Spring to the North (Lot 1010) dates from 1996, when China’s economic liberalisation was well under way. His art having gained international exposure, Wu Guanzhong visited three West African countries and China as the head of an official delegation of Chinese artists. Subsequently, he went to sketch in Paris on the invitation of Seibu Department Store. In 1992, Wu became the first living artist to mount a solo exhibition at the British Museum. He treasured every opportunity to showcase his art and devoted himself to every work. Although Spring to the North is an oil painting, it recalls the monumental landscapes of the Northern Song dynasty. The vertically-oriented and largely symmetrical composition proceeds from the clearly delineated silver birches and rocks in the foreground, through the hazier and more abstractly-rendered forest, to the distant blue sky and green mountains. The compositional elements and sense of perspective and spatial recession are both indebted to traditional Chinese landscapes, but Wu exaggerates the foreground birches into awe-inspiring, skyscraping objects and the focus of visual attention.
The most remarkable aspect of Spring to the North is Wu’s colourful treatment of the birches’ surfaces. Silver birches are common in northern China. Already in the 1960’s, Wu Guanzhong had begun to paint silver birches, white poplars, and silver pines. The earliest extant examples are small oil paintings Tuan Town of Beijing (1963) and A Lacebark Pine of the Former Imperial Palace (1975). In these, Wu Guanzhong uses colours in a relatively realistic manner even while emphasising the textures of the tree trunks. Painting in ink and water-based pigments in Birch Woods (1979), he cannot layer as he does when using oil pigments.
In the oil medium, however, Wu Guanzhong would only experiment boldly and openly with strong contrasts between monochromatic values and coloured dots after his 1989 sojourn in Paris. Wu Guanzhong felt most at home in Jiangnan and Paris, the first being his birthplace and the latter the origin of modern art. His monochromatic aesthetics was clearly influenced by Jiangnan vernacular architecture, but he was infatuated also with Maurice Utrillo’s monochromatic urban landscapes already in the 1940’s, when he was a student in Paris. Returning to the City of Light several decades later, Wu was inspired to paint in oil again and went on to forge a new pictorial aesthetics that exploits the tension between understatedness and exuberance.
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