CLP 99: 1988 “Styles and Methods in the Painting of Wu Guanzhong.” Co-authored with Hsingyuan Tsao

WU GUANZHONG James Cahill and Tsao Hsingyuan, August 1988

The Painting of Wu Guanzhong

A problem in writing about Chinese painting of recent decades is that it seems to exhibit no sensible pattern of change, none of the developmental designs that we are familiar with. History has not allowed that; there is much about contemporary Chinese art and artists that seems anomolous, even unintelligible, without reference to the convulsions of China's recent past. The painting of Wu Guanzhong is an example. Here is the work of a painter born in 1919, whose progress to maturity was certainly not retarded, but who comes to prominence only in the late 1970s and 1980s. And then he breaks upon us suddenly, as a new phenomenon to reckon with. He appears in a new flurry of exhibitions and publications along with some promising younger painters, but what we find in his works is far more than promise: it is authority, confident achievement, a new style. And we realize that he is one of the artists to whom we must pay most attention in our pursuit of answers, however premature, to the questions that press upon us: Where is Chinese painting going? How far, and with what success, will it attempt to join the world mainstream, and what will be the consequences for its Chineseness? What relationship can it preserve with past traditions in China, and at what cost to its modernity and originality?

Wu Guanzhong's art is not in itself especially difficult to undertand, for anyone familiar with the difficult progress of art and society in twentieth century China. His works are full of the features most characteristic of Chinese art of this century, features deriving from the meeting and interaction of western and eastern art. As China confronts the rest of the world, her long and rich traditions can sustain her artists, but can also be a heavy burden on their backs. For them, it has been a period of transition: straining, pausing to ponder, rising with new force. Aware of standing before the whole twentieth-century world, China's artists must address the problem of how to continue in their own tradition while learning from foreign ones, how to fuse western and eastern art into some kind of unity. Among these artists Wu Guanzhong stands out as one of the leaders. He himself exemplifies the unceasing distress and constant searching of recent Chinese painting, and his art is a crystallization of that distress and searching.

Over many years, Wu has been hesitating at the crossroads of the western and eastern traditions. His early experience of culture and training in art, which he can never forget, under such masters as Lin Fengmian and Pan Tienshou, was of course Chinese; but his three years of study in Paris introduced him to a new western aesthetic and influenced him profoundly. By observing his works in sequence we can see something that began as a confrontation of two artistic systems changing gradually to become a reconciliation of contraries. His distress has arisen from his having both a deep knowledge of the Chinese aesthetic, on the highest level, and a mastery of the realistic techniques of the west. These two may initially have seemed like oil and water, unmixable, and yet he could not choose between them. If he favored either tradition over the other, his situation would have been simpler; that he did not want to give up either has made it more difficult for him.

Wu Guanzhong's biography is recounted in Li Chu-tsing's excellent essay for this catalogue, and need not be repeated here. A crucial episode for understanding him is of course his aforementioned three-year period of study in Paris. We might be in a better position to assess its impact on his art if someone had made a serious general study of the larger problem of Chinese artists who went to Europe to learn Western styles at first hand. (Valuable contributions in this direction have already been made in the writings of Michael Sullivan and in the recent exhibition catalog China-Paris: Seven Chinese Painters who Studied in France, 1918-1960, Taipei, 1988.) In such a context, Wu Guanzhong's case might well stand out as near-unique. It is obviously different from the cases of artists who remained abroad, such as his friend Chao Wu-chi (Zao Wouki), and who accordingly have been more thoroughly absorbed into the foreign tradition, however much they may want to, and claim to, remain Chinese. But it is also different from others who have chosen to return to China after such study. Artists who make that choice are typically drawn back into the Chinese painting tradition after their return--presumably their choice is itself a sign of intentions that way. But in the best-known cases, those of Xu Beihong and Wu Zuoren, the foreign and Chinese styles remain as alternatives, not truly fused: realistic painting in oils, or ink painting in the Chinese manner, with only limited accomodations of the one to the other. We can note also that the adherence of these other artists to academic European models has inhibited their ability, and the ability of recent Chinese painting as a whole, to respond fruitfully to the transformations and achievements of Western painting in the 20th century.

