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Asia Society's 'Revolutionary Ink' reflects on Wu Guanzhong

The New York exhibition highlights the influential modern artist's career arc amid a turbulent 20th century China.

May 13, 2012|By Allan M. Jalon, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Wu Guanzhong's 1997 ink and color on rice paper “A Fishing Harbour (III)” conveys the Chinese artist’s sense of nature to tell the story of his motherland."
Wu Guanzhong's 1997 ink and color on rice paper “A Fishing Harbour… (Wu Guanzhong, Asia Society…)

NEW YORK — "A snake swallowing an elephant" is how the Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong described himself. The snake was the Chinese artist in him, and the elephant was Western art. The stylistic fusion that made him one of China'sleading modern artists is on view at the Asia Society Museum here in "Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong," which also reflects the artist's long life amid the turmoil of China's 20th century.

Wu died in 2010 at 90, and these works from his last decades — depicting nature and architecture, some more naturalistic, others mostly abstract — show his easy cohabitation of two cultural hemispheres. There's a painting of the Great Wall weaving an undulating path through mountains that recalls David Hockney's paintings of roads through the hills of Los Angeles. Black ink, often broken by taut patches of bright color, fluidly traces tangled forests, deserts, patterns of birds and traditional hillside villages. Some are large enough to claim a wall.

The 52 pieces, on view through Aug. 5, stem from both Chinese brush and ink traditions and early European modernism, and even the most abstract pieces convey Wu's sense of nature as the subject through which to express "my depth of feelings toward the motherland and my love toward my people."

They have no clear political content, but anyone writing a cultural history of China could do worse than look at them while hearing Wu's son and grandson, who attended the opening of the show, tell of his survival in a Communist China that punished Western-influenced artists.

The word that Wu Keyu, the artist's son, repeatedly used for his father was "perseverance." His remarks were translated by Timothy Wu, his son, a design student in Manhattan.

Born in 1919 in Jiangsu Province, Wu Guanzhong found his cross-cultural focus as a student at the Hangzhou Academy, where he studied with the so-called father of Chinese Modernism, Lin Fengmian.

Wu left China in 1947 to study in post-World War II Paris, staying three years. Two of his closest friends, also Fengmian students, were the well-known Chinese modernists Zhao Wuji and Zhu Dequn, who chose to remain in Europe after the Communist takeover. Feeling that exile would cut him off from his cultural identity, Wu returned. But his strong sense of Chinese identity combined with a refusal to conform to the revolution's approved Social Realism, and he fell out of favor.

His paintings in those days were mostly portraits in oil. "They were pictures of ordinary people," Timothy Wu said. "But the authorities said they distorted ordinary people in a way that was not acceptable."

In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Wu destroyed many of his oil paintings before his house in Beijing could be searched by the Red Guards. Still, he was branded as a bourgeois formalist and banished to the remote countryside, forbidden to paint, write or teach for seven years. Wu Keyu recalled how, "as a child, I loved to paint, but my father said the time was too dangerous."

He said his father "was always thinking about art even when he was forbidden to make it." And Timothy said his grandfather was not a man to waste words, but "if you talked to him about art, if he thought you were really engaged with it, he would talk to you a lot."

As the Cultural Revolution eased in the mid-1970s, Wu was allowed to paint again. This time, instead of portraits in oil, he turned to ink and the subjects on view at the Asia Society. "I used eastern rhythms in the absorption of western form and color," he wrote. "But I couldn't gulp it all down and I switched to using (Chinese) ink."

In 1978, at 59, Wu got his first solo show in China since his return from Paris in 1950. He began to travel, and in 1992 the British Museum gave him a solo show. "Revolutionary Ink" was curated by Melissa Chiu of the Asia Society and Lu Huan of the Shanghai Art Museum, which contributed from its Wu holdings. There was a previous Wu exhibit in San Francisco, but Chinese artists from his generation have not often been seen in America.

Peter Sturman, a professor of Asian art history at UC Santa Barbara, met Wu Guanzhong and has written on him. He said that compared with artists such as Ai WeiWei who have emerged from China since the Tiananmen Square massacre, "Wu's art is tame."

But he spoke of his importance in China's changing culture. "Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, after shoveling manure and working in the fields, when he was finally allowed to paint, the first thing he painted were some melon vines, very, very vividly. I think that's telling. He painted the life of China, but a China he wanted to renew."

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