– Wu Guanzhong
Over old trees wreathed with rotten vines fly evening crows;
Under a small bridge near a cottage a stream flows;
On ancient road in the west wind a lean horse goes.
Westward declines the sun;
Far, far from home is the heartbroken one.
“Autumn Thoughts” by Yuan Dynasty poet Ma Zhiyuan
[English translation by Xu Yuanchong (1921-)]
While Wu Guanzhong is known for his quest for revolutionizing Chinese paintings using Western techniques, it is noteworthy that classical poems remained his source of inspiration and their imageries have been incorporated into his works, most of the time implicitly. Ancient Trees, whose composition is derived almost entirely from Ma Zhiyuan’s poem, stands as an exceptional example of his exploration of the convertibility between poetry and painting.
Comparing to its first rendition, a realistic oil painting executed in 1972, Ancient Trees deploys a minimalistic composition and a more dramatic use of colours. Revisiting this theme in 2000, the artist intentionally left out the cottage and stone wall in the original composition and instead fill the background with watery shades of pink, emphasizing the integral parts of the poetic imageries - old trees, rotten vines, sunset. The poetic lines were also not inscribed on the work as the artist believed “a large group of words diminishes the structural beauty of the composition”. The autumnal foliage and withered flowers in red, green, and yellow, serving as the sole decoration to the tree, amplify the solitary sentiment rendered in the poem. With the daring spirit of the artist, Ancient Trees attests to the famous Chinese saying that “picture is a soundless poem”.
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