Wu Guanzhong has gone much further than they in his integration of style across the two mediums and the two traditions. In his oil paintings he finds technical equivalents for the range of brushstroke types, the setting of sharply linear elements against broad "washed" grounds, the nuances of tone, that are typical of ink paintings in the Chinese tradition--a notable example is his (Oil #2). Conversely, in his recent guohua or "Chinese-style" paintings he expands the capacity of brushline and wash to achieve Post-Impressionist-like effects of flattened, all-but-abstract design. One can make pairings--for instance, the 1985 oil "Village Town" (no. ) with the 1986 guohua "Zhou Village" (no. )--that seem to reduce the difference in medium to insignificance. There are other painters, such as the overseas Chinese master Wang Chi-ch'ien, whose practice of oil painting has affected their style in such aspects as their use of color, or the submersion of distinct brushstrokes into textured surface. But it is difficult to think of another who can move so smoothly between oil and ink as Wu Guanzhong.

Having recognized this, we must recognize also that some of Wu's best effects, in his recent guohua paintings, are achieved through techniques that are impossible in oils. The style for which he is probably best known, in which images of old trees or rock gardens or the Great Wall are caught in configurations of long, sinuous lines, depend on the capacity of the Chinese brush to trace seemingly endless, even line, "like a silkworm spinning out its thread" (as an early critic wrote of Gu Kaizhi). The Chinese brush can do this because it is constructed with a reservoir to hold ink and a fine but resilient tip that can release it in the thinnest of marks; the stiffer, less flexible brush used for oil painting allows no such fluency, quite apart from the greater viscosity of the oil pigment itself, which resists this extreme attenuation. (The drip technique of Pollock, to which Wu Guanzhong's style is sometimes likened, was an escape from those limitations, and one that the Chinese medium would not have required--although the Chinese, too, had their ink-drippers and splashers, as early as the eighth century.)

The capacity of the Chinese ink-painting medium for linear renderings of form had been exploited by Chinese artists from the earliest times, and even after the line-and-color-wash technique of the archaic style had been supplanted by styles no longer based on a clear separation of line and wash, styles that employed a greater variety of brushstroke-types, some artists continued to use linear manners for some of their work--one thinks of Wang Meng in the Yuan period, Tang Yin in the Ming, Gong Xian in the early Qing. The graphic or linear styles of these artists, however, are usually to be read as cursive, time-saving renderings of forms that would otherwise be depicted with more care and detail. In these sketchy works, the line must move as if unimpeded, with an effect of casual spontaneity, while actually performing its descriptive function. Line, in these Chinese works of the later periods, is usually not proper outline; the artists tend to avoid bounding their forms with continuous contour-defining line, depending instead on repetitions and interweavings of brushstrokes into clusters of line without firm boundaries, sometimes (as in Gong Xian's works) compounding the contour drawing by retracing it with additional brushstrokes. Here their practice differs from that of typical line drawing in works by modern European artists such as Matisse, Picasso, or Miro, in which the line is more likely to have the effect of seeming to define flat or curving planes, cleanly and distinctly.

Wu Guanzhong moves between these two types of line-drawing, making free use of both traditions. In some of his works, such as the paintings of old trees, it is the multiplying and tangling of brushlines that constitutes the form; in others, notably his architectural pictures (including the powerful depictions of ruined cities) the line functions to bound flat shapes, which are usually presented frontally. In some of the finest paintings of this kind, such as the Two Swallows (no. ) or "Neighboring Houses" (#20),the rectilinear precision of the drawing and elegant proportioning of forms lead to effects of order, refinement, restraint. In others, such as Alley (no. ), the lines trace a more idiosyncratic course, and the resulting warping of planes seems more a European expressionist than a Chinese kind of distortion. The fluidity of movement of his ink-loaded brush is Chinese, but its movements, whether guided by his subconscious or independent of his will, are charged with the conceptions of modern western art. Here, again, Wu's distress drives him to pursue constantly the reconciliation of two contradictory cultures. In the interesting composition of his "Village of the Wu River" (# ) we can similarly find echoes of German expressionist style along with a notable impact of the Southern Sung Academy masters Ma Yuan and Xia Gui.

