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【评论】Wu Guanzhong & His Art

2010-08-12 10:20:26 来源:《耕耘与奉献:吴冠中捐赠作品集》作者:Shui Tianzhong
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  In the history of Chinese painting in the 20th century, Wu Guanzhong is an especially significant figure.  His art ideology and art practice are not only unique among Chinese painters during the same times, but also comprehensively and profoundly influential.  Since the 1980s, his art conception and creation continually caused sensations in Chinese art circles, further promoting the transformation and development in Chinese modern painting’s concepts.
  If we count from the years in National Hangzhou Art College, Wu has been dedicated to art for more than 70 years; counting from the time when he graduated from the National Higher School of Fine Arts in Paris and then returned to teach in China, it has also been more than half a century.  The artist is still healthy and vigorous, meanwhile is assiduously engaged in his creation.  For people concerned about his art, it’s the ideal opportunity to review and contemplate his long and devious art pilgrimage.
  1
  Wu Guanzhong was born in 1919 in Beiqu village, Zhakou township, Yixing county, Jiangsu province.  That was the rural country in the south, often referred to as the “the country of fish and rice”, where people made their livings by rice planting, silkworm raising and fishing.  Wu’s father, Wu Kuangbei, was a primary school teacher in a village, and meanwhile, a farmer who had to labor in the field.  When Wu was six, he became one of the first pupils in the Wu’s Primary School, which was established by Wu Kuangbei with the support from the Wu Clan Hall during that year, with the clan hall accountant as the headmaster, and the clan hall house as the schoolhouse.  Upon graduation from lower primary school (grade four of primary school), Wu was admitted to Ershan Primary School of Heqiao town.  In 1932, when Wu graduated from Ershan Primary School, he was admitted to the junior high school of the Provincial Wuxi Normal School in Jiangsu.  Three years later, he was admitted to the Advanced Industrial Vocational School affiliated to Zhejiang University.  He only studied in that school for one year.  Soon he changed his career aim, with the encouragement from Zhu Dequn, an art college student, and turned to take an entrance examination of the National Hangzhou Art College, setting out on the road of art thereafter.  That year was 1936, when Wu was 17.
  The first painting teacher Wu met was Miao Zuyao, an old friend of his father’s, and a teacher at the Wu’s Primary School.  Like all the other countryside painters at that time, Miao Zuyao was good at the landscape, the flower-and-bird and the figure paintings, however, environment and knowledge restricted such painters in their artistic development.  Miao’s significance to Wu’s art career was that, he made Wu in his childhood know how one took a brush to paint.  In a strict sense, the National Hangzhou Art College was the real starting point of Wu’s art career, and Li Chaoshi, Fang Ganmin and other teachers were his first teachers directly initiating him into painting.
  Wu’s art education started in 1936 was soon disturbed by the Japanese invasion. From the second half of 1937, Wu, together with his teachers and fellow students of the National Hangzhou Art College, began a life in exile.  They started their exile from Hangzhou, made their way through Zhuji county of Jiangsu province and the Longhu Mountains of Jiangxi province, and had stopovers in Hunan, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces, and settled down finally in Bishan county of Sichuan province.  The students of the National Hangzhou Art College continued their art learning in an exile of thousands of miles and under the threat of war fires; this was indeed an unprecedented page in the history of art education in China.  After such a period of exile life, these artists experienced radical changes in their art dispositions and life styles.  War fires and exile carved the eternal marks on Wu.
  In 1942, after his graduation from the National Hangzhou Art College, Wu went to teach in Chongqing.  In the following four years, he made lots of efforts in Chinese literature and French, preparing himself for further education.  In 1946, the Ministry of Education of the Chinese government, for the first time after the War, had examination selection of candidates for higher education at foreign institutions with governmental fund, and there were two positions for candidates of fine art.  With the most outstanding achievements, Wu won the chance to study in France with governmental fund (according to the documents of the Ministry of Education, Wu passed selection examinations for both government-funded and non-government-funded candidates).
  In 1947, Wu went to France by ship and studied painting at the National Higher School of Fine Arts in Paris.  The schools of fine arts in Paris in the 1940s were quite different from those at the times when Xu Beihong’s generation studied there.  The impressionism detested by Xu Beihong and his teachers had already become the classic in the art circles, while Profess Souverbie, Wu’s teacher, was similar to Picasso and Blaque in their art styles.  The two generations of overseas Chinese students received completely different art educations.
  After graduation, Wu returned with an aspiration to “translate the formal laws of the plastic art” for the Chinese people.  Yet, the literature policy and the art climate were developing in a direction entirely different from what Wu had imagined.
