Wu Guanzhong spent his entire life dreaming of Jiangnan. His ancestors were from Yixing in Jiangsu province. After he studied abroad in France in the 1940s, he never returned to settle in his hometown; instead, he spent many years in northern China, where the climate was dry and loess sands hovered in the air. It was only in his work that he expressed his nostalgia. Wu carried this eagerness and yearning with him, and for many years, he travelled around small towns in Jiangnan, tirelessly carrying his painting materials across little bridges and through alleyways. He wanted to pursue beauty and revive the southern scenes that he had spent half his life dreaming of, so he created many Jiangnan landscapes full of personal emotions. He was like a swallow returning to a familiar perch; he relied on a painter’s grand vision to take in the gorgeous landscapes of various places in Jiangnan and his hometown of Yixing, and he tirelessly collected source material. He deftly peered through the dense Jiangnan haze, exploring these captivating scenes.
During the Cultural Revolution, Wu Guanzhong was forced to stop painting, but by 1972, the prohibition against painting had loosened somewhat, which allowed him to restart his artistic journey. His creative passions came to the fore, and the next year, he was sent on a national delegation with Yuan Yunfu, Zhu Danian, and Huang Yongyu along the Yangtze River. They had been commissioned to make numerous sketches and collect source material for the creation of the massive mural Panoramic View of the Yangtze River. The criticism of “black paintings” meant that the mural never came to fruition, but Wu had the rare opportunity to visit Suzhou, Nanjing, and the surrounding areas. After making his decade-long dream of returning to Jiangnan a reality, he created a rich array of landscape oil paintings in the 1970s. When Wu Guanzhong returned to the Lake Tai area in those two years, he very likely encountered familiar little bridges, flowing waters, white walls, and black tiles, which shaped A Lakeside Rural Town (Lot 1012), a work in this Evening Sale that is the formal continuation of the Jiangnan series that he started in 1957.
Creating a Scene from a Commanding Height Using the Three-Distance Method
A Lakeside Rural Town likely depicts a lakeside view of Wuxi, a city near Suzhou. This area is part of the Lake Tai plain, which is home to broad rivers and a dense network of waterways, as well as typical Jiangnan water towns. A Lakeside Rural Town is presented from a high vantage point. The painter stands on a high point in the town, looking to the other side of the lake, which allows him to create depth. Clusters of houses and other buildings gather before the artist’s eyes as he takes in the expansive lake landscape. Wu Guanzhong’s work is rooted in his collection of local source materials, but he never compromises with reality. After the 1970s, he often moved mountains and created scenes in his paintings; he did not want to be restricted to copying the scene in front of him. Instead, he boldly selected and recombined source materials. The composition of this painting was likely created in this way, blending Wu’s subjective feelings and creativity into a tasteful presentation of a Jiangnan water town.
The spatial arrangement of A Lakeside Rural Town stresses breadth and depth, but Wu Guanzhong never solely relied on Western single-point perspective; his compositions and perspectives seem to draw on the three-distance method from Chinese landscape paintings. In The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams, Song dynasty painter Guo Xi proposed a special framework for multi-point perspective, which would allow for the depiction of landscape from different perspectives: level distance, high distance, and deep distance. In this work, the viewer looks from the foreground to the other side of the lake—looking straight out into the world is level distance. The solid wall around the town in the foreground seems to be viewed from below, which is the high distance perspective. The panorama is comprised of low buildings layered along the water; the visual field passes over the buildings and looks into the distance. This is the deep distance, like standing in front of a mountain and looking to the far mountains. This synthetic perspective is not restricted by the distance between objective things; it is an extension of a spatial vision. In the concentrated space of this work, the viewer’s gaze is guided toward the infinite.
White Walls and Black Tiles Open the Door to Abstraction
Wu Guanzhong studied in Europe and Asia, and in the 1940s, he received a scholarship to study abroad in Paris for four years. During this time, he was influenced by European art, which he kept as a reserve of inspiration that would last a lifetime. While he was abroad, he particularly admired Maurice Utrillo, who painted cityscapes in grey tones, and the seeds of modernism took deep root in Wu’s mind. The residential landscapes that Wu painted after this bear faint hints of Utrillo’s landscapes. In his essay ‘My Tripartite Pure Land: Grey, White, and Black’, he wrote, ‘Jiangnan has a lot of spring shade and pale colours. A misty grove of trees and a small bridge over a flowing stream have pale grey tones. My own oil paintings begin with the grey tones of Jiangnan, and my hometown, seen through the eyes of its traveling son, was permeated with a bright silver-grey.’ Ancient Chinese art was primarily dominated by ink, and when Wu Guanzhong represented variations in the grey tones with oil paint, he cleverly perpetuated the ‘five shades of ink’, the essence of Chinese ink painting.
In the same year that Wu Guanzhong painted A Lakeside Rural Town, he came back to ink painting. He moved between these two mediums, using them to supplement one another. Putting aside his earlier, more realist style, he began to move toward a less representational mode; he reduced details and avoided complexity. In his paintings, Jiangnan is concise and elegant. In addition to his use of black, white, and grey, we can see this concision in the structures of the geometric forms; the layered, clustered houses were simplified into geometric planes of different sizes. The roofs and houses are shaped with crisp brushstrokes, and the arrangement and combination of rectangles, squares, and curves have Minimalist and Cubist rhythms. If we examine the painting carefully, we can see the spots of red and green scattered amongst the white walls and black tiles, standing for clothing drying in the sun or budding flowers. This highlights the vitality of the image, but it also reveals some abstract beauty in a representational scene, foreshadowing Wu’s semi-abstract landscapes of the 1980s and 1990s.
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