- Wu Dayu
- Untitled 14
- oil on canvas
- 75.8 by 53 cm; 29 7/8 by 20 7/8 in.
Works of Representatives of Shanghai Artists in the Century: Wu Dayu, Shanghai Shu Hua Publishing House, Shanghai, 2013, p.115
Works of Wu Dayu, People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing, 2015, p.61
Wu Dayu, Untitled 14
Wu Dayu’s theory of Dynamic Expressionism, which he first postulated in the early 1940s, has its origins in his time in France as a young man, as well as the ideas from Chinese philosophy, poetry, and calligraphy that he studied after returning to China. He combined these elements into an extensive and precise theoretical system. In an international context, Wu entered the Abstract Expressionist period around the same time as his contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hartung, demosntrating his epoch-making significance in art history. Last year, Wu Dayu’s World War II-era letters to his students at the National School of Art were collected and published, and the Beijing Academy of Oil Painting held a “Wu Dayu Documenta”. These developments have contributed to a thorough reevaluation of the development of Chinese abstract oil painting by international masters such as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, and Wu Guanzhong, and an increased recognition of their contact with and understanding of abstract art prior to their time abroad. The Chinese abstract oil painting movement, initiated by the theory of Dynamic Expressionism, is the equal of American Abstract Expressionism and French Lyrical Abstraction in terms of its contemporaneity and influence, and Untitled 14 (Lot 1026) is Wu Dayu’s greatest illustration of the theory that he himself founded.
Surging Images and Poetic Sentiment
In the international history of the development of abstract art, Wu Dayu and Mark Rothko share many commonalities. The two artists, both born in 1903, never met face-to-face, but both embarked on explorations of abstract theory in the early 1940s. Wu Dayu mentioned Dynamic Expressionism in a letter to Wu Guanzhong in April 1941; the following year, Rothko published his Manifesto in response to a critical attack from the New York Times. The work of both artist grew increasingly more abstract as the decade progressed, and by the late 1940s, both were working in idioms that were completely abstract—and notably divergent. Untitled 14 is a representative example that seems to embrace and envelop all worldly phenomena, its centre a riotous profusion of colour gushing forth from a swirling cluster of royal blues and exquisite purples. During the artist’s time in France, he learned about visual theory as a student of Georges Braque, the originator of Cubism. He combined this knowledge with the deeper philosophical foundation of the Buddhist ontological parable of “the Mustard Seeds and Mt. Sumeru” to form a theory of painting that combines East and West, ancient and contemporary. Wu Dayu’s abstract compositions seem busy and indistinct at first glance; further contemplation reveals their lasting strength and charm, as, in the artist’s own words, “the symbols disappear but the poetry remains”. It is this marvelous subtlety that contains the artist’s deeply concealed, ineffable poetic sentiments.
Energetic Colours and Lines
Wu Dayu’s theory of Dynamic Expressionism is wide-ranging and profound, and his abstract compositions exhibit a corresponding internal logic. The rich colour blocks and lines of Untitled 14 combine to form a visual feast. Gu Yue, an associate research fellow at the National Museum of China who holds a doctorate from the Art Department of Tsinghua University, praises Wu Dayu’s works for “combining internal force and topography in tableaus that flow like a landscape of tidal waves”. His analysis of Wu’s ability to accomplish this effect through line and colour is highly applicable to Untitled 14:
“In the early 1970s, Wu often used contrasting colours in his paintings; later in his career, he combined contrasting colours with rich tones of grey. He was also skilled in using black or blue as a base and then gradually adding layers of other colours. The result is dark colours with a sense of transformation and reflection, rich in-between colours, and bright colours that seem to leap forth from the canvas. These ideas correspond with Wu Dayu’s advocacy of ‘cautiously progressing with colour to gradually develop brilliance”.
Gu Yue astutely points out that the dominant colours of blue and black in Wu Dayu’s paintings lend the tableaus their power. Wu’s applications of colour, whether in line or block form, always possess the strength and sense of speed that is characteristic of calligraphy. Although Untitled 14 is an abstract composition, we can clearly sense that it is not a static work of art; rather, the patches and lines of colour contain an intense dynamism. This painting was included in the 2001 Wu Dayu retrospective exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei. The provenance of the painting is well documented, and its size-20 dimensions place it among the largest of Wu Dayu’s paintings. Indeed, it is the same size as Untitled 37, which set an artist record when it sold at Sotheby’s 2012 Fall Auction for HKD 9,020,000. The first-time appearance of this painting on the auction market is a rare opportunity.