Excerpt from I Belong to Me,
From the musical Elisabeth
Throughout his life, Wu Guanzhong was true to himself. The many adversities that he experienced in his earlier years never dulled his passion for art or his pride and ambition. He lived by the values valorised in the famous opera Elisabeth. In 1972, after the darkest moments of the Cultural Revolution had passed, a six-year ban on Wu Guanzhong’s painting activities was lifted, and he returned from Li Villege in the Hebei countryside to Beijing to reunite with his family. Although the Cultural Revolution would last until 1976, this change of fortune instilled optimism in the artist, who experienced an outpouring of creative energy and entered a period of high productivity and achievement in the 1970’s. Steering clear of ideological quagmires, Wu Guanzhong focused his energies on landscape paintings, traveling broadly within and outside China to experience and capture different sceneries. This endeavour, which would last four decades, began in Beijing, and his works about Beijing are thus especially significant. Although Wu ostensibly painted landscapes, his true subject was his own life story. Art was his religion. He met every challenge in life by living to the fullest and living by the highest values. This year being the centennial of Wu Guanzhong’s birth, Sotheby’s is honoured to present his 1970 painting Lotus Flowers (I) (Lot 1008) as the highlight of the autumn night auction. Of a grander scale than virtually all of Wu’s other works from this period, Lotus Flowers (I) is unsurpassed in the sophistication of its pictorial language and autobiographical symbolism. It is one of Wu Guanzhong’s utmost masterpieces.
A Masterpiece from Difficult Times
Due to the paucity of materials, during the Cultural Revolution Wu Guanzhong painted mostly on wood boards refashioned from small blackboards and reserved canvas for his finest works. According to the Catalogue Raisonne of Wu Guanzhong and public auction records, he produced only about 30 paintings on canvas during the Cultural Revolution. Among these, the only ones exceeding one meter were almost all commissioned by museums or the national government. Lotus Flowers (I), measuring 120.5 cm by 90.5 cm, is one of the very few large-scale oil paintings that Wu painted for himself. This suggests the passion and inspiration that motivated the work, as well as its significance as a milestone in Wu’s life and artistic career. Lotus Flowers (I) depicts a mid-summer scene of lotuses in full vitality. A single, radiantly blooming flower stands proudly in the middle of the composition, revealing its beautiful petals and fecund stamen. The composition is balanced. It conveys a tranquil mood, inviting a meditative visual engagement. The lotus leaves are full of vitality and direct our imagination beyond the scene. Wu’s brushwork is exuberant and richly layered. Balanced between expressionism and the tactility of life sketches, the flowers are pictured from a upwards perspective, whereas the pond is pictured from a downwards perspective. This makes the flowers and leaves appear longer and more tensile than in real life. In the details, Wu ingeniously flips the brush around and carves fast-paced lines with the handle, showing his virtuosic mastery of the oil medium.
Beauty and drunkenness in the lotus pond
Wu Guanzhong rarely painted flowers in vases indoors, but preferred to paint flowers still planted in earth. His flower paintings are thus different from the classical western still life. He expressed his own joy of life through the direct experience of vital nature. After his 1972 return to Beijing, Wu often painted flowers in the Purple Bamboo Garden in Beijing’s Haidian District and produced a series of lotus paintings there. Constructed in 1953, the Purple Bamboo Garden was rich in vegetation and had a large lotus pond that recalled Hangzhou’s West Lake and Monet’s garden. Hangzhou and France were both places very dear to Wu Guanzhong’s heart. We may presume that painting lotuses recalled his precious and bittersweet memories. At the same time, the lotus is a traditional Chinese symbol for moral uprightness. As Wu himself explained explicitly, the lotus was “an elegant flower but with a fierce and unyielding character” and “stood proud amongst all flowers in a field of red… evoking an untrammelled drunkenness.” These descriptions of the lotus drew from tradition but were also idiosyncratic, and may be more properly considered reflect the artist’s self-image. Thus, his true intention in painting Lotus Flowers (I) was not to render a beautiful scene, but to express himself through it—it was an oblique self-portrait.
An abundance of spiritual energy
Other pieces of evidence lend credence to the notion that Wu Guanzhong painted Lotus Flowers (I) as a self-portrait. From 1973 onwards, he produced multiple lotus paintings in Purple Bamboo Garden. The first two were small works painted respectively in watercolor and gouache, and appear to have been drafts. Another painting titled Lotus Flowers (60.8 x 50.2 cm) from the same year depicts a bud in the middle of a dense growth of lotuses, suggesting Wu’s hope that he would survive and transcend the troubling times. This painting was sold at the special night auction entitled Nature Through the Eyes of Wu Guanzhong held in April 2015 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for the high price of HKD 34,360,000 after intense bidding by over a dozen bidders. After the 1973 Lotus Flowers, Wu Guanzhong accepted a government assignment to gather sketches and materials with Yuan Yuanfu, Zhu Danian, and Huang Yongyu along the Yangzi River in preparation for the mural A Thousand Miles of the Yangzi River. Upon his return to Beijing in the following year, he produced the 1974 Lotus Flowers (I) presently on offer.
Although the 1973 and 1974 paintings are similar in composition, upon close inspection the latter is clearly more assured. The lotuses in the earlier painting are alive but not yet blooming, and the leaves behind them are interlocked, as if shielding them, hinting at a sense of insecurity that Wu felt despite his optimism. By contrast, the 1974 Lotus Flowers (I) is 3.5 times the size of the earlier painting. Here the flowers are more exuberant, with one standing tall and blooming emphatically against the wind. The leaves no longer seem protective but instead support the flowers and emphasize their purity and elegance. It appears that the year-long, artistically fruitful Yangzi expedition put Wu Guanzhong in a much more confident state of mind. The 1974 work is suffused with innumerable buds awaiting their turns to bloom. If the central lotus is Wu Guanzhong’s self-portrait, then the buds surrounding it must represent his many talented contemporaries waiting to realise their potential. Not only concerned with changes in his personal fortunes, Wu Guanzhong expressed a broader optimism for his country and times.
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