It was an ad in the Sunday New York Times — a reproduction of a beautiful pen and ink by Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong — that led me to the Asia Society on Park Avenue.
By Mary Brennan Gerster
It was an ad in the Sunday New York Times — a reproduction of a beautiful pen and ink by Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong — that led me to the Asia Society on Park Avenue. The seemingly simplistic drawings with flowing, lyrical lines and images of nature that are pure poetry had me from the first picture.
The retrospective of the works of Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) is the first-ever in the U.S., and was organized with the Shanghai Art Museum. The exhibition covers almost 60 years of his changing styles and you follow his development from traditional to a combination of Western influences with ancient Chinese ink techniques. Early works depict birds, flowers, trees, and local landscapes in black ink. Snow Covered Pines of Qingdao (1976) is a delicate rendering, Albrecht Durer style, of a grouping of pines in black carbonic ink. The serenity in these woods draws you in and conjures up Robert Frost’s “Stopping by The Woods” poem.
Zhou Village, A Water World (1985) brings us into the scene via a bridge reminiscent of those over the canals in Venice. As we cross the bridge, we enter a village with a cluster of tall houses with iconic curved roofs. The villagers are indicated with small dabs of black ink.
Wu Guahzhong (pronounced gwan-zhung) was born in Jiangsu Province. His father was a village schoolteacher. After seeing an exhibition at Hangzhou Academy, he decided on a career in art, a choice he pursued despite his family’s objections. At the Academy, he was introduced to the styles and works of Western artists. In 1950, he won a scholarship to the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he studied for three years. He returned to China for patriotic reasons but carried lessons of Western art and artists with him. He was particularly enamored with the works of Utrillo, Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, and most especially Van Gogh.
When the Cultural Revolution took place and Wu refused to follow their artistic demands he was banned from painting for three years and sent to the “country” for hard labor and “reeducation”. He destroyed most of his oil paintings before the soldiers reached his home.
In 1973 Premier Zhou Enlai gave Wu a stamp of approval by commissioning him to paint a large mural for a hotel in Beijing. In addition to his painting, Wu wrote and lectured extensively about his philosophy of art. One example which expresses his view of abstract art is “the beauty of abstract forms is extracted from common objects and distilled according to the intrinsic qualities of form … transforming the common and useless into marvelous and the quality of abstract beauty is foremost in creating this effect.”
He celebrates the beauty of the natural environment even when depicting architectural elements. A Fishing Harbour (1997) is quite literally a sea of boats. The boats are simply amorphous black shapes diminishing in size as they recede into the distant horizon line. Each has quick gray strokes beneath the
m creating the reflections of water and the chop of waves with the flick of a brush.
The Great Wall (1986) appears at first glance to be pure abstraction until your eye follows the undulating wave of the “wall” getting thinner and thinner as it carries your eye across the miles. This wall is one moving and not the static, solid forbidding Great Wall we see in photographs.
Wisteria (1981) is a Chinese Jackson Pollock, with a delicacy and rhythm that actually sings. My fingers itched to pick up a brush dripping with ink.
Have I raved enough to get you to the Asia Society before this show closes August 5? This artist is my new passion. Unfortunately, Wu has been discovered by collectors and is beyond my budget. One of his paintings sold for $8.4 million in 2009.
The Asia Society is located at 70th Street and Park Avenue. For further information, visit Asiasociety.org/museum.