The period after the end of World War II marked the second wave of Chinese artists who travelled to Europe to broaden their horizons. Among them was Wu Guanzhong, who received top marks in his art exams and won one of the first government scholarships after the Republican government recovered the mainland in 1946. He was in France around the same time as fellow student artists Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, who arrived in Paris in 1948 and 1955. Wu Guanzhong not only completed formal education at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, but he was also an early witness to the shift in Western art from modernism to post-war abstraction. Although the artist had the opportunity to establish himself in Paris after completing his studies, he returned home in 1950 on a ship called the Marseilles because he felt duty-bound to serve his country. As a result, his life path was decidedly different from those of his classmates Zao and Chu, who rarely, if ever, returned to mainland China.
In the 1950s, China was building a new socialist order, and countless idealistic and ambitious young people threw themselves into building this utopia of equality. Wu Guanzhong, at age 30, was one of them. Because so few of his works from the 1950s have come down to us, there have been scant opportunities to explore his experience from this period on an international auction platform. The Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale is honoured to offer Longevity and Harvest, an oil painting that Wu Guanzhong made in 1959. Based on The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong and public auction records, this painting is one of the artist’s 11 extant works from the 1950s. This is also his largest painting from this period, at 100 centimetres, and the earliest extant flower still-life, which makes the painting a very important specimen in the study of Wu’s early style. On the centennial of Wu Guanzhong’s birth and the 60th anniversary of Longevity and Harvest (Lot 1032), Sotheby’s invites collectors and the public to look back on Wu’s early years of extraordinary struggle through the lens of this rare piece.
‘Studying art does not take place in Europe or in Paris, or in a master’s studio. It happens in your homeland, in your hometown, in your home, and in your heart.’
Excerpted from Letter to Wu Dayu ,Wu Guanzhong , 1949
In the 1950s, Wu Guanzhong’s studies were starting to bear fruit, and he was in the early stages of establishing his career. Wu arrived in Beijing in 1950, and through the introduction of his classmate Dong Xiwen, he became a lecturer at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). In 1952, he was criticized during the Political Rectification Campaign for his unwillingness to follow the popular political model for painting figures, so he instead focused on landscapes. He was transferred out of CAFA in 1953, and he was made an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at Tsinghua University, where he taught watercolours and drawing. In the autumn of 1955, he was invited by Wei Tianlin, Head of the Art Department at Beijing Normal University, to teach at that institution, and he participated in the planning of the Beijing Normal Academy of Fine Arts. When the Beijing Normal Academy of Fine Arts was established in September 1956, Wei Tianlin was the Vice President, Li Ruinian was the Head of the Art Department, and Wu Guanzhong served as the Head of the Oil Painting Teaching and Research Section. There, Wu found a rather stable professional platform and spent eight years teaching. In 1957, The Hometown of Lu Xun was shown at ‘Plastic Arts from Socialist Nations’ in Moscow. In 1958, the artist moved into the Beijing Normal University staff dormitories at No. 18 Qianhai Beiyan in Shichahai. These difficult circumstances did not deflate Wu’s ambition. He lived at that address for more than 20 years, and it was there that he created countless important works. Longevity and Harvest was one of the first works he painted in that home.
‘This oil painting [Longevity and Harvest] is also realist in style. A bundle of sunflowers hangs on a wall. The flowers have large faces full of seeds, creating the impression of an abundant harvest. Behind it hangs a New Year’s painting entitled A Profusion of Lotus Blossoms, featuring a child with braided hair holding a red snapper amidst the lotus flowers. It adds the joyous atmosphere and folk sensibility of wishes for many years of prosperity.’
Excerpted from A Rainbow Life: A Chronicle of Wu Guanzhong’s Paintings, 1999
Longevity and Harvest is a rare reflection of Wu Guanzhong’s style in the 1950s. During that time, he completed his training at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, and encountered Modernism through Jean Souverbie, his professor and a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Wu also visited a wide assortment of French, Italian, and Swiss museums and galleries. All of this greatly expanded his understanding of past and present Western art. In Longevity and Harvest, we can see that Wu devoted himself to reflecting the modern spirit through classic realist Western oil painting techniques. The sunflowers in the painting are large and abundant; they have the realist spirit, but they are also reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers series, which suggest that Wu Guanzhong was inspired by what he saw in museums. He may have been proclaiming his respect for the later Impressionist master or drawing inspiration from a like-minded artist of a different generation. The scorching cadmium yellow and the open flowers express an intensity of life. Another interpretation could be that ideology had become gradually more important in the artist’s surroundings, and sunflowers were symbols of national leaders. Wu Guanzhong created just five oil paintings of sunflowers. In addition to Longevity and Harvest, the earliest and largest painting, he also painted A Sunflower (Oil on canvas, 45 x 38 cm, 1962), A Sunflower (Oil on canvas, 51 x 40 cm, 1973), A Huge Harvest (Oil on canvas, 74 x 46 cm, 1974), and A Sunflower (Oil on canvas, 73 x 54 cm, 1975). These five paintings were made from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, a special period in the history of mainland China. A Sunflower (1973) and A Huge Harvest (1974) are part of the collections of the National Gallery of Singapore and the China Art Museum Shanghai. It goes without saying that this subject was important to the artist. Longevity and Harvest opened up Wu Guanzhong’s massive lexicon of flowers, which he perpetuated through various other vibrant plants in the 1970s. For example, Lotus Flowers (I), which sold at Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale for HKD 130,773,000, and Lotus Pond (Lot 1033), which will be presented at this season’s Evening Sale with Longevity and Harvest, show that Longevity and Harvest was a precursor to Wu’s later work.
Aside from the sunflowers themselves, the background of this work merits deeper study. At the time, Wu resisted painting figures, but he placed a New Year’s painting that was common in Beijing in the background of Longevity and Harvest, which added a folk element to the work. At the same time, examining just the treatment of the wall in this work, it is possible that Wu was been influenced by Piet Mondrian’s geometric abstraction or Russian-French painter Nicolas de Staël’s abstract compositions. He may also have been considering how to present “water stains” from Chinese calligraphy in oil painting. By the 1970s, the artist was exploring the abstract beauty of old homes. When he returned to southern China, he further developed this into his well-known subject, represented here by A Rural Lakeside Town (Lot 1012). The work shares some similarities with his explorations of abstract beauty from nearly 20 years earlier, which is a point of academic interest that cannot be ignored.
The year after Longevity and Harvest was painted, the Beijing Normal Academy of Fine Arts was converted into The Beijing Academy of Fine Arts. The Art Department established a Wu Guanzhong studio. In 1964, The Beijing Academy of Fine Arts was renamed The China Conservatory of Music, and the students and teachers from the Art Department were transferred to other art academies. Wu Guanzhong was transferred to The Central Academy of Craft Art, and he spent years teaching there. He trained a new generation of artists, represented by members of the Same-Generation Painting Group such as Wang Huaiqing and Huang Guanyu. In 1998, The Central Academy of Craft Art was merged into Tsinghua University to become The Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua University. As a result, Wu Guanzhong’s final formal post was as a professor at Tsinghua University. On July 1 of that year, Wu’s family donated 66 of his works to the university. With this donation of the artist’s last body of work, the Tsinghua University Education Fund also established the Wu Guanzhong Art Research Fund, which specifically supported the study of his art and artistic thought. Wu Guanzhong is no longer with us, but he devoted his entire life to his art. Through Longevity and Harvest and his later efforts, these vibrant sunflowers have spread the world over.
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