  In the 1950s, returned students were assigned jobs by the government, different people to different positions.  Wu encountered Dong Xiwen in Beijing, a fellow student from Hangzhou Art College.  With the strong recommendation of Dong Xiwen, Wu was assigned to teach in the Central Academy of Fine Arts.  That year, Wu was 31.  It was easy for a young teacher to find efficient means of communication with the young students, in his own words, “I meant to pour out what I learned from the west as if emptying a basket, so that the students younger than I may select whatever they wanted.”  But soon the literary rectification movement began, and Wu fell under condemnation, because he spread “the bourgeois formalism” in his classes, and someone criticized him that he actually knew nothing about the socialistic art.
  Several decades later, someone expressed his doubts about the fact that Wu was once condemned during the literary rectification movement in Central Academy of Fine Arts, seemingly implying that it was overstated to say he was condemned.  As a matter of fact, besides Wu, many other teachers had been condemned during the literary rectification and ideological reformation movements.  For the organizers and the activists of the movements, that was just “help” instead of “condemnation”, and “help” was to “cure the disease and save the patient” no matter how hard and severe the “help” was.  However, for those condemned people, such condemnation brought them irreversible damages to their spirits and personalities.  And for Wu just returning home from Paris, this condemnation meant contempt and negation to his art conception and art ideals.
  In 1953, Wu was transferred from the Central Academy of Fine Arts to the architecture department of Tsinghua University to teach the painting course.  For nearly three years from 1950 to 1953, Wu worked in the Central Academy of Fine Arts.  The three years changed his status of being incompatible with the new environment.  He taught in Tsinghua University for another three years when he continued his concerns on the problem of painting’s form in the way of landscape sketching.  In September, 1956, Beijing Normal Institute of Arts (Which was renamed as Beijing Academy of Arts in 1961) was established, based upon the fine art department and the music department of Beijing Normal University.  Wu was transferred from Tsinghua University to the fine art department of Beijing Normal Institute of Arts, to be the head of the teaching-research section of oil painting.  Beijing Normal Institute of Arts gathered a group of non-mainstream painters at that time, such as Wei Tianlin, the vice president who studied in Japan in the 1920s; Li Ruinian, the director of the fine art department who studied in Belgium; Zhang Anzhi, the deputy director of the fine art department who studied in UK and returned at the same time with Wu.
  When Wu taught in Tsinghua University and Beijing Academy of Arts, all the literary workers were encouraged to obtain experiences from real life, and it became a common practice for painters to go outdoors to sketch.  From then on, Wu began his “hard career of traveling everywhere with the heavy load of his painting box”.  Within a few years, he visited various places of the country, and the farthest and luckiest trip was arranged and funded by Chinese Fine Artists’ Association to sketch in Tibet with Dong Xiwen and Shaojinkun.  Under the influence of the climate of “a hundred flowers in bloom”, landscape painting revived, and Wu was regarded as a landscape painter appearing in the painting circles.  This long-term period of hard but interesting experiences was crucial in his art career.  Without the fruitful explorations during these years, the extreme leftism storms rising in the middle of the 1960s would have absolutely put an end to his art life.
  In 1964, the Beijing Municipal Government decided to close Beijing Academy of Arts.  The teachers and the students who had not yet graduated were transferred to the Central Academy of Art and design and the Central Academy of Fine Arts, with Wu and Wei Tianlin to teach in the Central Academy of Art and Design.
  The Great Cultural Revolution of the Proletariat Class cut off all the connections between Wu and art.  He experienced house searching, property confiscation, public denunciation, destroying the "four olds" movement - everything from old customs and festivals to old beliefs and traditions, learning Mao Zedong’s quotations, and suffered from severe hepatitis.  Before the climax of house searching, he destroyed all the paintings created in Paris.  And to keep the other paintings away from the misfortunes, he scattered them secretly in the houses of his relatives and friends, imagining that these paintings would be seen again one day after his being cremated.  During those darkest days, he and his wife Zhu Biqin supported each other as much as they could, which enabled him to experience “boundless sorrows and endless comfort”.
  In 1970, teachers and students in Beijing higher education institutes were ordered to leave the city for the countryside to “receive re-education from the poor and lower-middle peasants”.  Wu, together with teachers and students from the Central Academy of Art and Design, went to the countryside near Shijiazhuang, Hebei province.  As a “bourgeois intellectual”, he was someone to be remolded in laboring and also someone held in lower regard than others, often getting blames and deliberate harassments.  However, being skilled in painting, he was occasionally assigned to fulfill certain painting tasks by his superiors, then he could assuredly paint on these occasions, though these paintings were not what he really wanted to create.
