In his later years, Wu Guanzhong generously donated his paintings to various major domestic and international museums. In 2009, the National Art Museum of China, Shanghai Art Museum, and National Gallery Singapore jointly held a grand exhibition of more than one hundred oil and ink paintings that the artist had donated to the three institutions. These works comprehensively covered Wu’s artistic career, spanning more than seven decades. Since Wu lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), few of his early works survived. Many of his paintings from France and afterwards were destroyed, and at present, there are only a dozen or so rare pre-1966 Wu Guanzhong oil paintings in the collections of public museums. Sunshine after snow in the mountain village I (Lot 1030), featured in our evening auction, was completed in 1964. In addition to being an extremely rare 1960s Wu Guanzhong oil painting, this work is also part of a series with Sunshine after snow in the mountain village II, which is in the collection of the National Art Museum of China. This is the first time that Sunshine after snow in the mountain village I has appeared on the auction market, and its tremendous cultural and scholarly value make this auction an extraordinary opportunity for collectors.
Wu Guanzhong travelled throughout China’s famous mountains, forests, and rivers, and although he loved to paint from nature, he did not restrict himself to realism in his depictions. He did not simply take his easel outside and paint what he saw. Instead, he continuously sought original compositions within the myriad variations of his environments. After thoroughly observing a natural environment, he relied on his subjectivity to formulate a composition, preserving or omitting various elements of the scenery in order to create a vivid and original tableau. In his own words: “Time changes space: snowy mountains, windstorms, tall trees, and wildflowers are moved by time, creating extraordinary scenes within the illusions I perceive”. The two paintings’ compositions are similar. The museum-collected piece, Sunshine after snow in the mountain village II, is square, expressing the vast and expansive scenery of northern China, whereas this canvas, Sunshine after snow in the mountain village I, features a vertical composition, harkening to the vertical scroll landscapes of traditional Chinese painting. Other slight differences between the compositions are evident: in one, the beautiful mountain village is quite regular in its arrangement, whereas in the other, the village structures are more scattered and uneven. These differences are characteristic of Wu Guanzhong’s signature technique of rearranging beautiful scenes to create original picture planes. The same mountains, fields, and villages, portrayed at different times, produce different experiences and emotions. Therein lies the difference between a fixed photograph and a painted scene, for Wu sought out and highlighted specific creative elements within his scenes, letting the viewer experience the emotions that he poured into his paintings.
Wu Guanzhong draws on the Western technique of using swaths of colour to portray mountainous features with a three-dimensional structure. At the same time, he retains characteristically Eastern lines, which is extremely difficult to do with oil paints. In addition to using a fine brush to apply paint directly to the canvas, Wu would also use the handle of the brush to scrape lines into the oil paint, expressing a sense of movement. He scraped into a thick layer of oil paint and then used a new brush to add more droplets of pigment in order to create the branches and trunks of the trees in the foreground, creating a lively and exquisite effect. Wu’s meticulous brushwork combined Western oil painting with the dispersed perspective of the “three distances” method of traditional Chinese landscape painting. In Sunshine after snow in the mountain village I, the scenery is simultaneously depicted from flat, upwards, and downwards perspectives, casting off the limitations of space and time in order to lead the viewer’s line of sight into limitless space. In this way, the painting expresses the perspective and creativity of Chinese landscape art while also embodying the Taoist concept of the myriad natural phenomena, allowing the viewer to leisurely wander through the world of the artist’s creation.
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