Wu Guanzhong - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips

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  • "A plain white wall is an enticing creative subject for the painter, but this one has been taken
    over by vines of ivy. Its living network spreads slowly, from youth to maturity to old age, as it
    weaves traces of all its springs and autumns into its brocade. The new shoots of spring, the
    remnants of autumn's red, and the speckling here and there all play their notes on this harp of
    ivy, making the willows flutter and the swallows take flight — are they accompanists, or
    — Wu Guanzhong

    In 1936, Wu Guanzhong entered the Hangzhou National Academy of Arts, founded by Lin Fengmian, and along with such others as Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-Chun, became one of the outstanding students to study under Lin. Each of the three traveled abroad to study Western painting in Paris, for which they became known as "the Three Musketeers" of modern Chinese art. Having absorbed the essentials of Western painting during his stay in France, Wu returned to China in 1950 and devoted himself to creating a fusion of Eastern and Western painting. As he explored this path, he made innovative conceptual breakthroughs in areas such as brushwork, colour, and modeling of form, depicting his inner dialogues with an artistic vocabulary based on the beauty of form and abstraction. His work with landscapes, primarily in the oil medium, reached maturity during the 1970s; in the 1980s, he turned more toward inkwash painting but still produced works in oil, thus beginning his "amphibian" period of working in both the "watery" medium of inks and the "drier" medium of oils. New breakthroughs followed in the 1990s when he incorporated even more expressionistic elements into his realistic style, painting with tremendous freedom and verve in both oils and the ink medium.


    In the years just before and after 1990, Wu Guanzhong enjoyed a period of substantial
    achievement in which he held frequent exhibitions. This involved numerous trips abroad for large-scale solo exhibitions in important institutions, and during these periods abroad he enjoyed sketching and painting from life, an experience that broadened his vision and led to a more open mindset. His brushwork began to exhibit even greater freedom, ease, and character, and he became more attentive to the expressive use of colour. Created in 1991, Autumn onto the Wall explores through the oil medium the unique sense of abstraction in Chinese painting, is a perfect demonstration of how the artist put his artistic theories into practice.


     Autumn Colours 

    "I have made many paintings, in oils and in
    ink, of the gorgeous autumn colours on these
    walls.... but the toughest problem was always
    the limitation of the wall. That in turn
    restricted the extension of the vines, and the
    sky above always occupied too much space
    where vines ought to be instead. I
    compressed the sky to a minimum, but even
    so still had trouble expressing the essence of
    that wall, its grand presence."
    — Wu Guangzhong

    Autumn colours on a wall was a favorite theme for Wu Guanzhong, one he revisited often in both the ink and the oil mediums. He felt special affection for the scenery of the Jiangnan region, of which he was a native, and was attracted by the weathered, time-worn walls there that had witnessed so much change. Wu's first use of this autumnal colours theme derived from the experience of painting from life in Suzhou in the early 1980s, when a wall in the "Lingering Garden" in Suzhou captured his attention with its spreading, interwoven vines, sparking his creative urge. During this period, he was less concerned with detail than when painting landscapes in the 1970s, and no longer insisted on completing his paintings on site; instead, he simply recorded his responses to these scenes in sketches, which he would complete later in the studio. Wu once said that the most vexing problem in creating these 'autumn colours' paintings, whether in oil or in ink, was how to balance the boundaries of the wall, the spreading of the vines, and the proportions of the sky. What remains, after the dissatisfactions and the occasional failed attempts of his explorations, are the wonderful classic works that we now enjoy.



    Wu Guangzhong, Shuang yan (Two Swallows), 1981


    Autumn onto the Wall, is painted in oil and features a horizontal composition, which makes the wall that extends across the entire painting its principal subject. The two birch trees that stand in front, however, divide the pictorial space into two parts even as they seem to break the ancient silence of the old wall. The composition is reminiscent of a Wu Guanzhong masterpiece from the 1980s — Shuang Yan (Two Swallows) — which the artist himself considered the most representative among his many Jiangnan-inspired works. Autumn endeavors to break the pictorial plane up into geometric arrangements, as the large trees in front divide the featured structure into two parts, while long horizontal lines and white blocks of colour form a strong
    contrast with shorter, vertical blocks of black. Autumn onto the Wall is presented in a
    compositional style similar to Two Swallows, though perhaps divided even more clearly into a tripartite horizontal composition through the interaction between sky, the vines and the wall, and the wall and the ground beneath. The viewer's gaze is led beyond the boundaries of the painting, powerfully suggesting to the imagination a space that encompasses both the painting and the spaces beyond.