  In the later stage of the Cultural Revolution, the guard against and the control of intellectuals were comparatively less strict, and Wu lost no time in seizing the chances to paint landscapes in the spare time from laboring.  Because he made his easel from a farmer’s manure basket, his fellow laborers playfully called him “the manure basket painter”.  However, “the manure basket painter” without a justified identity as a painter delightfully obtained fruitful achievements, and his paintings began to display simplicity and sobriety that had seldom appeared in his works before.  In 1973, Wu and his wife returned successively from the countryside to their house to the north of the front of Shichahai Lake, and they cleaned the house covered in dust for years, with a feeling that the miserable era would soon be over.
  After his return to Beijing from the countryside, Wu changed his previous forms of art activities in two aspects.  On the one hand, he began to create ink paintings and could never stop this art practice from then on, thus he became a painter of both ink painting and oil painting.  On the other hand, he began to pay attention to art ideology and publicized his art opinions, which made him the most conspicuous art critic in Chinese art circles in the later stage of the 20th century.
  The year of 1978 was a year of ideological liberation in China, and especially the crucial point for Wu to obtain liberation in art.  When controversies started around the proposition of “practice being the sole criterion for testing truth”, Wu wrote to his students Ding Shaoguang, Liu Jude and Zhong Shuheng, “I have great confidence in the promising prospect of the liberation war in fine art to overthrow conservative forces and to create new styles, and I hope that my fellow fighters march forward with courage, to liberate ourselves, and to liberate the slaves in the realm of fine art.”[1]
  In 1978, the Central Academy of Art and Design organized Wu Guanzhong’s Exhibition, which was his first solo exhibition after returning from abroad, and also the beginning of his successive exhibitions throughout China.  In the spring of the next year, Wu Guanzhong’s Painting Exhibition was held in National Art Museum of China, Beijing.  Reform and opening brought an unprecedented relaxed climate to Chinese art circles, and Wu eventually obtained the basic conditions for the pursuit of his art ideals.  While creating works, he also publicized articles concerning the domestic situation of fine art.  He questioned the significance of “content deciding form” in art creation, defended “formal beauty”, nude art and abstract art, trying to prepare for modern art’s position in China.  He knew well that his opinions would offend these authorities in art circles, but he went his own way all along, disregarding all the possible counteractions.  In the preface to the Catalogue of Shenzhen’s Fine Art Festival, he wrote, “We’re ambitious, …… we embark on a pirate ship!”
  Undoubtedly, there were various blames and ridicules cast upon him, which often had certain ideological backgrounds.  The most prominent example was the speech made by Jiang Feng at a conference in September of 1982.  When criticizing the “liberalization” tendencies in art circles, Jiang Feng, the chairman of Chinese Fine Artists’ Association at that time, declared, “There are now a group of people taking a certain painter as their flag, who spares no efforts to advocate the decadent art of western modernistic schools with contempt for our revolutionary art, …… attempting to disturb the correct developing direction of our socialistic art……”[2] We  have to admit that Jiang Feng acted with sensitivity – in the historical environment at that time, advocating art autonomy and questioning the principle of “content deciding form” were actually a political appeal.  Yet, Wu continued in a heedless way, frankly presented his feelings and considerations in various ways.  His great accomplishment in art creation was obtained with the courage and willpower of “desiring art instead of life” in the treacherous political atmosphere.
  Wu didn’t have grand cultural strategies to which the intellectual of the prior generation displayed enormous enthusiasm, but he went much further in the exploration into art as an autonomous existence.  What he contributed to Chinese contemporary art circles was not a certain “craftsmanship”, but the untwisted art individuality.  He once said, “After people master the skills, contemplation would replace skills.”[3]  His art process was not the process of obtaining a certain art skill or “craftsmanship”, but the process of ceaseless thinking.
  2
  Wu lived in the countryside of the south as a child, drifted from place to place in the war fires as a youth, and then went to Paris to continue his education of western art……  Completely different cultural environments placed him in the process of continuous adjustments and adaptations.  Compared with many painters returning from Europe, Wu was never weakened in his art accomplishment after leaving the academy’s studio and breaking away from the academy’s popular exercise pattern, but made greater progresses, which was quite unusually among the overseas students during the early stage.  For most of them, their best status ended in the studios of the European academies, and some painters’ representative works were their exercise paintings created in the studios, whereas, academic education was only a starting point for Wu.  The sensitivity about formal composition reflected in his paintings, together with the bright lighting and coloring, seemed to be his inherent temperament. 
