Wu Guanzhong was a modern Chinese painter widely recognised for his landscape paintings that elegantly reconcile Western and Eastern aesthetics. His works amalgamate the vibrant colours of Fauvism with the rhythm of Chinese calligraphy. A forerunner of modern Chinese painting, Wu’s style encapsulates the vision and sensibility he built through years of study in both Hangzhou and Paris.
Wu was born in 1919 in Yixing, Jiangsu, China. He first studied electrical engineering at Zhejiang Industrial School, before later transferring to the National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou in 1936. There, he studied painting under Lin Fengmian and Pan Tianshou.
Wu moved to Paris in 1947, having been awarded a three-year scholarship to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. He described himself as 'a snake swallowing an elephant’ — the snake referring to himself as a Chinese artist, the elephant standing for Western influence. Among the many European artists he came across, he was particularly drawn to the work of Pissarro, Cezanne and Van Gogh.
Upon his return to China in 1950, Wu held a teaching position at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. However, he found himself outside of the academy circle, which at the time favoured Socialist Realism. He travelled extensively, seeing the landscapes of his home country in a new light.
When the Cultural Revolution arrived in 1966, Wu was prohibited from painting, writing and teaching and many of his works were destroyed. In 1970, he was denounced as a ‘bourgeois formalist’ and sent to Hebei Province countryside to perform manual labour. Wu was only able to resume his artistic practice in the mid-1970s, following the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution.
The 1970s to ‘80s is considered a pivotal period for Wu, where he masterfully employed both ink and oil in his compositions. Shifting to a semi-abstract and expressive style, Wu was able to blend Western and Eastern aesthetics on his own terms. In 1979, Wu held his first major solo exhibition at the China National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing.
In 1992, Wu was the first living Chinese artist to hold an exhibition at the British Museum. As one of the most revered artists in China, Wu received two major retrospectives in 2010, a year before he passed away. In 2012, the Asia Society in New York mounted an exhibition Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong posthumously.
In November 2019, his work on paper The Grand Canyon (1989) — capturing the magnificent American landscape in meandering lines and dancing blots of ink and colour — sold for $5,773,971 at Christie’s.