    Left: Lot 8, Matthew Wong, The Road, 2018 
    Artwork: © 2023 Matthew Wong Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 30 March 2023
    Estimate: HK$24,000,000 - 35,000,000

    Right: Vincent van Gogh, Landscape with House and Ploughman, 1889
    Image: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence


    Throughout his career, in China and abroad, Wu Guanzhong remained in love with the theme of autumn colours. In many places, this Autumn shows influences of Western masters of the oil medium such as Van Gogh; later successors to Wu Guanzhong, such as Mathew Wong, have similarly painted works on the theme of autumn colours. In contrast to Wu's other works on this theme, the number of black lines that represent vines is reduced in favor of the abstract blocks of rich, thick autumn tones that he scatters across the canvas. Occupying the center, among the weaving lines of ivy, we see orange, golden brown, and reddish brown, their rich hues blurring the wall's upper boundary; these are further embellished with touches of dark green, light brown, reddish orange, and chrome yellow. The white wall is built up from blocks in varied shades of grey, which complement the lyrical, freehand lines near the bottom of the
    canvas and add a sense of graceful movement; two white clouds floating in the autumn sky above add the final harmonies to this symphony of the season.

    "I personally will never be satisfied
    with the visual comfort of nothing more than
    pure forms; I love artistic conceptions in
    paintings, yet those conceptions are always
    found in union with the beauty of form, and
    can only be manifested through it. Always at
    the heart of my career as an artist has been
    using my painter's eye to discover the
    conception associated with an image."
    — Wu Guanzhong

    Wu Guanzhong once said that the nearly abstract geometric structuring of his works, and their complex jumbles of intertwined lines, actually grew from the interplay of concrete images.


    Beyond the deep nostalgia in this painting for the old wall and its vines, the language of form receives consideration in the relationship between the images of the white birches and the sky, wall, and vines — which is precisely the "beauty of form" that Wu Guanzhong explored throughout his career. He believed the point of artistic creation was not to produce faithful imitations of scenes; instead, he felt a modern artist should search for certain elements hidden within an objective scene, the constituent elements of its beauty, and discover the principles that govern them. He also emphasized the importance of artistic conception, expecting artists to bring an emotional focus to the scenes they portrayed, so that "feeling will be present within
    the forms." No matter how abstract, or how lofty the object of the painting, he felt this
    connection with feeling must not be broken. With this in mind, Autumn onto the Wall stands as an outstanding illustration of Wu's theory of art. On the one hand, gazing at this wall with its old vines, everyone feels the enchantment of their beautiful forms, and by transforming them into lines, geometric shapes, and blocks of colour, the artist reveals the structural beauty so essential to the gardens of the Jiangnan region. At the same time, the vines, which people of yore planted to protect their walls, become a lyrical expression of autumn's abundance, imbued with a meaning beyond themselves. They give voice to the artist's Eastern outlook and feelings
    and his memories of his native land, in a perfect realization of his idea that 'the kite string (connected to the viewer's feelings) must not be broken.'

     Collector's Digest 


    • In 1991, Wu Guanzhong was awarded the French Ministry of Culture's highest award for
      literature and art and the Golden Medal from the Municipal Government of Paris. In the spring of 1992, when Wu was 72, the British Museum in London held the solo exhibition Wu
      Guanzhong: A 20th Century Chinese Painter, the first time since its founding that it had held a solo exhibition for a living Chinese artist. The curator for the exhibition was the famous art
      historian Michael Sullivan, and the ribbon cutting at the opening ceremony was performed by then British Crown Prince Charles. Wu Guanzhong's old friend Chu Teh-Chun and his wife also came from Paris to attend.

    • When Wu passed away in 2010, an obituary by Walter Sullivan was published in The Guardian, in which he praised Wu's work, saying, 'His landscapes in oils are marked by a delicacy of touch and colour, a purity and fluidity of line, that are very seductive. '

    • Beginning in the 1990s, Wu Guanzhong held solo exhibitions in museums in the United States, Britain, France, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Those included the 2002 Wu Guanzhong Retrospective Exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the 2005 Wu Guanzhong Retrospective Exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum, the 2006 Wu Guanzhong Solo Exhibition at the National Art Museum of China, and the 2018 Wu Guan Zhong: Expressions of Pen & Palette at the National Gallery of Singapore. In addition to the esteem in which he is held for his creative work, Wu Guanzhong also engaged in research into the theory and development of art, and published dozens of painting albums and anthologies of his writings. The Hunan Arts Publishing House in 2006 issued a ten-volume collection of his work, The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong.

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Asia (acquired directly from the artist)
      Christie's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2018, lot 19
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Hong Kong, Exchange Square, Yi Hua Lang, The Art of Wu Guanzhong 60’-90’s, October 1996

    • Literature

      China Three Gorges Publishing House, Art of Wu Guanzhong 60’s-90’s, Beijing, 1996, pl. 84, p. 105 (illustrated)
      People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Wu Guan Zhong – Connisseur’s Choice I, China, 2003, pl. 72, pp. 166-167 (illustrated)
      Shui Zhongtian and Wang Hua, eds., The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong Vol. III, Changsha, 2007, pp. 320-321 (illustrated)


✱ Ж20

Autumn onto the Wall

signed and dated '91 Tu [in Chinese]' lower right
oil on board
30 x 54.5 cm. (11 3/4 x 21 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1991.

Full Cataloguing

HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000 

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Charlotte Raybaud
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023