In the early 1970s, as diplomatic ties improved between China and Japan, economic contact also normalised, and the two countries committed to developing closer cooperation. After China’s reform and opening-up policies began in the 1980s, policymakers emphatically promoted cultural diplomacy, and art was a conduit to further this goal. Wu Guanzhong began to experiment with ink in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, he became highly accomplished in the medium. Hometown of Lu Xun (Lot 1034) was created in 1985, around the time that Wu painted a dozen ink works about southern China, including the classics Manners of the Water Country (43 x 46 cm), Spring in the South (66 x 84 cm), and Mansions of Zhouzhuang (70 x 140 cm). The artist’s free mastery of ink was already evident. Furthermore, ink influenced Wu’s oil paintings and refined his artistic forms. He deftly blended freehand elements from Chinese painting into his oil works, which brought him into a freer artistic realm. The shift between these two mediums had the effect of liberating the artist’s most ardent passions. Emblematic of Wu’s new aesthetic, this painting was selected by the Ministry of Culture as an important work for cultural export to Japan. In 1990, this work was shown at The Master Artists of Contemporary Chinese Painting in Tokyo, planned by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China and other cultural and diplomatic organizations. Wu’s work exhibited alongside those of Xu Beihong, Qi Baishi, Fu Baoshi, etc., but Hometown of Lu Xun was the only work featured on the exhibition poster. In 2018, this work was included in Wu’s retrospective exhibition, Expressions of Pen & Palette, at the National Gallery Singapore, marking a prelude to the celebration of the artist’s centenary. The significance of Hometown of Lu Xun extends beyond the scope of the art itself and marks a historic milestone.
The Textures of Jiangnan: Wu’s Mixed Northern-Southern Aesthetic
Wu Guanzhong’s Hometown of Lu Xun recreates a water town in early spring, with the initial blush of beauty awakening. Having lived in Beijing for decades, Wu was accustomed to the silver-grey tones of a northern spring. In comparison, the notion of early spring in southern China is accompanied by the arrival of gentle winds and mild drizzle, and willows revealing bursts of pale green.
Hometown of Lu Xun employs Wu’s preferred palette of black, white, and grey. The white walls and black tiles serve as the central focus, made even more eye-catching when enveloped by a silver-grey water and sky. To the flat layout, the artist embellishes the big blocks of colour with green willows in front of the gate and small, red-clothed figures. It is a beautiful combination of two ideas of spring: the muted simplicity from the north and the supple tenderness from the south. Wu also incorporates Western Cubist elements. The painting’s geometric composition comprises blocks of various size, while the flatly-painted white walls are the primary patches of colour. A few new willows in front of the houses partially block the view, deftly averting a panoramic picture of white-walled houses, lending vitality to the plain colours and composition, and creating a subtle balance in the structure of the image.
Lu Xun and Jiangnan: A Cultural Resonance Between Masters of Their Time
The water town of Yixing was a place of childhood memories and lifelong attachment for Wu Guanzhong. A significant inspiration for Wu was the writer Lu Xun, who was born in Shaoxing, another water town. The artist saw in Lu a spiritual guide who clarified principles and profound ideas about life. The people and happenings in Lu Xun’s writings were intimately familiar to Wu Guanzhong, evoking memories of the artist’s childhood. In selecting his subjects, the landscapes of Jiangnan were the artist’s entry point, and from there, he refined his emotions and ideas. He explored more diverse artistic forms, expanding with a variety of mediums.
In the 1950s, Wu Guanzhong began painting scenes from Shaoxing, and he would return to the subject of Lu Xun’s hometown time and again throughout his artistic career. The painting offered here was painted in 1985, nearly 30 years later. Compared with the first Hometown of Lu Xun Xun (Oil on board, 46 x 61 cm) from 1957, the later work departs from the delicate representational details of his earlier landscape painting, in that he simply outlined the scene with indicative brushstrokes. This work could be considered a classic of freehand oil painting from this period. Even during the Cultural Revolution, Wu Guanzhong never stopped feeling nostalgia for water towns. Jiangnan remained a steady anchor for Wu Guanzhong throughout his life. For ten years beginning in 1976, he made an annual pilgrimage to Shaoxing, Yixing, Wuzhen, Zhouzhuang, and other water towns to draw from life. Hometown of Lu Xun represents the intersection of the lives of two literary and artistic giants of Jiangnan, reflecting the closely-linked scholarly ideals of these two men. This work, offered at the Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale, reveals a deeply nostalgic and personal aspect of Wu’s art and reflects an unbroken attachment to those beautiful times past.
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