Old Shanghai: The City and its Abstract Beauty
During the 1960s and 70s, Wu Guanzhong’s artistic accomplishments lay mainly in the arena of landscape oil paintings. A turning point in the artist’s career came in 1973, the year he returned to Beijing following a long, gruelling period of re-education in the countryside. The Beijing Hotel had commissioned Wu along with three other artists – Huang Yongyu, Zhu Danian, and Yuan Yunfu – to create a large-scale, realist mural entitled Ten Thousand Kilometers of the Yangtze River. Together, the four painters travelled along the Yangtze as research for the project. Beginning in Shanghai, they continued to Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, Mt Huang, Wuhan, and ended their journey in Chongqing. It gave birth to a series of oil paintings featuring the landscape along the Yangtze River., and among them is the lot presented at this season’s evening sale, Old Shanghai (Lot 1019). Of all of the documented works during Wu’s lifetime, Old Shanghai is one of only two of the artist’s oil paintings that depict the city of Shanghai.
Wu’s paintings begin from real images and landscapes, yet are digested through the artist’s own mind and imagination before materializing upon the canvas. During Wu’s 1973 trip along the Yangtze River, we can assume that the artist and his companions embarked upon their journey in Shanghai via the Waibaidu Bridge. This oil painting of Shanghai was completed the following year. At the time, Waibaidu Bridge was one of Shanghai’s important landmarks, as well as a symbol of Shanghai’s modernization and industrialization. Wu would have stood on the bridge, a view of the illustrious Shanghai Bund before him, the city offering up all of its singular character for the artist to capture in Old Shanghai. In comparing the painting with the actual appearance of Shanghai at the time, including its architectural landmarks, the building in the lower-left foreground and the boat upon the river appears most likely to be the Shanghai Rowing Club, established in 1903. In the top left, a section of coastline populated with a dense swathe of tall buildings resembles Shanghai’s bustling commercial street, Section 1 of Nanjing East Road. In the centre, deep in the distance, is a large industrial tower, known to all the older generations of Shanghainese as the Shanghai Television Broadcasting Tower, at the time China’s tallest building. These important Shanghai landmarks have come together, after being shifted and rearranged, filtered through the artist’s aesthetic sensibility, in the creation of Old Shanghai.
Devoted to the idea of "localizing" oil painting, Wu – in a painting whose subject depicts the Western high-rises of an urban city – nevertheless manifests the traditional Chinese landscape painting theory of “three distances”, in particular that of “deep distance”. As the viewer looks ahead at the high tower in the far distance, the modern buildings in the foreground appear in undulating layers, the dynamic brushwork firmly capturing the viewer’s gaze. The abstract blocks and lines represent Shanghai’s high-rises. Utilizing the special characteristics of oil painting, the artist piles layers upon layers to depict the compressed and prodigious quantity of tall, imposing buildings. Paying special attention to the relational changes between one block surface and another, as well as between brightness and saturation, Wu creates a sense of spatial evolution among the multiple layers of colour and shape. Using variations in brightness, he composes a scene of varying depth out of coloured blocks, resulting in a powerful compositional effect. Further, using the backend of the brush, Wu creates a sense of linearity as the paint scrapes across, rupturing the blocks’ feeling of intactness, creating multivariate spatial effects. Proficient in the techniques of dotting, lines, and surfaces, Wu perfectly captures the energetic modernity and vivid brilliance of China’s first international city, Shanghai.