Wu Guanzhong: Beauty Beyond Form, National Gallery Singapore

Beauty Beyond Form inaugural exhibition celebrates the opening of the Wu Guanzhong Gallery at National Gallery Singapore. Spanning over 50 years of Wu’s career, this show features both oil and ink works, many of which will be on display for the first time in Singapore. The exhibition uses a pretty standard chronological format to showcase Wu’s works across his career.

Wu Guanzhong was a major advocate and forerunner of synthesising Chinese art and Western modernism. This show highlights his proficiency in both Chinese and Western art traditions, and his distinctive contribution to the discourse of modern Chinese painting. “To indigenise oil painting and to modernise Chinese painting,” he said, “are two sides of the same face.”

A giant among artists of his generation, Wu Guanzhong is celebrated for his distinctive synergy of Western oil painting and Chinese ink aesthetics, as well as his modernisation of Chinese ink painting. This catalogue accompanies the National Gallery Singapore’s exhibition that showcases Wu Guanzhong’s oeuvre over five decades and inaugurates the permanent gallery dedicated to the artist. Accompanying essays within expand upon themes of the exhibition and offer insight into Wu’s beliefs regarding the function of art.

The Wu Guanzhong Gallery is named in honour of a significant gift of works by Wu to Singapore. This collection is the largest holding of his works in a public collection, and is one of the most valuable art donations ever presented to a museum in Singapore.

Wu Guanzhong (1919 – 2010) was a contemporary Chinese painter widely recognized as a founder of modern Chinese painting. He is considered to be one of the greatest contemporary Chinese painters. Wu’s artworks had both Western and Eastern influences, such as the Western style of Fauvism and the Eastern style of Chinese calligraphy. Wu had painted various aspects of China, including much of its architecture, plants, animals, people, as well as many of its landscapes and waterscapes in a style reminiscent of the impressionist painters of the early 1900s. He was also a writer on contemporary Chinese art.

Wu was a Chinese artist who developed his distinctive style of combining ‘Chinese’ ink and ‘Western’ oil painting. His earlier works depicting scenes of China in the 1970s, and how he transitioned into making more abstract works. Overall, Wu very much rooted in Chinese culture in his choice of subject matter.

The fundamental elements of formal beauty comprise form, color and rhythm. I used Eastern rhythms in the absorption of Western form and color, like a snake swallowing an elephant. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t gulp it all down and I switched to using Chinese ink. This is why in the mid-1970s I began creating a large number of ink paintings. Oil paint and ink are two blades of the same pair of scissors used to cut the pattern for a whole new suit. To indigenize oil painting and to modernize Chinese painting: in my view these are two sides of the same face.

This show features both oil and ink works, many of which will be on display for the first time in Singapore, including the artist’s personal favorite Twin Swallows. Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010) was a major advocate and forerunner of synthesizing Chinese art and Western modernism. This show highlights his proficiency in both Chinese and Western art traditions, and his distinctive contribution to the discourse of modern Chinese painting. “To indigenize oil painting and to modernize Chinese painting,” he said, “are two sides of the same face.”

Twin Swallows
Among many of Wu Guanzhong’s paintings, Twin Swallows was the most outstanding and representative of his search for a synthesis of Western elements into traditional Chinese painting. It is a painting that captures both the static form of traditional Jiangnan architecture and the motion of two swallows as they fly toward a tree. Geometric shapes, especially rectangles, dominate half of the painting. For example, the front walls of the houses are horizontally placed white rectangles with simple black and gray lines to depict the edges and rooftop of each building. Doorways were painted in the same minimalistic manner, yet the contrast between the darkness inside the building with the lighter door frame is prominent enough to create a sense of depth. Wu’s attention to perspective and depth in Twin Swallow is a factor that distinguishes himself from many other traditional guohua painters. Although the white walls in Twin Swallows may seem like the dominating elements in this painting, it is in fact the pair of swallows that reveals Wu’s intention behind this painting. In the 1950s, Wu returned from France to his homeland. It was also a time when Chinese art entered the phase of socialist realism. This artistic movement had encouraged many artists to create artwork in order to contribute to the Chinese society. Similarly, Wu felt obligated to pass on the knowledge that he had gained in France to the younger generations in China in order to promote the idea of a synthesis among Western and traditional Chinese art.

All Wu Guanzhong, Red Houses of Qingdao, 1975, oil on board
The Yangtze River Bridge at Nanjing, 1973, oil on board
A Mountain Town Along-side the Yangtze River, 1974, oil on board
The Riverside Jungle, 1978, Chinese ink and color on paper
Mulberry Grove, 1981, Chinese ink and color on paper
Yulong Snow Mountain, undated (1983), Chinese ink and color on paper
The Great Wall (I), 1986, Chinese ink and color on paper
A Former Homestead, 1995, Chinese ink and color on paper
Spring and Autumn of Lotus Pond, 1996, oil on canvas
Ferry Pier, 1979, Chinese ink and color on paper
White Haired Flowers, 2003, Chinese ink and color on paper
A World of Ice and Snow, 1997, Chinese ink on paper

National Gallery Singapore
National Gallery Singapore is a leading visual arts institution which oversees the world’s largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian modern art. Situated at the birthplace of modern Singapore, in the heart of the Civic District, the Gallery is housed in two national monuments – City Hall and former Supreme Court – that have been beautifully restored and transformed into this exciting 64,000 square metres venue. Reflecting Singapore’s unique heritage and geographical location, the Gallery aims to be a progressive museum that creates dialogues between the art of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world to foster and inspire a creative and inclusive society. This is reflected in our collaborative research, education, long-term and special exhibitions, and innovative programming. The Gallery also works with international museums such as Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay, Tate Britain, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT) and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), to jointly present Southeast Asian art in the global context, positioning Singapore as a key node in the global visual arts scene.

National Gallery Singapore oversees the world’s leading public collection of modern art from Singapore and Southeast Asia. It comprises over 8,000 works from the 19th and 20th centuries in all media, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and video.

Aiming to be the centre for research, discussion and publication on the modern art of the region, the Gallery offers wide access and fresh understanding of our unique visual art heritage.

With its comprehensive collection, the Gallery presents the development of Singapore and regional cultures to tell their social, economic and political histories. The Gallery looks beyond national and regional boundaries of art to include a wider ambit of international visual arts culture, research into Asian heritage and cultural affiliations, and engage with global cultures and discourses.