Here, I Would Like to Raise My Brush
Luminous and softly radiant, Untitled by Wu Dayu stirs gently with a poignant internal momentum. From the elegantly shifting swathes and washes of azure, turquoise, emerald and lemon yellow emerges a delicate rustling – the tender fitful movements of a fledgling baby peacock, whose crested head and elegantly curved neck only just discernible from the dynamic abstract composition. Executed at the mature heights of Wu Dayu’s oeuvre, fluttering at the sublime liminal spaces between abstraction and semi-figuration, Untitled is a prime example of the great master’s finest pieces that take inspiration from nature whilst striding towards a realm of abstract beauty. The complex composition exhibits rigorous maneuverings of tonal variation, density and texture, but nevertheless exudes a soothing sense of peace that derives an almost transcendent power from the sublime energies of nature. Infused with an incandescent spirit, Untitled is testament to the artist’s own rich flourishing inner state of mind – one which prompted Former President of the Central Academy of Art, Jin Shangyi, to say in praise of Wu Dayu: “In his later years, equipped with excellent training and self-cultivation, as well as his robust passion, Wu’s creations exhibited remarkable naturalness. Although his circumstances were harsh, there was no bitterness in his works; they were uplifting and joyful, a testament to man’s spiritual strength.”
In 1922, Wu Dayu left China for Paris, making him one of the earliest expats – along with Xu Beihong and Sanyu – to study abroad in France. During his time in Euroupe Wu Dayu studied and worked in the studios of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and Georges Braque, the founder of Cubism. After returning to China, the artist and Lin Fengmian, among others, established the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts. Artists of such eminence as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, and Wu Guanzhong were all students of Wu Dayu, who, at that time, was not only the brilliantly talented artist, but was also the head of the Western Painting department. His early works, tending towards Romanticism, were forever lost in the ravages of war and societal upheaval. Sublimated by wisdom accumulated over a lifetime and honed artistic philosophy, Wu Dayu’s paintings after the 1970s possess the characteristics of Abstract Expressionism, combined with Fauvism and Cubism, both of which he studied extensively in his earlier years. This gave rise to a strong and distinct personal style, and Wu became part of the first wave of Chinese oil painters to stride towards Abstract Expressionism. His most distinctive abstract works are an extraction and expression of the beauty that lies in the composition and color of real scenery, taking inspiration from the vitality and exuberance of nature. The artist once said: “Deferring to form and structure does not serve the purpose of grasping an object’s image. Beauty exists in the space between the image itself and the image as it appears in the heart”.
As exemplified in Untitled, birds occupy a special symbolic importance in Wu Dayu’s works akin to that of a self-portrait. Wu Dayu’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 Dayu travelled to Nanjing with Xu Beihong, the two artists made puns about how their names were both bird-related: “Hong” means swan. Wu Dayu 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 artist himself and his intimate friends. Representing purity and innocence, the birds that appear in Wu Dayu’s paintings are always childlike and earnest, encapsulating the artist’s enduring ideal of gentle humanity. Indeed, although Wu Dayu’s fortunes declined after the 1940s and 1950s, leading him to suffer considerable hardship, the artist maintained the integrity of his character and held fast to his beliefs regarding both art and morality. His works from the 1980s bear no scars of the setbacks he suffered; rather, they seem evermore childlike and earnest. The present fledgling in Untitled looks upwards and outwards with an unadulterated attentive gaze, as if preparing to spread its wings and take off towards a bright and pure horizon.
One of the principles of Abstract Expressionism is to express subjective ideas, with the substance of these ideas hinging upon the artist or the creator. What makes Wu Dayu worthy of great admiration is the beauty and goodness that radiates from his paintings, despite his personal hardships. He once profoundly remarked, “Integrity is honed through the senses, and the senses are honed through integrity.” These are words that were born from his life and his life’s work. During the creation of the present work, Wu was not only transformed by the war, but was also a victim of the social movements in the 50s and 60s. Amid the cruelties dealt to him in life, the artist remained steadfast in his appreciation of beauty and his passion for creation. With noble integrity, Wu extracted the beauty of the world, and in turn used that beauty as nourishment for his integrity. Something as ordinary as a vase of flowers before a window could, under his brush, metamorphose into a resplendent, charming abstract painting. In this way, the artist used the “liberation of color and form” that he learned from the West to find – as is said in the East – “a home for the heart and soul.”
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