Flight Into Memory & Abstraction

Portrait of Wu Guanzhong. Photo from National Gallery (Singapore)


Wu Guanzhong was a renowned Chinese contemporary painter who lived through almost a century (1919 to 2010); long enough to see the transformation of his world and art from era to era. One reason his works are seen as significant because they deviated from the Soviet social realist art which dominated the Chinese art world during his time.

Unimpressed by the trend of commercialization in the arts in China, Wu Guanzhong donated most of his works to Singapore (the Singapore Art Museum) and Hong Kong (the Hong Kong Art Museum) – and that was how I chanced upon the exhibition “Seeing The Kite Again” at the Singapore Arts Museum.

The title, “Seeing The Kite Again”, or “又见风筝“ in Mandarin, evokes a feeling of freedom and nostalgia – not in the least bit surprising for someone who lived through so many historical moments, in particular the Cold War and days of glory for socialist states like the Soviet Union and China itself. With the reference to ‘kite flying’ in the title, it almost feels as if Wu Guanzhong was trying to bring people back to the ‘good old days’ of a carefree child.

As they are today, kites were a form of entertainment for kids in China, who would run through a vastness of a green grass fields, basking under the sunlight and chasing the chilly wind that traveled through the hollow valleys between the mountains. The reference to kites in the title created this image in my head when I first read it. As if Wu’s art is discarding the harshness of reality, and the control and restriction of a socialist world. It’s possible that such a yearning for remoteness and freedom would have been denounced during the Cultural Revolution.

Starting from the top left corner of the exhibition space (and walking in a clockwise direction), we see a spread of paintings created with a palette selection of light and pastel colors. The first part of this exhibition brought about a feeling of hope, conveying a message of optimism. Wu momentarily ignored the fact that he was living in a heavily controlled environment, and simply made his paintings light and innocent. In “A Tibetan Buddha Wall” (1961), a graffiti of a blue Tibetan Buddha is rendered childishly on a wall within the painting. Yet instead of mocking the holiness of the Buddha with this amateurish depiction, it brought about a feeling of innocence. “Hometown Morning” in that same era portrayed the countryside as a peaceful place worth returning to after a hard day’s work. He never looks back to the grimness of the city in China at that point of time during the Great Leap Forward; he ignores the city that is troubled by rapid industrialization and collectivization, and slowly walks towards his beautiful hometown, untainted by the ghosts of socialist urbanization.

With the advent of increasing social realism in China, Wu Guanzhong’s formal expression in art, which pointed to individualism and independence from the physical world, was radically oppositional.

Moving on, we see a few paintings that are slightly darker and with higher contrast, pulling the audience back a bit with a heavier thematic approach. It is as if one is “seeing the kite trapped” in this unknown world of the darkness and the bizarre – a different feeling from more hopeful paintings. The painting style mimics that of a Europeans impressionist style, and they carry a tinge of mystery. “Gulang Islet” features strips of dangling long branches in the foreground (like a Banyan tree) that cover a vast countryside behind them; it feels as if the dangling twigs are a curtain trying to cover vastness and freedom. “Jungle at the Foot of the Yulong Mountains”,  features a jungle at night lit up eerily by the cold moonlight. It’s so dark and intense that it did not feel like it was a painting of China; it actually reminded me strongly of the world of Dracula’s Transylvania. However, despite the change in the mood the rhythmic flow and pictorial composition remain as brilliant as before.

With the passing of time, Wu Guanzhong’s paintings fell under a different wave of influence. They became more abstract after the mid 1980s, and played on form and abstraction of his subject matter. As if following the timeline of his artistic influences in real time, we start to move towards an array of abstract paintings in the gallery. The pictorial composition of his paintings were structured based on musical rhythm to ensure a sense of flow in the paintings. Rhythmic beauty and lines in harmony can be seen in works like “Birds in the Woods” and “Like Grace Like Flowers Like Fruits”. Perhaps this could be Wu’s way of showing his relief for the society as China is slowly putting behind the ghosts of the Cultural Revolution. It feels like Wu was trying to take a more laid back approach to his paintings as a reflection of the gradual emancipation of the Chinese society. Many Chinese art theorists like Zong Baihua felt that beauty and its characteristics are found in the form and rhythm, and these are what manifest the inner core of life, energy within the artwork. Thus, an abstract form could be a display and attempt at true knowledge of an object.

Some of his works also weave in styles from the West. I could not help but feel that his painting of “A Red Wall” and “Spring in Full Play” are similar to Jackson Pollock’s work. With Pollock I could never comprehend the effort and concept behind those abstract shapes. Similarly “Towards the Lotus Pond” is too abstract; I really could not appreciate the blotches of colors sloshed around the painting, and was frustrated in not being able to see any image that even hints of a ‘Lotus Pond’. Perhaps he was trying to question on how one sees reality, blurring the line between reality and perceived fantasy. There may be “true knowledge of an object” here, but I can’t seem to find it. On the other hand “A Lotus Flower Island” had more colour and the lotuses were discernible, and “White Flowers” had a black background that made the white flowers extremely vivid.

"White Flowers" by Wu Guanzhong

In “A Fleet of Boats”, I really loved the simple composition of the painting; however, I was disturbed by the addition of blotches of colors as it spoils this simplicity. This distracting the use of colors was more apparent in “Spring in Full Play” because he used jarring green lines. In one of Wu’s writings, he stated that this ‘progression’ did not represent a ‘break’ from figuration to abstraction as such, but was the realisation of fundamental aesthetic principles that he had always held. He concluded that it was up to the painter to choose the subject of the painting – which is what made his abstract works so subjective.

“Forgotten Flowers” bore the same characteristics as the aforementioned works, yet it worked beautifully well. Painted fully in ink, the lines were very beautiful. There is a sense of loneliness, the flowers painted in dark ink standing out from the remoteness of the plain white background. This painting dates from 2005, Wu was an old man in his late 80s, and there’s a sense of his loneliness and the knowledge that very soon, he will leave this world and soon be ‘forgotten’.

"Forgotten Flowers" by Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong holds deep respect for intercultural values; when it comes to art, this higher-order of thought can be understood as the interaction between the subjective emotive and the objective physical world. The last painting in the gallery, “Prints”, was a particularly interesting piece of work that explored culture. The painting was abstract, with blotches of ink spread over the paper, and amidst the blotches, we see calligraphic Chinese text, a fusion of cultures.

Looking at Wu’s paintings it is as if we are witnessing an evolution in Wu’s life along with the evolution in his paintings, from a state of denial and continuing to think about the ideal life when society was grim, to that of abstract art which invokes contemplation on many matters of life and reality, and questions a way of looking at things. As we start to consider the possibilities of perceiving things from a different light, we are once again invited to “see the kite again”.