  However, when Wu returned from Paris to Beijing, he was confronted with difficult choices, adjustments and adaptations, as the policy of “literature and art serving workers, peasants and soldiers and serving politics” was being firmly implemented throughout China.  Teachers and students from the fine art academies n Beijing and Hangzhou were busy creating new Spring Festival pictures.  In Wu’s eyes, the works such as new Spring Festival pictures were “mostly far away from being fine art works, but a certain kind of pictorial illustrations.”  Nevertheless, the art works admired by him were regarded as “bourgeois formalism”.  Under such circumstances, Wu could not continue his formal explorations at all.  Therefore, based on the premise of complying with his art ideal, he gave up on figure painting to choose landscape painting.  Becoming a “landscape painter” in the pan-political environment at that time required not only courage and perseverance but also endurance of solitude.
  In the middle and later stages of the 1950s, Wu stepped into his middle age, and began to be known for his painting style of distinctive individuality.  The paintings created during this stage presented more formal flavor of traditional Chinese painting, and more consideration of common audience’s aesthetic appeals in the treatment of theme and form.  In his own words, “I’ve tried my best to create something realistic, beautiful and elegant, and as long as there is no denial of my substantial idea, I endeavor to satisfy the appreciation request of the middle and even the lower classes.  Objectively speaking, I compromise out of consideration for the general interest; subjectively speaking, I create works suitable for both refined and popular tastes.”[4] The sketches created in Jinggang Mountain in 1959 and in Tibet in 1961 made his debut in Chinese art circles.  From these works, the audience perceived a “beautiful and elegant” style.  Not turning against his own “substantial idea”, he achieved exquisite treatment of color and formal rhythm with brief and light touches in a quite different way from the popular thematic and melodramatic paintings which “served the politics” at that time.  Through these landscape sketches, the domestic art circles gradually acknowledged Wu’s individual style.
  The sensitivity to color and the rhythm of dot and line is really Wu’s strongpoint in art.  Themes’ greatest value to him lies in the concealed formal beauty.  No matter the open plain or a corner of the paddy field, he could always discover and compose the relation between form and structure.  He liked mulberry gardens because of the “dense linear composition”; painting daisies in the fields was to “collect the elves often gathering beside weeds and stones with his eyes”; sketching a group of geese on boat was to catch “the white colors in life”……  All these made Wu’s paintings apparently different from those of the mainstream painters of his times; he never painted to advocate a certain policy, or to express a certain opinion, or to commemorate a certain event, but to explore painting’s formal possibilities, to create a sentimental atmosphere and to develop conceptual perspectives, with the mental state of “breaking away from all bondages of objective interests”[5].  Such art ideas endured and survived erosions of all kinds of weathers.  The landscape paintings created in the later stage of the Cultural Revolution further demonstrated his pursuits in art.  After the long process of familiarization and intimate connection, the open fields in the north, which had seemed monotonous to him in the past, was no longer monotonous; instead, it was “pure, simple, and magnificently rough, and those irrigated ditches and farmers’ yards appeared to be charming under his paintbrush.”  Just like what an ancient philosopher wrote in a poem – “all things are self-contented to people who observe in tranquility”, the crops, the woods, the birds, the wild weeds and the idle flowers are all self-contented for their natural beauty.  Once they are discovered and interpreted by the painters, they present formal beauty appealing to the audience.  In the early 1970s, the simple and unsophisticated touches were added into his paintings, which were features added to his inherent purity and clarity.  The integration of simplicity, sobriety, purity and clarity marked an important transformation in Wu’s art, which was most clearly demonstrated in the sketches of fields from 1972 to 1974.
  From the middle of the 1970s, Wu began to create in the way of sketching trip, painting a great many landscapes.  Among these landscape oil paintings of different regions and tones, his goal became increasingly clearer.  Depending on his special sensitivity to visual forms, he boldly captured the landscapes with a best sense of form, purified the scene’s form, structure and color relations, emphasized the flexible brushstrokes and the hues’ expressiveness, thus his works seemed simple and changeable, full of vigorous dynamics, which is rhythm composed of dots, lines, surfaces and colors.  Certain western critics believe, all painters are actually pursuing “new abstract structures, new but pure formal significances, new patterns of authentic structures coming from the physical vision itself, new forms of color structure”[6].  We may clearly perceive such pursuits in Wu’s paintings, but these are only the intermediate links in Wu’s ultimate pursuit.  He sought for artistic conception through form, “I love the artistic conception in painting, however it is integrated in the formal beauty, and could only be revealed through form.  Discovering the images’ artistic conception with a painter’s eyes is the core of my art career……”[7]
  The stylistic change in Wu’s oil painting in the 1980s occurred at the same time with the innovation in his ink painting, and this Chinese flavor that transcended the genre features marked his harvest in both oil painting and ink painting.  Many Chinese oil painters are good at ink painting, but very few like Wu would equally insist in both fields.  He believes, “Nationalization of oil painting and modernization of Chinese painting are actually twins, when I encounter a problem of oil painting without solution, I would transplant it into ink painting, and sometimes it’s solved.  Vice versa, when a problem couldn’t be solve in ink painting, I would try it in oil painting……”[8] In his works, the audience could find many pairs of “twins” on the same theme with the same composition, but in two forms of ink painting and oil painting.  By the means of comparison and transplantation, he continued to enrich the expressions of these two tool materials and these two painting forms.  The endeavour is different in nature from the practice of the classical western painters working on the same composition with oil paint, print and sketch, as their sketches or prints are the preparatory drafts or the copies of oil paintings.  Wu was seeking for communication and transplantation of the painting language between two different painting media based upon two different cultures.  In Wu’s eyes, such creative experiments were creation based upon the same art conceptions, “My way is expressed as one principle.” 
