In 2015, the Chinese Academy of Oil Painting held “Documentary Exhibition: the Forgotten, the Discovered Star”, an exhibition of Wu Dayu’s archives, and collections of Wu’s letters and poems were also published that year. These compilations and the subsequent analyses of Wu’s legacy served to bolster our understanding of Wu Dayu’s artistic contributions, leading to a comprehensive reconsideration of the origins of Chinese abstract art. Numerous letters written by Wu during the war years to his students at the National Academy of Art, including Zao Wou-Ki, Wu Guanzhong, and Chu Teh-Chun, demonstrate that Chinese abstract oil painting began with Dynamic Expressionism. Even before Zao Wou-Ki and others went abroad, Wu Dayu had already begun to consider and practice an extremely far-sighted style of abstract art, and he had an indubitable influence on the younger generation of painters. In terms of contemporaneity, the Chinese abstract painters, led by Wu Dayu, can certainly be compared to their peers in France and the United States. This season, we are fortunate to be able to present Untitled (Lot 1015), an artwork that represents the apex of Dynamic Expressionism.
One of Wu Dayu’s pupils, Wu Guanzhong, once offered this evocative description of his mentor’s paintings: “Wu Dayu has swallowed the Chinese concept of rhyme (yun) and digested the Western concepts of form and colour--he is as ravenous as a snake. This snake of rhyme finally ate the ‘image’ of form and colour. Then he incorporated into image the dynamism of movement. That is to say, he ate and spit out images of the human world with his seething mind, transforming them into something new.” Untitled perfectly reflects these words. In the artist’s interpretation of objective reality, physical “images” are “swallowed” by subjective emotions. All images are presented in highly abstracted forms, and these re-organized elements straddle the dichotomy of reality and void. The result is a formless poem that embodies the idea of “rhyme” described by Wu Guanzhong: the picture plane goes beyond “creative concept” (yijing) to depict the higher realm of Dynamic Expressionism. Wu Dayu’s paintings always possess a strong sense of movement, and the dense and compact plane of Untitled contains multi-dimensional cross-sections of spatial layers, forming a complex web of visual relationships that transcends single-point perspective. During his studies in France, Wu Dayu studied under Georges Bracque, the founder of Cubism, and this experience is evident in the subversive geometrical expressions and collage techniques evident in his paintings.
Wu Dayu renounced scientific treatment of colour favoured by Western artists, opting instead for a use of colour that reflected the cultural symbology of traditional Chinese art. In particular, he drew on the dazzling and riotous colours of Beijing Opera masks. The abstract structure of Untitled contains the essence of opera masks and costumes, particularly evident in the finishing touches of white paints in the upper right portion of the painting. Shapes compete to emerge from the riot of colours; the silhouette of an opera character suggests itself amid the abstract forms. The visual allusions to dancing performers offer heady and dazzling sensations to the viewer, and despite the painting’s compact dimensions, it generates all the dramatic tension of a stage. This artwork, along with the Guan Liang portraits of opera characters also featured in this season’s auction, demonstrate that Beijing Opera served as a rich source of new and diverse interpretations in Chinese modern art.
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