scenery and objects, including Lotus Flower, Plum Blossoms, and The Crabapple Flowers. But most of these works feature one single plant at the center of the canvas. In this way, Peach Blossoms is an anomaly. On the canvas, two peach trees sprout upwards from the soil, the blossoms and foliage at the top joining together like the arch of a doorway, the branches crisscrossing, such that the branches from the two trees are hardly distinguishable from each other. The peach blossoms are in full bloom, their radiant beauty occupying nearly the entire canvas, suffusing the entire scene with an atmosphere of festivity and good fortune. The composition invokes a famous line from poet Bai Juyi: “Flying in the heavens as a pair of birds, connected on earth like one branch of a tree” (“The Song of Everlasting Regret”). It also invokes the word, xi (囍), a word that originates from the Northern Song dynasty with the renowned prime minister Wang Anshi, who was appointed to his post with flying colors at a remarkably young age. It was on the night of his wedding that he received the joyous news of his extraordinarily high marks in the imperial examination. Thus, he wrote the word xi (囍), which is a doubling of the word for happiness (喜), and posted it on his door. From then on, this word became a symbol for good news in both career and love. Wu Guanzhong and his wife Zhu Biqin, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, were split apart, separated to different parts of the country. It was only in 1973 that both were allowed to return to Beijing. They spent the rest of their lives together, reunited. The unusual composition of Peach Blossoms is perhaps suggestive of the artist’s hopes of reviving his career as well as rekindling the deep affection between man and wife.
Form Following Concept, Flecks of Color Animating the Canvas
Considering Ten Thousand Kilometers of Yangtze River, which he worked on between 1973 and 1974, Wu Guanzhong once said, “As a whole, the image in the mind’s eye guides the meaning; each local area, however, is treated in a concrete manner. This was my basic technique during the 1970s.” This explanation can aptly be applied to Peach Blossoms. What the artist described as “the image in the mind’s eye guid[ing] the meaning” depicts a process by which the artist is first visited by a thought or emotion, and then borrows a concrete object as a vehicle for expressing the thought or emotion upon the canvas. As the will of the subjective grows in strength, the concrete form diminishes, such that the work begins leaning toward the abstract and abstractionism. Wu Guanzhong has named this idea the “kite with unbroken string” theory. Thus, although the ostensible subject of Peach Blossoms are the peach blossoms in the countryside outside of Beijing, their depiction is highly subjective. There is a tenderness underlying the tough, firm branches of the two peach trees. The branches seemingly appear to be yearning to expand in every direction, like ivy or vine, a departure from the solid branches of real peach trees. Rendering the peach trees in this manner is on the one hand an exercise in anthropomorphism, infusing the peach trees with teeming vitality, and on the other hand creates the natural visual sense of the two peach trees’ interdependence and mutual reliance, highlighting a powerfully subjective emotional state.
Wu Guanzhong was very prudent in his use of color, and eschewed using color for the sake of easy sensationalism. The dominant red color tone in Peach Blossoms is an exceedingly rare of such boldness among the artist’s works from the 70s. Using varying densities, levels of brightness, and lighting effects, the pink color is dotted upon the canvas with unbridled virtuosity, the process of creation itself an uninhibited emotion, each fleck of paint representing a peach flower in full blossom, and even more so, the blossoming of the heart. Through the thick layers, the rich saturation, and the gray background, a striking contrast is created. If the dancing bees above the branches were eliminated, this painting could be regarded as an abstract work.
A Work Long-Held by a Teacher, The Gem of an Era
Peach Blossoms is being offered from the private collection of Wu Guanzhong’s mentor Huang Jixing. Huang Jixing, alias Qiling, was born in 1908. In 1922, along with his uncle Cai Yuanpei’s family, Huang went to France and Belgium, where he studied for five years. Between 1931 and 1937, he took a teaching post at Hangzhou Art College, becoming the school’s first and only French language instructor. In 1950, he began teaching at Beijing Foreign Studies University, a position he held until he passed away in 1981. Wu Guanzhong was a student of Huang’s, and one with whom he had a close relationship. In 1976 when Huang Jixing’s eldest son Huang Zun was about to be married, Wu Guanzhong and his wife paid a visit to the artist’s former teacher and brought Peach Blossoms as a wedding gift. This event was recorded personally by Huang Jixing on the family calendar. He wrote: “Guanzhong and Biqin visited, brought a painting of peach blossoms as a wedding gift. Extremely beautiful.” Peach Blossoms was not created specifically for the occasion of Huang Zun’s marriage, having been completed three years prior, yet during the time it was created, the artist had already infused in it the sentiments of joy and celebration.
In 2008, Huang Jixing’s son edited a comprehensive book in commemoration of what would have been his father’s 100th birthday, titled The Sages in our Heart: In Memory of our Parents. In it, the lives of Huang Jixing and his wife are intimately detailed, touching on their family, friendships, and life experiences. Also documented are the many 20th century art and literary works that were given to the couple as gifts, including Peach Blossoms. When the book was completed, Wu Guanzhong wrote a letter to Xu Jiang, President of China Academy of Art, requesting that the academy preserve a copy at the school’s library. Ultimately, this important document was collected by both China Academy of Art Library and the Zhejiang Library in Hangzhou. Peach Blossoms is one of the few works from the 1970s that the artist infused with a sentiment of profuse joy. There are two other notable works by the artist from that time evincing a similar style: The Crabapple Flowers, which has been collected for display in the lounge of the Beijing Railway Station, and Plum Blossoms, which commanded HK$66.8 million at the Sotheby’s Spring Sale in 2015, marking a new record high for the artist’s work in Hong Kong. The offer of Peach Blossoms is yet another rare and invaluable opportunity for collectors.