  Wu made his debut in Chinese art circles as an oil painter.  As a person voluntarily selecting painting as his goal of learning and living, Wu presented much more aspiring temperament of independence and self-reliance than many other fellow artists.  And in painting creation, he transcended the regional range in theme – no matter the country fields in the north or the village towns in the south, the streets in Paris or the scenes of Southeast Asia, they were depicted with a strong Chinese flavor and Chinese manner.  From the simplicity and tranquility of watercolor and oil painting in the 1970s to the individuality of splendor and profundity in the 1990s, all revealed his mental tendency towards being entirely free.  This mental state of creation made a distinctive comparison with the popular trends in the art circles at that time, which was exquisite and self-elevated with the symbols borrowed from religion and philosophy.
  Wu turned from “foreign painting” to ink painting in the 1970s.  Among the painters of his generation who studied abroad and returned home later, Wu seemed to be the only who persisted with oil painting and also ceaselessly experimented with ink painting.  Unlike those painters “returning” from oil painting to ink painting, he engendered new intensity instead of returning from intensity to tranquility – pursuing Chinese culture spirit in the premise of staying far away from traditional brushwork and painting patterns.  In Wu Guanzhong’s Painting Exhibition held in National Art Museum of China in 1979, Wu’s ink paintings firstly appeared in front of Chinese art circles.  That was the time when Chinese people just awoke from the nightmare of Cultural Revolution and held infinite expectations for the reform and opening to the outside, most of the audience were delighted to see the artist’s breakthrough in art instead of being unsatisfied with the variation.  Wu’s ink painting unfolded a different, splendid and vigorous world for the audience.
  Fast development in ink painting’s creation formed an important part of his art accomplishments in the 1980s.  His ink paintings mainly focused on landscapes, occasionally on birds, beasts and flowers.  Wu selected these themes with consideration of their formal structural features, and he liked those scenic sites that allowed him to freely exert the density, strength and rhythm of ink dots and lines.  The mountains’ rolling lines, the trees’ branches, the rocks’ texture, and the buildings’ random positions, and etc, all these could best stimulate his painting inspiration.  His treatment of these landscapes is quite different from the pattern abided by traditional ink painters.  Take the mountains for instance, ancient painters stressed the ethical significance of the mountains, and believed that mountain was the symbol of sublimity, solemnity and eternity, so that they tried to “capture the mountain’s spirit” or to “represent the mountain’s temperament”.  However, in Wu’s eyes, the mountains contain inexhaustible rhythm of life, therefore, it might be said that Wu captures the mountains’ rhythm.  This rhythm is not the mountains’ inherent quality, but the painter’s passion aroused by the mountains to express the rhythm through dots and lines of black, white, grey and other colors, and the paintings are the records of such passion.  This process is similar to music composition – the composer is moved by something and composes a music work entitled on the subject, however the core of the work is not the subject itself.  What moves the listener is the pitch, the melody and the rhythm out of the composer’s imagination and integration.  Many of Wu’s paintings attract the audience, not for the reproduction of natural objective scenes in painting, but for the vitality that the audience could perceive from his works.
