April 24, 2009 / 7:49 AM / 11 years ago

China art master Wu Guanzhong returns art to the people

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Wu Guanzhong never accepted the Cultural Revolution’s practical approach to art and how it had to be for the masses. Now, in his 90th year, the Chinese contemporary art master is proving his works really are for the people.

Wu, whose oeuvre spans five decades of Western-style oils and the more Eastern ink as well as theories on art, has recently donated almost all his works to museums in Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, which received the largest number.

“Wu Guanzhong is one of the most significant Chinese and contemporary artists today and his works and life are a window into 20th century multiculturalism, of both East and West,” Kwok Kian Chow, Singapore Art Museum director, told Reuters.

“He always rejected the idea of art as an illustration, the social realism of the Cultural Revolution and yet he left nothing for his family, saying that everything he has done in terms of artistic expression must go back to the people.”

Wu donated 113 oil and ink works, painted during the years 1957-2007 and worth S$73.7 million, to the Singapore museum, which is exhibiting them under the title “An Unbroken Line”, which takes its name from a famous quote by the artist “the unbroken line of a kite”.

The quote, based on a Chinese metaphor about linking relationships and ties across generations, refers to art as the “kite”, the string its connection between the daily life that inspired it and the link between the artist and his community.

Born in August 1919 in Jiangsu Province, Wu graduated from what is now known as the China Academy of Art before travelling to Paris in 1947 on a government scholarship to continue studies at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Art.

He returned to China in the 1950s to teach, introducing his students to several aspects of Western art, especially that it was an individual expression and that paintings should incorporate and draw on daily life.

But his theories and style — mainly figure paintings that gave way to landscapes — were deemed “bourgeois” by the prevailing, Socialist-leaning ideology at the time and then the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

Wu quickly fell out of favour with the Communist Party, which banned him painting, writing or teaching and then banished him to a remote province for “re-education” through hard labour.

Despite his harsh living conditions, Wu continued to paint during holidays, and in 1973 he and his wife were allowed to return to Beijing. A year later, he started to paint in ink, as well as oil, becoming increasingly involved in art theory.

Wu counts impressionists and modern artists such as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, as well as Chinese artists such as Shitao, as his inspiration, and his paintings combine both Chinese and Western elements.

Taoist aspects and Chinese philosophy and metaphors run through many works, but Wu stops them for being overly symbolic or minimalist, allowing the viewer to appreciate the paintings for what they are.

Landscapes and buildings are reduced to broad, largely monochromatic brushstrokes with specks of colour, as in 2001’s “A Former Homestead” while other works, such as 2005’s “Metropolis” are a riot of colours and geometric shapes.

In his “Rice Paddies” series, Wu paints the landscape using oils, and in a Westernised way, and then again using ink, and in a more traditionally Eastern way.

Also on display is the rare “The Portrait of a Lady”, painted in 1962 in a European Impressionist style but one that clearly shows the sitter’s facial features and beauty.

Singapore Art Museum’s Chow said the Wu Guangzhong collection will, in a few years, find a permanent home in a national art gallery that is still in the works.

The exhibition runs until August 16.

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