'If you don't see a figurative object, which is to say it's an abstract painting, there's a reason. It's as if the artist is wandering through time and space, moving backward and forward in memory, trying to express the passage of time that is so difficult to capture.'
-Wu Guanzhong, With a Poet's Eye
Wu Guanzhong spent a lifetime tirelessly exploring the zone of impact where Eastern and Western artistic traditions meet, searching for his own sense of emotional satisfaction and belonging. He employed an artistic vocabulary strong in formal and abstract beauty, recording personal, inner soliloquies on canvas or paper. He drew artistic inspiration from the ordinary details of everyday life, but injected them with deeply personal conceptions and feelings. His abstract scenic paintings, drawing on more than 50 years of experience in painting from life, are based on the nature and exemplify his dictum that 'the kite string [the line connecting a painting to real things] must never break' As a result, his artistic evolution from figurative work to abstraction can be clearly seen; at the same time, it reveals traces of the course his own life followed, and his works from the beginning to the end of his career, creates strong connections with viewers.
Returning home after a period in France, Wu found an ideological climate that compelled him to turn his focus more toward painting nature scenes, and in fact he happily immersed himself in discovering and expressing nature's beauty. Over the decades-long span of his career, Wu traveled through both northern and southern China, refining his paintings into abstract forms, and then refining them further - all for the sake of portraying the idealized scenes he saw in his mind. Mountains, rivers, forests, and the branches and vines of the plant kingdom were all favoured subjects of this artist. Plant life symbolized for him a kind of bursting vitality and toughness of spirit. He portrayed plants and trees with an exuberant vitality, exuding the pure and untouched beauty of nature.
A Passage of Years (Lot 64) was inspired by four Han Dynasty cypresses, which in a later age were later given individual names by the Qianlong Emperor: 'Clear,' 'Wondrous,' 'Ancient,' and 'Strange' (qing, qi, gu, guai). These four trees, which had been struck by lightning but grew back again, featured in several Wu Guanzhong paintings, a series that shows his evolving attempts to portray a kind of abstraction that would have a perfect naturalness.
Beginning with Cypress No. 2 (Fig. 1), Wu's fast, nimble, entangled lines outline in figurative form the shapes and the growth rings of these old trees. In his later Forest of Old Trees (Fig. 2), his bending, curving lines portray their dry, twisting branches with a balance of solid lines and empty spaces. Finally, Wu has studied his subject and refined his approach even further. With only the easy, flowing, but vivid lines of A Passage of Years and its sprinkling of coloured dots, he symbolically presents the loom of time as it weaves the years into these ancient trees. Such lines as we see here represent not just a further refinement of the artist's technique, but the ineffable speech of his own heart in his later years.
Time - so illusory yet such an omnipresent concept in our lives - has fascinated the artists throughout history who have tried to capture it. The surrealist artist Salvador Dalí once said his work was 'A materialization of the flexibility of time and the indivisibility of time and space. Time is not rigid. It is one with space-fluid.' Dalí grasped that beyond being a unit of scientific measurement, time and its flow reflect an aspect of the human mind. The clocks that flow like water in Dal?'s The Persistence of Memory (Fig. 3) express the idea that, while life follows the physical flow of time, it is our perceptions of feelings and life experiences that remain with us.
Wu Guanzhong's use of heavier or lighter black tones, at different times and places, and his lines, sometimes quiet and sometimes resounding with energy, also reflect his state of mind at these different times. In A Passage of Years, his subjective colour sense and artistic vocabulary suggest a retrospective mood, an artist in his venerable old age reflecting on years past. Dense, heavy splashes of black recall the times of his zesty youth, while the fine and graceful lines reflect the days of calmer maturity. Regret over the vicissitudes of life can perhaps be seen in the flows of inky colours expressing accumulated experience and wisdom.
Through the brush of Wu Guanzhong, the canvas becomes a woven web of cypress branches, a time capsule of lingering thought and memory. In flowing lines and dancing dots of colour, the artist's brush coalesces and solidifies the moments of time as they pass. With his unique sense of rhythm, the artist portrays the changing aspects of time, while the viewer's gaze, in appreciating these details, is drawn moment by moment into time and space as the artist has woven it in clear black and white and multicoloured inks. Let the times change, let the years pass: Wu Guanzhong, an artist who loved nature and life, preserved the undying beauty of art, and his insights into life in A Passage of Years.