Nancy and I just got a quick look at a fabulous exhibition at the Asia Society of works by Wu Guanzhong—an amazing painter we ‘discovered’ at the Hong Kong Museum of Art during our trip to the Urban Age conference there last November. (I am regretting more and more that I have not yet gotten to write up our touring Hong Kong [although I did write up the conference proper: www.rickrubens.com/hk.htm]; it is really an incredible city.) I put ‘discovered’ in quotes, as it turns out Wu Guanzhong (吳冠中), who died at 90 in 2010, is an extremely famous painter, considered by many to be the father of modern Chinese painting. His obituary in the Hong Kong South China Morning Post described him as “one of the most important figures of 20th-century Chinese art”; and the NY Times just a few days ago ran an article by Jane Perlez (“China Extends Reach Into International Art”) which features Wu and this exhibition.
We cannot wait to get back to the Asia Society to spend more time in this great exhibition, Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong, and I encourage you to do so as well. It is on until 5 August 2012:
24 April 2012 - 5 August 2012
725 Park Avenue (at 70th
New York, NY 10021
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday, 11:00 am - 6:00 pm, with extended evening hours Fridays until 9:00 pm (except for July 1 through Labor Day, when it closes at 6:00 pm on Fridays). The Museum Galleries are closed on Mondays.
Wu Guanzhong went to Paris to study at the École Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-arts in 1947. He returned to China in 1950, bringing with him many aspects of Western art, but returning to traditional Chinese themes and techniques as well. He was sent to a labor camp during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and many of his earlier works were destroyed; his career did not actually takeoff until the late 70s.
Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong, organized by the Shanghai Art Museum (to which Wu donated 113 of his works in 2008) and Asia Society Museum, displays examples of his work from the mid-1970s to 2004, focusing on his works in the medium of ink. As the Asia Society’s website notes,
It is notable that Wu began to work more extensively in ink in the 1970s in his mid-career—turning to a traditional medium at a time when most artists looked to western art for inspiration. The exhibition traces the development of Wu’s work during this period with a thematic focus illuminating the rich historical legacy of ink painting in China, and also representing his radical individual style steeped in his strong belief in formalist principles. Wu pushed the boundaries of our understanding of how a traditional medium of ink can be made new for a new century.
I have included the complete website description and the Asia Society’s press release at the end of this piece.
Here are some wonderful images from the show:
This one captures some of the vitality that Wu introduces with his use of color:
Pines, 1995, ink and color on paper, 140 x 179 cm, Shanghai Art Museum.
This one, which is the image in the full-page ad that ran in Friday’s NY Times, is wonderfully reminiscent of traditional Chinese landscape painting, yet at the same time so different in its modernity:
Pines and Rockes in the Lao Mountains, 1987, ink and color on rice paper, Shanghai Art Museum.
Lion Woods, 1983, ink and color on rice paper, 173 x 290 cm, Shanghai Art Museum
I particularly enjoyed this cityscape:
Chongqing of the Old Times, 1997, ink and color on rice paper, 145 x 368 cm, Shanghai Art Museum.
Here is one we loved from the exhibition in Hong Kong:
Home of Man, 1999, ink and color on rice paper, 69 x 69 cm, Shanghai Art Museum.
A Big Manor, 2001, ink and color on rice paper, 70 x 140 cm, Shanghai Art Museum.
24 April 2012 - 5 August 2012
Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010) stands as one of the most important artists of twentieth-century China. Born in Jiangsu Province, Wu studied art at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou (today’s China Academy of Art) and, from 1947, in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts. He returned to China after three years and taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His works were condemned before and during the Cultural Revolution because his oil paintings did not comply with the political interests of the time. In spite of this he continued to paint and emerged as a national cultural figure whose works came to be celebrated inside and outside China. He is also well known for his eloquent writings on art and creativity that sometimes led to controversies and spawned heated debates among Chinese artists and intellectuals. Wu Guanzhong created works that embody many of the major shifts and tensions in twentieth-century Chinese art—raising questions around individualism, formalism, and the relationship between modernism and cultural traditions.