One may try to classify Wu Guanzhong's line by traditional Chinese categories, only to find it once more resistant to classification. Chinese critics distinguish between the free-running yousi-miao or "wandering-thread line" and the more constrained zhedai-miao" or "bent-band line." Wu's sometimes wanders freely like a windblown thread or a wisp of smoke borne swiftly on the air, sometimes bends to take a different direction before drifting away. Along with lines, dots play a major role in Wu's paintings. He will allow the line to pause, with the resting-point marked by a spot of diffusing ink, a place where one can catch one's breath, touching off memories of past experience. Or the dots can seem random, as if dripped from the brush or produced by spatter. If one says that Wu Guanzhong's spots and lines are reminiscent of Kandinsky's, someone else may say that they resemble more the graceful line-drawing of Matisse. They remain individual and unclassifiable.

Wu Guanzhong sometimes employs the outlining mode also for landscape pictures, such as his Pine Mountain (no. ) or Fishing Port (? transparency in envelope marked , vertical format, houses lower left.) Viewers familiar with older Chinese landscape painting will be reminded of some Anhui school paintings of the seventeenth century. Strokes of pale inkwash along the lines bounding segments of the mountain provide some separation in depth and make the whole more substantial. Others of Wu's landscapes, notably the Crossing the River of 1980 (fig. ), draw more on traditional Chinese practice in rendering both tactile surface, in dots and scumbled patches of wash, and convincing mass through volumetric drawing of the mountain forms, imparting to them a monumentality that is enhanced by their scale relationship with the tiny figures below. In still others, including some of Wu's most recent works, splashes of wet, diffusing ink function as areas of shadow, or simply to shape the earth masses; the technique seems suspended between ink-splash painting of the Chinese tradition and Western tachisme.

Wu's "Spring Mountains in Red Ink" (# ) exemplifies both his points of adherence to his native landscape tradition and his points of radical departure from it. The composition is familiarly Chinese, as is the manner of building the mountains with repeated outlines. But although a few old Chinese painters, such as Shitao, might have similarly used colors instead of ink for these outlines, none of them would have chosen such primary and contrasting colors. Moreover, Wu's line, while sensitive and agile, belongs to a type that Chinese connoisseurs and critics have always considered somewhat low-class: for them, it is too watery. Watery brushline in Chinese painting is described disparagingly as "like spring earthworms and autumn snakes"--so full of water, that is, as to have lost its vitality and turned dormant. Wu Guanzhong, although surely aware of this critical attitude, will not allow it to bind his hand; he has the courage to initiate what is in fact a new way of conveying the feeling of the southern Chinese terrain. The weather there is wet, and so is his line, dripping wet--even the spots in his painting, with their aureoles of pale, diffusing ink, seem to have dripped from the loaded brush that traced these lines. A wet brush is hard to control, especially on the absorbent Chinese paper; unless one keeps the brush-tip moving swiftly over the surface, the ink will spread out into amorphous blobs. Sometimes Wu allows it to do this, but mostly he keeps his brush fast-moving, for smooth and easy line. The affinities of his style with action painting in recent American art depend somewhat on this technical constraint, the urgency of brush-movement.

The broader, suffusing strokes of ink in others of Wu's landscapes, such as his Yunshan or "Misty Hills" (Fig. ) or (? can't find, very wet mt. LS), are also responses to the typical scenery of the Jiangnan or Yangtze Delta region. The climate there is humid, and often one cannot distinguish fog from cloud on its mountains and rivers, with the damp green earth joined without break to overcast sky. Wu Guanzhong's wet brushstrokes, far from being low-class, are a means of portraying this character of the southern China terrain, as well as of expressing his love for it. In his lines and spots we can read his passion; the line becomes slim and fragile or vigorous and powerful in response to his shifting feelings. So does the artist pour out his passion onto the paper, even at the risk of sometimes overstepping himself.

