Among the Chinese modern artists, Wu Dayu was the earliest to commit fully to abstract painting. As his paintings progressed from the representational to the abstract, their focus shifted from exterior form to interior experience. This was not merely an evolution in his style, but an aesthetic and philosophical achievement, a sublimation of his life and his wisdom. The essence of this expression of wisdom is centered around the idea of shixiang, or “Dynamic Expressionism.” Gaining a deeper understanding of Wu Dayu’s abstract works requires an analysis of this, just one of his vast and profound artistic theories. The recent publication of Wu Dayu’s collected letters and poems (Shidao and Yushi, respectively) have aided tremendously in the understanding of the theory behind Wu Dayu’s painting. Viewing Flourishing (Lot 1022) in the context of these records, one can better appreciate the depth of the artist’s ideas and step into his vast world of the shixiang.
As early as the 1940s, Wu Dayu had imparted the theory behind shixiang in letters to fellow artists Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Wu Guanzhong, and Lalan. In one of these letters [need to know to whom this was written. it was cited, but without attribution in this essay], Wu writes: "The beauty of shixiang is clear as ice and pure as jade. Possessing weight but not form, it is a more abstract beauty than that of any work of architecture. It is like the shadows of a piece of music, like the final, still posture that lingers after a dance, like a fine turn of phrase but not its individual words". In fact, the concept of shixiang is not to be found in modes of realistic portrayal, but rather in the traceless beauty caught by the mind’s eye as it confronts a scene, one that cannot be discerned by the physical eye. This is a concept that cleaves closely to Zhuangzi’s famous words, “transcendent scenes have no form,” and “transcendent music has no sound.” Wu Dayu’s abstract paintings are often rich with this dynamism. Even when his subjects are inanimate, there exists an irrepressible sense of movement, the colours and lines clashing and uniting and emitting a fervent and magnanimous energy before the viewer’s eyes.
In Flourishing, one can see that the representational, concrete form of the vase is drowned out by the riotous colour, bright light radiating into the room from a window in the background, further breaking down the structure of the subject. The fluctuations in light and colour are imbued with the artist’s passionate feelings toward the beauty before him. Flowers are an unending source of inspiration for Wu Dayu; he ceaselessly pursues them as a subject. In keeping with the practice of shixiang, the intent of the painting of these flowers is not simply to “reproduce” the physical objects, but rather to “express” the artist’s state as he stands before this thriving scene. As Wu Dayu has said, “Once you begin capturing the scene, those flowers are then folded into your own spiritual vitality.” As he expresses in a poem:
“I’ve fallen in love with the bright and clear flowers,
Spring arriving upon your face.
I’ve fallen in love with the exquisite white jade,
Its hidden depths concealing your splendor.
I’ve fallen in love with the lovely moon,
It is you who suggests tomorrow’s sun.”
In Flourishing, the brushstrokes are decisive and natural, the colours flying off the canvas, reflecting not only the artist’s full and delighted immersion in his work, but also the enlightened and rich state of the artist’s inner spirit. With this spirit, he plants the flowers blooming from his heart onto the canvas. By the time Wu Dayu was painting this work, he had already transcended the constraints of the Western still-life tradition, as well as those of the Chinese bird-and-flower paintings. Yet he held onto the traditional Chinese symbolism of flowers, as objects of great nobility and purity. In the upper left of the canvas, one catches a glimpse of a perched oriole, a delightful accent in this marvellous work.
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