With a career spanning over sixty years, the selection of paintings in this exhibition focuses on some of his best works in the medium of ink and spans the decades from the mid-1970s to 2004. It is notable that Wu began to work more extensively in ink in the 1970s in his mid-career—turning to a traditional medium at a time when most artists looked to western art for inspiration. The exhibition traces the development of Wu’s work during this period with a thematic focus illuminating the rich historical legacy of ink painting in China, and also representing his radical individual style steeped in his strong belief in formalist principles. Wu pushed the boundaries of our understanding of how a traditional medium of ink can be made new for a new century.
Lion Woods, 1983, ink and color on rice paper, 173 x 290 cm, Shanghai Art Museum
Wu Guanzhong often compared his revolutionary approach to ink painting to the way a kite is navigated; not flying too far from the ground. The use of ink and wash clearly reveals his solid grounding in the centuries-old tradition of Chinese ink landscape painting. Monumental mountains in Wu’s paintings echo the regal presence of mountain peaks in the iconic landscape painting Early Spring by Guo Xi (1000–ca. 1090), dated to 1072. Some other works by Wu show influences of painters from the Song dynasty (960–1279) to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) in the compositions and the types of brushstrokes he uses to add a variation in texture and an atmospheric effect. However, he has also created works that are fundamentally different from the tradition, particularly in his use of bright colors, liberal use of wash, and radical compositions based on an interest in formalism. This section comprises several examples of drawings from nature that Wu produced during his sketching trips throughout China and paintings from the late 1970s to 2000 that trace his constant reflection on tradition and experimentation.
Architecture and the Everyday
A Big Manor, 2001, ink and color on rice paper, 70 x 140 cm, Shanghai Art Museum.
Where traditional ink paintings emphasized the grandeur and majesty of the natural environment over small-scale pavilions or other architectural elements, the most distinct compositions that Wu created are found in those paintings depicting rural yet grand homes and towns that emphasize a constructed, man-made environment. Rather than including buildings as a small part of painting, he extracted geometric beauty and a structural rhythm from architecture. To Wu, whether artists are painting buildings, mountains, rivers, grass, or trees, it is of primary importance that they paint with feeling.
Alienation, 1992, ink and color on rice paper, 69 x 138 cm, Shanghai Art Museum.
In his later period Wu’s landscapes became more and more abstracted. Most of these works are from after 1990 and show an intention to represent states of being, emotions, and concepts over more realistic representation. For example, rather than showing birds-eye or long-view perspectives usually associated with ink landscape paintings, the works provide a closer view as if the viewer is fully immersed in the environment. On this subject he has said, “I want to express the transformations in space and time that occur in my mind. The many forms I see with my eyes inspire the unpredictable transformations that I haven’t yet seen.”
Quotes from Wu Guanzhong
Select Quotes of Wu Guanzhong from Abstraction and Form, Meishu (Fine Arts) in 1992, translated by Valerie C. Doran for the exhibition catalogue Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong (New York: Asia Society, 2012)
"The beauty of abstract form is extracted from concrete objects and distilled according to the intrinsic qualities of the form. The art of root carving retains certain concrete aspects, and it is considered very beautiful. This is called transforming the common and useless into the marvelous and the quality of abstract beauty is foremost in creating this effect. On the other hand, we also see some artworks that transform the marvelous into something common and useless."
"The relationship between semblance and non-semblance is in fact the same as the relationship between concrete and abstract. What exactly constitutes spirit resonance and lifelike motion (qiyun shengdong) in Chinese traditional painting? Whether in landscape or in flower-and-bird painting, it lies in the expressive difference between motion that has spirit resonance and motion that does not. Within this there is the question of the harmony or conflict between the abstract and the concrete, and the factor of either beauty or ugliness that hovers just beyond. The principle of analysis for form is the same as for music."
"The fundamental elements of formal beauty comprise form, color, and rhythm. I used eastern rhythms in the absorption of western form and color, like a snake swallowing an elephant. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t gulp it all down and I switched to using [Chinese] ink. This is why in the mid-1970s I began creating a large number of ink paintings. As of today in my explorations I still shift between oil and ink. Oil paint and ink are two blades of the same pair of scissors used to cut the pattern for a whole new suit. To nationalize oil painting and to modernize Chinese painting: in my view these are two sides of the same face."