  After long-term strenuous sketching practice, Wu finally entered a brand new art realm.  Like other painters in Chinese painting history, he recollected, imagined and unrestrained his paintbrush to create in the studio.  When estimating his creation during this period, Wu said, “By the 1980s, ink painting had become the major means of my creation, tending to transcend oil painting both in quality and quantity……  The oil painting skills accumulated for more than 4 decades actually became the stepping stone to ink painting.”  The freedom in his ink painting creation is obtained from his perseverant explorations in those sketching trips all over China.  He differed from these older painters, as he wanted to go beyond the traditional brushwork and traditional patterns to pursue the emotional realm spontaneously extended from Chinese cultural spirit.  He didn’t assume that deviation from the older painter’s technical experiences would impair the continuity of Chinese art traditions, instead, he believed that such deviation would be accepted by more and more people in the modern times.  It is proved that, though his ink paintings are far away from the traditional forms in technique and composition, his art spirit corresponds to those ink-painting masters of the prior generations.  If we regard the great ink art as a spiritual activity of creation instead of a sort of skill or craftsmanship, we ought to believe that Wu has never abandoned the spirit of traditional Chinese art.
  Since the beginning of the 1980s, Wu had acquired more flexible and forceful employment of his paintbrush, and captured the dynamic rhythm of vitality from different kinds of objects.  Inside the realm of ink painting, he wandered in a carefree state of mind, presenting snow mountains and deserts with extremely simple and fluent lines, depicting ancient tress, the Great Wall and civilian houses with humid black, white and grey colors, and embodying the vicissitudes of the cultural relics in the frontiers through extraordinary complication and simplicity.  In the middle of the 1980s, he reached the critical borderline between representation and abstraction.  The painter has found a path belonging to his own individuality, a path coming from delicacy and meticulousness towards joy and unrestraint.
  During the last decade of the 20th century, Wu was already in the state of “doing whatever he liked without violating the rules” in ink painting, and his “rules” here were his own artistic pursuits and beliefs.  Among the waves of various criticisms, he continued to experiment for all possibilities to represent formal beauty and circumstance.  The integrity of Wu’s art is poetic, unlike that of Jackson Pollock or Mark Tobey who aimed at the decorative effect of “integrity” instead of a certain idea or conception.  With changeable brushstrokes, Wu constructed the meticulous but transparent spaces of expression.  All the formal treatments of his “integrity” are thematic situations related with the forms: crystal and white Spring Snow is melting and flowing; The Yellow River represents not only the motion and the formation of the torrents, but also the colors of the muddy waves and the rocks; Marriage Ties on the Wall freezes the “momentary embrace” of the solid lines of the vines and the void shadows of the trees……  Here, Wu responded once again to “never-blown-off kite”, which is actually overlapping with each other during the course of “spiraling” ascension.
  Wu once said that he had never designed his style, never tried to retain his style either, “but only hurried on, covering both short distances and long distances.”[9] In his eighties, Wu altered again in his style, and the alteration was marked by the emphasis of black color in his paintings, and a critic said that Wu entered his “black era”.  Wu presents the flashing of life in the great and deep universe, with twinkling and floating bright colors in the boundless black.  His preference for black and white is an aesthetic experience accumulated from his art practice, and also a sort of cultural heritage of Chinese nation.  He once said, “If there were an international exhibition of modern art, and if I had the right to choose two pieces of Chinese works for this exhibition, I would choose one board painted in pitch-black and one sheet of snow-white rice paper.”[10] Just like what Jia Fangzhou said, “With the denseness, heaviness and thickness, Wu switched over from the graceful lyrical style he had in the past, and even departed from representation of visible objects, just to ‘utter honest voices of the heart’ with the ‘bareness and arrogance’ of his youth.”[11] Wu made a frank statement about himself, “After the 1990s, …… the conceptual perspectives of my paintings turned to be gloomy, as if I was singing sad songs instead of crying; and I returned to my preference of the youth for tragedy, ……”[12] This statement reminds us of Xin Qiji’s verse lines, “What is it like when one gets old?  It is just like when he is young.”  These two texts correspond to each other to reflect the connotation of the article and the verse over thousands of years.
  Wu had his own ideas about the artistic traditions, and he questioned the role of the traditional ink painting skills, such as light-ink strokes, tracing method, integration of poetry, calligraphy and painting, and etc, in contemporary ink painting.  From his perspective, these sorts of patterns led to the impotence of creativity and the rigidity of expression.  Repeated applications of these patterns to create standardized symbolic painting were absolutely like “chattering on an outdated story in outdated language”.  He straightforwardly proposed, modern literati painting should draw nutrition from western art, and “extend to modern plastic spaces of sculpture, architecture and etc from the singular tendency leaning to literary ideology.”  As to the proposal of “assimilating western art on the basis of the traditions”, Wu took it as the opinion of one school, and suggested that the changes of the times bred new painting forms, and that was up to the painters to decide whether to stress the traditional factors or the external influences.  Wu’s choice was to employ “modern Chinese and foreign language” so that “the Chinese nation’s uniquity could be recognized by the world.”
