A Fish Pool in the Mountain City Oil on canvas, framed Signed Tu in Chinese Dated 1987 Signed, dated and titled on the reverse With the Hefner Galleries' label on the reverse 105cm x 78cm (41¼in x 30½in).
Provenance: An American private collector, purchased at Hefner Galleries, New York, in 1989 By descent to the present owner
Published: Liu Pusheng, Cai Peixing eds. Chinese Modern and Contemporary Paintings: Wu Guanzhong, People's Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing, 1996, pp.162-163. Shui Tianzhong, Wang Hua eds. The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong, Volume 3, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, 2007, pp.226-227.
Wu Guanzhong's 'A Fish Pool in the Mountain City', or 'Mountain Village', is a masterful representation of the artist's proficiency in working with oil on canvas while simultaneously showcasing his ability to embrace the deepest roots of the Chinese landscape painting tradition. Painted later in his career at the age of 68, this composition bears witness to the fact that from his youth he studied European and Chinese painting techniques together, producing a fluent merger of the two traditions. As a member of the second generation of twentieth century Chinese artists trained in Europe, Wu Guanzhong was among several talents who experimented with oils on canvas to regenerate traditional Chinese painting following his three-year academic training in Paris. Unlike his teacher Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Wu Guanzhong continued to paint both in oils as well as the more traditional media of ink and paper for most of his career.
Painted in 1987, this canvas was one of a select group of oil paintings created after the artist returned to Beijing. Inspired by trips to Jiangnan and India earlier in the year, these compositions were frequently based on sketches created during his journeys. In his essay 'Hua Zhi' the seminal seventeenth century master artist and theorist Dong Qichang (1555-1636) stated his oft repeated dictum that in order to paint a landscape, an artist should read ten thousand volumes and travel ten thousand miles. Wu Guanzhong remained an ardent traveller in his later years, not only returning to Europe, but also visiting the Chinese countryside. These sojourns would be the source for some of his best-loved and most important paintings, exemplified by the current lot.
Working in the oil medium allowed Wu Guanzhong to capture the scenic realism while conveying an understanding of late nineteenth century European innovations. Despite a minimal palette of color, daring streaks of russet and green, and touches of pink, baby blue and crimson pepper the blue-grey hills. While not the colors normally found on the palette of a Chinese landscape painter, the vivid tones enliven the canvas. This heterodox approach is perhaps a nodding reference to his close study of Modernist masters such as Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), who used color in a similar manner. Taking advantage of the effect of oil on canvas, Wu Guanzhong's brushwork is a fascinating study in this painting. The short horizontal streaks that compose the whitewashed facades of the Jiangnan buildings contrast with the organic build-up of strokes that come together to form the foreground rockery. The oil paint's texture reveals the motion of the brush, retaining the artist's spontaneity.
The unusually large canvas, twice the height of a majority of his works in oil from this period, mimics the proportions of a traditional Chinese hanging scroll. This tall format allows Wu Guanzhong to channel Fan Kuan (active 990-1030) and the great masters of early Northern Song dynasty monumental landscape painting. With a towering central peak flanked by less dramatic mountains, the improbably sharp drop-offs and steep inclines of the mountains heightens the vertical power of the composition. The frontal perspective unified by the mountain endows the scene with a serene and balanced mood. As the flowing lines suggesting the mountains' forms can be interpreted as calligraphic, the black contours of the houses' roofs are reminiscent of the character for people (人), reiterating that the structures at the foot of the high mountains are the domain of humanity. While maintaining the literati ideal of capturing the form-likeness of the scene through the use of abstract, calligraphically inspired brush work, Wu Guanzhong revives one of the most hallowed traditions in Chinese landscape painting.
The timeless spirit of Wu Guanzhong's 'A Fish Pool in the Mountain City' evinces the continuing relevance of the words of tenth century theoretician and painter Guo Xi (ca. 1020-1090) who wrote "In painting a landscape one attends first to the great mountain, which is called the host peak. Once the host is fixed, one may proceed with the secondary mountains, near and far, large and small. In its domination of the entire region, the host is like a ruler among his subjects, a master among servants."
By connecting with the oldest traditions, philosophy and aesthetics of the Chinese landscape painting genre Wu Guanzhong reinforces the unbreakable bond with the past that Chinese landscape painters have relied upon for centuries. While painted a mere twenty-five years ago, this painting stands importantly in the long history of Chinese painting. Relying simultaneously on China's natural scenery and its unrivaled artistic heritage, Wu Guanzhong creates a personal yet 'national' expression through the medium of oil on canvas.