"Brush-and-ink is misunderstood as being the only choice for life and the future path of Chinese painting, and the standards of brush-and-ink painting are used to judge whether any work is good or bad. Brush-and-ink is a technique. Brushwork is embodied within technique, technique is not embodied within brushwork, and technique is only a means that serves the artist in the expression of his emotions."
"Whenever I am at an impasse, I turn to natural scenery. In nature I can reveal my true feelings to the mountains and rivers: my depth of feelings toward the motherland and my love toward my people. I set off from my own native village and Lu Xun’s native soil."
This exhibition has been organized by the Shanghai Art Museum and Asia Society Museum.
The curators of the exhibition are Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum, and Lu Huan, Shanghai Art Museum.
Asia Society Museum Staff
Melissa Chiu, Museum Director and Senior Vice President, Global Arts and Cultural Programs
Marion Kocot, Director, Museum Operations
Nancy Blume, Head of Museum Education Programs
Clare McGowan, Collections Manager and Registrar
Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art
Jacob M. Reynolds, Associate Registrar
Miwako Tezuka, Associate Curator
Davis Thompson-Moss, Installation Manager
Donna Saunders, Executive Assistant
Contact: Elaine Merguerian 212.327.9271, firstname.lastname@example.org
ASIA SOCIETY MUSEUM PRESENTS FIRST U.S. RETROSPECTIVE OF ONE OF CHINA’S MOST IMPORTANT ARTISTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
REVOLUTIONARY INK: THE PAINTINGS OF WU GUANZHONG
On view April 25 through August 5, 2012
Media preview and private exhibition viewing: April 24, 2012 at 4:00 p.m.
Wu Guanzhong, Pines, 1995, ink and color on paper, H. 55.1 x W. 70.5 in. (H. 140 x W. 179 cm), Shanghai Art Museum.
Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong celebrates the sixty-year career of Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010), one of China’s most significant and admired twentieth century artists. This first-ever major retrospective, organized in collaboration with the Shanghai Art Museum, traces the artist’s development in the medium of ink painting from the mid-1970s through 2004. Exhibition works represent Wu’s radical individual approach that integrates European modernism and abstract expressionism with traditional Chinese ink painting.
Wu lived in tumultuous times; persecuted during the Cultural Revolution at a time when western art was decried, he was forced to abandon painting and he destroyed most of his works in oil. However, he persevered, continuing to paint and draw even when he was sent to the countryside for hard labor and reeducation.
“Wu Guanzhong is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century,” says Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum Director and Senior Vice President of Global Arts and Culture Programs. “He revitalized and reinvigorated Chinese traditional ink painting at a time when most artists were turning to western art for inspiration. We are grateful to the Shanghai Art Museum for collaborating with us on this exhibition, which celebrates his legacy as a modern master who pushes the boundaries of our understanding of how a traditional medium like ink can be made new for a new century.”
725 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021-5088
Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong is curated by Chiu and Lu Huan, Curator, Shanghai Art Museum.
About the artist
Wu Guanzhong, A Big Manor, 2001. Ink on rice paper, H. 27 9/16 x W. 55 1/8 in.
(H 70 x Q. 140 cm), Shanghai Art Museum.
Born in 1919 in Jiangsu Province, Wu Guanzhong enrolled in the acclaimed Hangzhou Art School (today’s China Academy of Art in Hangzhou) in 1936. At the age of 27, he left to study in Paris at the École National Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, where he studied western painting traditions and methodologies. After three profoundly influential years, he chose to return to China for patriotic reasons, to teach at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Painting in oil, he developed an original style that combined both traditional Chinese ink painting and western techniques of watercolor and oil painting, and became a mentor to a new generation of Chinese painters.