  3
  Wu was and is always a figure that attracts attention of the whole art world from the 1980s to the beginning of the 21st century.  Besides his painting creation with continual and unexpected transformations, his art conception, published articles and speeches caused a great many controversies.  In Chinese art circles, Wu acts as a painter and a critic simultaneously, and among the Chinese painters during the last half century Wu is the most productive and the most influential as far as the writings are concerned.
  Reading, thinking and writing are Wu’s habits formed from his childhood.  As a matter of fact, his interest in reading and writing was awakened earlier than that in painting.  He was always praised for keenness and depth of thought and for swiftness and eloquence of expression, either when he was at school or after graduation.  However, Wu’s opinions have drawn extensive attention in the painting circles, not because the expression of his writings is eloquent and fluent, but because he always goes straight to the critical problems of contemporary art.  These problems are sometimes faintly detected by people having no way of solution, and some problems are messy and complicated, so that the theoretical articles abiding with habitual thinking patterns couldn’t help with the solution at all, only making the readers more confused.  In a prompt and resolute way “like cutting the Gordian knot” (in Xiong Bingming’s words), Wu analyzes the problems and puts forward his own opinions, which wins applause for him and meanwhile surprises the conservative people.
  Due to the phenomenon of “swallowing foreign ideas without digestion”, obscure, complex and pointless writings flood in the field of contemporary art theories.  With his unique concision, keenness and clarity, Wu displays a different way and style of writing with the core of so-called “singing with thoughts and crying with concerns”.  Wu’s proposition of “never-blown-off kite”, his query about “content deciding form”, his defense of “abstract beauty”, his fearless criticism of “brushwork being the only criterion of painting’s evaluation”, and etc, all these are the results of deliberate consideration based on art practice.  He said, “In certain circumstances, I felt the urgence of writing to express my joy or anger from the bottom of my heart, almost ignoring my own safety.”[13] As his concerns are related to the basic standards and values of contemporary art, he inevitably provoked drastic reactions in certain parties.  However, with time elapsing, the propositions, that caused great controversies and were considered as rebellious against orthodoxies, have already become the common sense in art circles.  Some older people are still brooding on these recent disputes (such as “brushwork equaling zero”), whereas the artists of the younger generation don’t think this topic exciting at all, even regard it as a waste of time to talk about “brushwork” over and over again.
  Wu’s art ideology is based on his creation practice that is intimately connected with Chinese social culture for the last several decades.  As a painter, his writings might help the readers to understand his paintings, and his paintings verify the practicability of his theoretical propositions.  When reading Shitao’s Painting Theories, he was attracted by such words, “Wise people of all times employ their conception to develop their perception, and clarify their perception to promote their conception.”[14] These words just points out the mutually promoting relationship between his perception for decades and his consideration, theories and practices.
  Wu’s writings about art are “advices” aimed at the real situation of contemporary Chinese art to his fellow painters instead of academic “theses” copiously quoting the classics.  His opinions on these topics, such as the reason of modern painting’s existence, the art tradition and innovation, the significance of form to painting, have one common starting point, that is, on the foundation of knowing the world art trends well, to make a sober estimation of contemporary Chinese art’s gains and losses, and to open a new space in Chinese art.  Starting from this point, he spares no efforts in calling for “Chinese modern art’s exploitation and advancement”.  For instance, his doubt on “content deciding form” and his advocation of “formal beauty” aimed at the tendency of illustrative and lecturing painting replacing art since the 1950s; his opinion of “brushwork isolated from specific painting equaling zero” aimed at the painters endeavoring to imitate the techniques and patterns instead of pursuing the sublime spirit; his straightforward comments on famous contemporary painters pointed at the shortage of contemporary Chinese art critiques and Chinese literati’s chronic illness of  “avoiding the mention of virtuous people’s mistakes and respectable people’s scandals”; his word-for-word paraphrase of Shitao’s Painting Theories aimed at the rigid compliance to ancient doctrines, expecting to restore Chinese art’s creative spirit with the help of ancient experiences.  These opinions coming from his art practice contain certain important realistic significance, “Some professional artists put forward problems, which were proved to be urgent problems encountered during art practice; and the vehemence and extensiveness of the controversy (for instance, about 60 or 70 scholars of aesthetics and art history participated in the dispute of the articles published in Fine Art magazine) indicated the problems’ important theoretic significance.”[15] Whenever encountering the problems about reality, Wu always straightforwardly put forward his opinions, consequently causing some people’s aversion.  If reviewing these opinions in the context of the historical development of modern Chinese painting without the emotional elements, we could recognize Wu’s important position during the process of seeking for Chinese art circles’ independence since the 1980s.  It can’t be denied that his propositions were critical and constructive “to meet the demands of the times and to cure the illness”[16], and it also can’t be denied that his advocation against the extreme leftism’s doctrines was an “ice-breaking measure”[17].
