Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong (August 29, 1919 – June 25, 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 of all-time. 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 born in the farming village of Yixing, Jiangsu, in 1919.  His family wanted him to become a teacher just like his father had been.  While in engineering school, Wu met an art student named Zhu Dequn who was studying at the National Hangzhou Academy of Art. During a trip to Zhu’s school, Wu got his first look at art and fell “madly in love with art”.  Against his father’s wishes, in 1936 he transferred to the National Arts Academy of Hangzhou, studying both Chinese and Western painting under Pan Tianshou (1897–1971) and Lin Fengmian (1900–1991).

Wu went through many trials and challenges during his years in college before he could master his craft. In 1937 the Sino-Japanese War began and the campus had to pick up and relocate in order to get out of the way of the invading Japanese army. During the constant movement during the war, Wu was able to see many different locations. He considered the adventures as a necessary journey to becoming a man and building his character. Wu benefitted greatly from the many teachers who taught him to paint and the rough journey to becoming a man.

In 1942 he graduated from National Arts Academy, Hangzhou and tried to find a job. During the war jobs were hard to find and Wu took a part-time job as a substitute teacher. He later found a job as a watercolor and drawing teacher in the Architecture Department of Chongqing University. After Wu graduated he continued to hone his craft and studied with some of his old colleagues from school like Zhu Dequn, Li Lincan and Zheng Wei.

In 1946 Wu applied for one of the two art study abroad spots and was the best applicant who applied, this was in part to his French language studies. 1947 traveled to Paris to study at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts on the government scholarship.

Even though France was still recovering from World War II, Wu was completely enthralled with the art. He visited all of the major museums within the first few days of his arrival. Wu was always a tremendous fan of French and European art.

Wu returned to China in the summer of 1950 to the excitement that was brought by the new People’s Republic of China government. The government assigned jobs to all of the returning students who came back after the new government took control. Everyone felt anxious and excited to contribute to the building of a new nation. Wu introduced aspects of Western art to his students at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, where he taught from 1950 to 1953. He was excited to be the first Chinese artist to return from France with knowledge and theoretical framework for French modernism.

While teaching, many peers criticized him because of jealousy over his job and because he was the only painter practicing formalism. The Academy was known to have been dominated by social realism and Wu was called “a fortress of bourgeois formalism”.

The issues became so bad he could no longer stay at the Central Academy and transferred. Between 1953 and 1964 he taught at Tsinghua University, Beijing and then Beijing Fine Arts Normal College. As a professor Wu was able to take many trips around the country and discover the expanse that was the new China. Wu was full of ambition and energy and travelled to many locations where his peers wouldn’t go.

His life was going just how he wanted because he taught where his colleagues agreed on ideas, his students liked his approach and he could paint or sketch whenever he wanted. This is when Wu made a transition to landscape since he travelled all over the country. He was later appointed a Professor at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, Beijing in 1964.

In August 1966, at the outset of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Wu was prohibited from painting and writing about art, and many of his early works were destroyed.

In 1970, at the age of 51, he and his wife were separated and assigned to almost 3 years of hard labor in the countryside as part of the Communist Party’s vast re-education program.

During the 1970s, Wu changed his style based on what others were doing at the time. Wu started painting with oil or watercolor in a Western style until he returned to Beijing and saw other artists using watercolor in the traditional Chinese style.

In 1975 a Chinese art association in Japan wanted some paintings to exhibit but they wanted traditional Chinese ink paintings. Once again Wu changed his style to match the specifications and his work became a great hit. From here Wu moved on to another phase where he painted with oil and concentrated on the human body and the beauty of form.

He had his first professional solo exhibition in 1979, and his career took off in the 1980s. He has been the solo exhibitionist in over 10 and been part of a joint exhibition in over 10 others.

In 1991 Wu was made an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

Early in his career Guanzhong adopted the pen name Tu, which he used to sign his work.

In 2008, Wu donated 113 works to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). This donation is the largest Wu Guanzhong donation to a public museum. In 2010, Wu donated works to the Hong Kong Art Museum.

Wu died at the age of 90 on June 25, 2010 during night time in Beijing.