However, his paintings, which were influenced by both western art and formalism rather than the then accepted style of Social Realism, along with his writings soon led to trouble with the authorities. As the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, Wu destroyed most of his works before the Red Guards searched his house and confiscated his properties. Wu was still heavily persecuted during the revolution as a bourgeois formalist and was forbidden to paint, write or teach for two years. He was sent to the remote rural countryside and subjected to reeducation through hard labor. Yet in spite of harsh living conditions, he continued to paint whenever he could, and eventually was allowed to teach an oil painting class for the army in Hebei province.
Finally in 1973, his living conditions began to improve when Premier Zhou Enlai commissioned him to paint a large mural in a Beijing hotel. Wu was reunited with his family, and also around this time, began to paint in ink. His resulting ink painting “Chongqing the Riverside City” launched a new stage of his career in a country now more receptive to his ideas. Somewhat ironically, Wu went against the tide in returning to ink at a time when many of his students, most born in the 1950s, became greatly interested in European and American oil painting and, they adopted subjects and compositions of Western European art and experimented in styles as diverse as surrealism and expressionism.
In 1978, at age 59, he had his first solo show since his return to China in 1950, which traveled throughout the country. He continued to paint in ink, creating landscapes distinguished by their expressive line and unusual application of color. In 1985, an exhibition of his latest works was shown at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, followed by a solo exhibition at the British Museum in 1992. Late in his life, he traveled widely throughout China and other parts of Asia, as well as to Europe, to attend a series of his solo exhibitions and to give lectures on those occasions. His prolific career as a writer on his philosophy of art has produced numerous monographic publications in various languages. Wu died in Beijing in 2010 at the age of ninety.
Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong is organized thematically into three sections that evoke Wu’s approach to the medium of ink and account for distinct genres of his practice. Landscape, the first, emphasizes the ink and wash painting tradition while showing the departure from tradition that some of his work represents, for example, in the random use of color. The section comprises paintings from the late 1980s and 1990s, representing views of high altitude mountains in vertical format, or expansive horizontal landscapes, in which he used ink to create an effect of flatness, in contrast to the traditional effect of depth and vitality.
The second theme in the exhibition is Architecture. Where traditional ink paintings emphasized the grandeur and majesty of the natural environment over small-scale pavilions or other architectural elements, Wu’s paintings depict rural yet grand homes and towns and emphasize a constructed, man-made environment.
The final section of the exhibition is Abstraction, representing Wu’s later period in which his landscapes became more abstracted. Most of these works are from after 1990 and show an intention to represent states of being, emotions, and concepts over more realistic representation. For example, rather than showing birds-eye or long-view perspectives usually associated with ink landscape paintings, the works provide a closer view as if the viewer is fully immersed in the environment.
Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by leading Chinese and American scholars. The exhibition begins a year of programming at Asia Society in arts and culture, policy and business that explores China’s past as a window onto its present and future. For program updates, visit AsiaSociety.org/nyc
Support for this exhibition is provided by the Take a Step Back Collection. Asia Society also acknowledges the generosity of China Guardian Auctions Co., Ltd. Support for Asia Society Museum provided by the Friends of Asian Art; Asia Society Contemporary Art Council; Arthur Ross Foundation; Sheryl and Charles R. Kaye Endowment for Contemporary Art Exhibitions; Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund; National Endowment for the Humanities; Hazen Polsky Foundation; New York State Council on the Arts; and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
About Asia Society Museum
Asia Society Museum presents groundbreaking exhibitions and artworks, many previously unseen in North America. The Museum is known for its permanent collection of masterpiece-quality works gifted by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd and a contemporary collection launched in 2003. Through exhibitions and related public programs, Asia Society provides a forum for the issues and viewpoints reflected in traditional, modern and contemporary Asian art. Founded in 1956, Asia Society is a nonprofit educational institution with new multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art cultural centers and gallery spaces in Hong Kong and Houston, and offices in Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, Mumbai, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, and Washington, DC.
Asia Society Museum is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M. and Friday from 11:00 A.M. – 9:00 P.M. Closed on Mondays and major holidays. General admission is $10, seniors $7, students $5, and admission is free for members and persons under 16. Free admission Friday evenings, 6:00 P.M. – 9:00 P.M. The Museum is closed Fridays after 6:00 P.M. from July 1 through Labor Day. AsiaSociety.org/museum