  I mentioned in an article that, if a reader examines Wu’s writings with the textbook standards, he might find many cases of insufficient and imprecise reasoning, and many people actually did point these out to criticize his writings.  If the reader takes into consideration the articles’ influences of breaking the conventional stereotypes and expanding the artists’ thoughts, he will realize that Wu’s position in the field of fine art theories in the later 20th century was irreplaceable.  In the beginning of this new century, Wu’s art works and art ideas are still the topics that frequently cause controversies.  Wu continues to challenge to conventional order, therefore it is a sort of value and importance.  And because the challenges transcend the conventional pattern of dualistic opposition that restricts many people, they enable us to realize that Chinese painting have various possibilities of development just like other things.
  In Chinese painting history, Wu’s special significance lies in opening a path transcending traditional patterns and integrating Chinese and western arts.  Not regarding himself as the inheritor of literati painting, yet he corresponds to the tradition of literati painting in profound art conception; not admiring traditional brushwork or patterns, yet he is one of the painters who could best exert the expressive variety of ink language among contemporary ink painters, and creates works of non-traditional form with Chinese art spirit in a carefree and unrestrained mental state.  Many people inside Chinese painting circles doubt or resent his innovative practices, but in the eyes of the people outside the circles Wu is a contemporary Chinese painter who is extremely Chinese in the cultural manners, spirit, temperament and qualities.  He believes that traditions are only preserved in the ways of development and changes, and the practice of equaling brushwork to tradition is “reserving cultural relics” instead of preserving traditions.  “What we benefit from the traditions is enlightenment; what we fail with the traditions is imitation.”[18] However, he never abandons the spirit of traditional brushwork.  Besides the means of traditional brushwork like light-ink strokes, he makes new exploitations in dot and line’s expression, creating new ink painting rhythm and thus expanding modern audience’ aesthetic taste.  The core of this new rhythm is expression of life’s dynamics.  With his diversified practices, he displays a new possibility to the newcomers –you may also be able to create paintings of authentic Chinese flavor without intentionally imitating the ancient works or following the masters in history.  And we always presume that, without standards or patterns established by ancient masters, we would lose the traditional art spirit, and lose painting’s national characteristics.
  In Chinese painting circles in the later stage of the 20th century, Wu is a non-negligible and irreplaceable figure.  A person preserving and fully displaying his individuality like him is very scarce among the artists of his generation[19].  If comparing him with other painters of the same generation in the aspects of ideology, art conception and behaving manners, we could find very obvious differences between them, be surprised at the fact that such different artists appeared in the same times, and then understand it’s quite natural for Wu to be repeatedly criticized.  “Apparently different from most artists of his generation, Wu is an artist difficult to restrain his individuality, never complying with the social culture’s expectation to follow the rules docilely.  Besides often causing troubles in the existed cultural order, such artists’ prominent individuality and restlessness in art ideology also input vitality to the art circles to promote the alteration and innovation in art.  Such figures incessantly emerged in human art history, however, they have become quite scarce during the last half century in China.  The repeated condemnations to artists’ individuality lead to the lack of such people, which has become a special phenomenon in Chinese art circles sine the 1950.  Artists’ docility seems to maintain the ‘stable state of harmony’ in the art circles, however, it inevitably results in the thin air of art creation, therefore art would turn to be the industrial action of taking order and being produced according to the standardized technical procedures.”[20]
  Unlike most audience’s impression, Wu is not a detached and indifferent artist.  Art history has proved that it is partial to judge a painter’s personality from the paintings.  The seeds of perseverance, resistance and rebellion[21] are hidden in the depth of Wu’s heart.  What most surprises the researchers about Chinese culture in the 20th century is that an artist like Wu appeared in China in the later stage of the 20th century, and he represents a painter’s figure with independent ideology, independent personality and passion for the times and the people.
  Wu Guanzhong is a Chinese literate trying to maintain his pure individuality in the times of the new replacing the old.  His paintings and art concepts are the results of the confliction and integration between his art ideals and Chinese culture environment in the later stage of the 20th century, and are also his response to various positive and negative challenges in Chinese painting circles in the 20th century.  He concludes his life achievements in one phrase: “opportunities among tribulations”.
  Shui Tianzhong
  Art Critic
  Written in Beijing on the Dragon Boat Festival, 2006
  (This article is the abridged version of the general preface to Wu Guanzhong’s Collected Works, and the original article consists of 21,000 words.)
 

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