Wu Guanzhong's return to China seems to have committed him not only to a stylistic direction, but also to a repertory of subjects, that is basically Chinese. It is true that he has expanded the established range of "proper" themes for painting--older Chinese artists did not undertake pictures of the Great Wall, or ruined cities, or unpeopled street scenes--but these "new" subjects are familiar sights in China today, seeming only extensions of the tradition; and much of what he portrays remains comfortably within the old repertory, as with pictures of old twisted cypresses, lotus ponds, birds in trees, or steep mountainsides with travelers below, for all of which Chinese precedents can easily be found. Even his oil paintings, while their use of colors and their strong modeling are firmly grounded in Western practice, impress us as embodying an aesthetic ideal that is not so much classical western as Chinese. It may be that the rivers and villages of south China have impressed themselves too indelibly on his mind for him ever to forget them. The white houses with black roofs, surrounded by green water and blue mountains, occupy a dynamic space in his mind, to emerge in his paintings (such as Oil ptg. #5). The bright beauty and dignity of such a painting seem to return us to the world of the great Tang poet Bo Juyi, his Yi Jiangnan or "Remembering the Yangtze Delta Region": a bittersweet flavor, a strong nostalgia, felt more deeply the more one contemplates the painting.

The distinctive colors of Wu Guanzhong's paintings can be seen as still another aspect of his emotional attachment to the southern Chinese landscape. It is interesting to note that although his oil paintings are usually done in mixed or compounded pigments, the colors that he adds to his ink paintings are mostly primary, simple colors, all unmuddied and clear in hue. This distinction might be taken merely as reflecting a difference in materials, but in fact the coloring of his ink painting is an element in a unique style, a style derived in some part from folk art , and specifically the folk art of the Jiangnan or lower Yangtze region. It is permeated with a richly decorative feeling, reflecting the ways farmers there embellish their houses and their clothes, and how these patterns of color stand out against the white walls and dark roofs. Wu Guanzhong's ink painting is a vision of southern towns as they exist in his mind. If, along with the refinements of his paintings, we sense in them something of the commonplace, even (in the Chinese sense) the vulgar, it is because this colorful dotting evokes the flavor of everyday life in China. Looking back to his great predecessor active earlier in this century, Qi Baishi, we realize that Wu Guanzhong has somehow carried on Qi Baishi's practice of combining literati taste with common or plebian taste. But in some respects Wu has gone far beyond Qi Baishi in his evocation of the commonplace. Nor is his use of color like that of artists who simply collect elements of folk style and combine them; on the contrary, Wu has refined and re-ordered the colors until they become part of his personal style. His painting "Lion Grove Garden" (# ) is a good example; at first the spots of color and their placement may seem random and disorderly, but in the end they are seen to be ordered by Wu's sensibility and feeling, the intention of his art.

How one evaluates Wu Guanzhong's paintings will depend somewhat on one's response to the medium; this is a factor apart from the true merits of the works, and needs to be recognized. Western viewers, attuned to large paintings with heavy colors done in oil pigments that give a certain weightiness to the work, are prone to classify Chinese paintings along with drawings and put them, perhaps unconsciously, on a lower, "works-on-paper" level of importance. This response will give a painter who works primarily in oils on canvas, such as Wu's friend Zao Wouki, a kind of built-in advantage in critical acclaim over one who works mostly in the Chinese ink-painting medium, as Wu Guanzhong does. An instructive memory from the recent past is of standing in the Chinese painting galleries of the Metropolitan Museum and watching people emerge from an exhibition of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, and walk through rooms of fine and major Sung and Yuan scrolls without looking right or left. The shift to the quieter mode could not be made so suddenly. Even more, people enamored of the messy impastos and repellent or anguished imagery of the new European painting today are too likely to pass off painting like Wu Guanzhong's as lightweight, confusing formal transparence and openness with expressive thinness. Similarly, there will always be people who can be moved only by dense-textured and dissonant symphonic works and have neither the patience nor the sensibility for chamber music. Any painter choosing the ink-painting medium, paper as a base, and a fluent mode of brushwork risks being undervalued today; it is a problem for twentieth century Chinese painting as a whole, not just for Wu Guanzhong. If we add to this Wu's choice, in recent years, of serene and unproblematic Chinese subjects for most of his paintings, the difficulty for foreign audiences of taking his work as seriously as it merits is compounded. But visitors to this exhibition who can leave behind, at least for a while, such culture-bound and time-bound biases will find a great deal that is rewarding in the paintings of Wu Guanzhong, and may well end by including him among the most interesting and accomplished painters working today.


James Cahill and Tsao Hsingyuan, August 1988

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