What is the most surprising thing you learned about post Cultural Revolution
Chinese painting by reading the following article from the NYTs?
Shanghai Art Museum
Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong This show at Asia Society offers late landscapes by a
Chinese master. Above, "A Fishing Harbor (III)," from 1997.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------July 19, 2012
Rendering Chinese Landscapes With Hints of the West
By KAREN ROSENBERG
“Oil paint and ink are two blades of the same pair of scissors,” the Chinese painter Wu Guanzhong once
wrote. In a survey of his late work, “Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong,” at Asia Society,
you can see how deftly he wielded a single, razor-sharp edge.
The works in the exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Shanghai Art Museum, are all ink
paintings and drawings. They date from the mid-1970s through 2004 — a time of reinvention for Wu
(1919-2010), whose midcareer years coincided with a particularly difficult period for Chinese artists.
During the Cultural Revolution, Social Realism was the only accepted style, and Wu’s formalist
inclinations and Western education (he had studied in Paris in the late 1940s) were suspect. Knowing
this, he destroyed most of his work — decades’ worth of oil paintings — before the Red Guards could
get to them. It didn’t help; he was sent to a rural labor camp, separated from his family and, for two
years, forbidden to paint, write or teach. He worked when he could, sometimes with a manure basket
for an easel.
Then, as the Cultural Revolution eased in the early ’70s, he re-emerged. Government commissions
arrived, along with invitations to exhibit. The climate was once again safe for Western-influenced oil
painting — even the gestural, expressive kind. But Wu, bucking the trend, chose to work in the more
traditional Chinese medium of ink.
And he stuck with at least one of the conventional themes of Chinese art, turning out landscapes that
evoke those of masters like Guo Xi, Daoji and Wu Zhen. (Adriana Proser’s catalog essay, “Wu Guanzhong
and the Tradition of Chinese Landscape Painting,” is helpful here.) Even when he is painting a
nontraditional subject like the Grand Canyon, Wu’s use of line and wash establishes continuity with
historical Chinese painting.
In places, though — and especially in his very late, most abstract work — his Western studies and oilpainting background show through. His exuberant mural “The Hua Mountains at Sunset” (1997), which
opens the exhibition, bristles with Abstract Expressionist brio. Its snaking black lines and clustered dots
look like Pollock-esque drips, even though they are actually the trails and resting points of a brush
making full contact with paper.
Wu’s use of color, too, breaks with his national heritage in being defiantly nonreferential. He showers
his landscapes with festive, confettilike splotches of pink, green and purple, which stand apart from his
more descriptive lines and sometimes, as in “Lion Woods” (1983), overtake them.
Wu’s treatments of architecture are just as experimental in ways that may not be obvious to the
Western eye. As the exhibition’s co-curator Melissa Chiu (also Asia Society’s director) notes, buildings in
traditional Chinese paintings are often blips in vast landscapes; in Wu’s compositions they become
central. “A Quadrangular Yard” (1999), painted from an overhead perspective, frames its subject with
wide black brush strokes; a small bird pecking at the ground is the only clue as to scale.
At the same time, the types of dwellings featured in these works — often family compounds — allude to
China’s past. Sometimes they are frankly historical, as in the city view “Chongqing of the Old Times”
(1997). You won’t find paintings of skyscrapers here, though this may be more of an aesthetic choice
than a nostalgic one. “Nowadays, cities all over the world are just a forest of tall buildings; there is
practically no room left for curves to freely twist and bend,” Wu once said.
There’s plenty of room for movement in his wild abstractions of the 1990s, although Asia Society has
penned them into a small gallery. This strange installation does, at least, draw you closer into the
chaotic spaces of the paintings.
Here mural-size fields of all-over brushwork are given brooding titles — “Alienation”; “Nothingness as
Thingness and Thingness as Nothingness”; “Gone With the Wind” — that suggest a return to the
existentialism of 1940s Paris. Yet these are Wu’s most playful paintings. Some lines fizz and crackle,
others clot and congeal. Ink is made to look like oil, and also enamel, gouache and collage. Pollock
hovers over these enormous sheets of rice paper, but so do Brice Marden, Jean Dubuffet and even
You can see in “Revolutionary Ink” why Wu is the sort of artist the Chinese government is eager to
celebrate and export. He comes across as a seamless integrator of ancient values and modern visual
trends. He suffered through the Cultural Revolution but is not openly political. His interest in Western
art is primarily formal, to judge from this presentation.
But as an artist who prefers the unflashy medium of ink on paper, he may need the institutional support.
As he wrote, “Not a few Westerners consider that Chinese painting on paper has no future.”
And certainly there is much to appreciate in Wu’s sprightly way with ink, which will make many
committed oil painters feel as if they are missing out.
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