Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010) stands as one of the most important artists of twentieth-century China. Born in Jiangsu Province, Wu studied art at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou (today’s China Academy of Art) and, from 1947, in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts. He returned to China after three years and taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His works were condemned before and during the Cultural Revolution because his oil paintings did not comply with the political interests of the time. In spite of this he continued to paint and emerged as a national cultural figure whose works came to be celebrated inside and outside China. He is also well known for his eloquent writings on art and creativity that sometimes led to controversies and spawned heated debates among Chinese artists and intellectuals. Wu Guanzhong created works that embody many of the major shifts and tensions in twentieth-century Chinese art—raising questions around individualism, formalism, and the relationship between modernism and cultural traditions.
With a career spanning over sixty years, the selection of paintings in this exhibition focuses on some of his best works in the medium of ink and spans the decades from the mid-1970s to 2004. It is notable that Wu began to work more extensively in ink in the 1970s in his mid-career—turning to a traditional medium at a time when most artists looked to western art for inspiration. The exhibition traces the development of Wu’s work during this period with a thematic focus illuminating the rich historical legacy of ink painting in China, and also representing his radical individual style steeped in his strong belief in formalist principles. Wu pushed the boundaries of our understanding of how a traditional medium of ink can be made new for a new century.