Auction | China Guardian (HK) Auctions Co., Ltd.
2023 Spring Auctions > Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art
Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010)
Chongqing of the Old Times(Painted in 1996)

Oil on wood panel

44 × 45.8 cm. 17 3/8 × 18 in.

Signed in Chinese and dated on bottom right; signed and titled in Chinese and dated on the reverse

1999, Art Exhibition Collection of Wu Guanzhong, Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China and National Art Mueseum of China, Beijing, p.109
2003, Wu Guanzhong - Connoisseur's Choice I, People Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing, p.236-237
2007, The Complete Works of Wu Guanzhong, vol. IV, Hunan Art Publishing House, Changsha, p.159
5 Nov – 2 Dec 1999, Art Exhibition Collection of Wu Guanzhong, National Art Museum of China, Beijing

4 Nov 2005, China Guardian Autumn Auction, Lot 18
Acquired directly by present important private Asian collector from the above

Painting My Colours, Towering Mountain City
Wu Guanzhong's “Second Home Town” Chongqing
An Oil Painting Masterpiece Brimming with Emotion

“In the 1970s I painted real life scenes from Chongqing in oils and ink, painting the densely packed old buildings, a city full of black roofed buildings with white walls, in a style that was somewhere in between abstract and representational, so viewers could feel the representational even though it relied heavily on abstract methodology. If I had painted a representational likeness of each individual home it would have taken more than a decade to complete. I have not visited Sichuan in 20 years and the world has changed, so Chongqing certainly does not resemble its old self, but as I look at old Chongqing in a painting album of my works I find myself filled with nostalgia for the past ... I hope the city remains forever young and does not age as I have done.”
——Wu Guanzhong

A Treasured Masterpiece from Wu Guanzhong's Chongqing Series

Wu Guanzhong travelled across China painting from real life, and it is in this context that Chongqing holds a special meaning to him, second only to his hometown. During the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-1945), the Hangzhou Academy of Art relocated on several occasions into the Chinese hinterland, first to Yuanling, then Kunming and finally Chongqing. In 1941, Wu was a student at the school and traveled with his teacher Lin Fengmian and others to Chongqing for the first time. After graduating in 1943, his first job was as a teacher in the Department of Architecture at Chongqing University. It was at that time he met, fell in love with and married Zhu Biqin who taught at the university's affiliated elementary school. Wu used his spare time when not teaching to create art and in the same year held his first solo exhibition at Shapingba Youth Palace in Chongqing City. The event was well received and resulted in him being offered the chance to study in France in 1947.

As such, Chongqing bore witness to the artist's youth, love story, marriage and the beginnings of his budding artistic career, giving it an important position in his life. In his memoir Unbroken String of the Kite, Wu observed: “I lived in the outskirts of Chongqing for five years, and I recall the people, places and scenery of Sichuan like a second hometown. I also travelled within the province on many occasions to paint from real life ... and every time I was filled with tender affection and transported back in time.”

The topography around Chongqing is hilly, often shrouded in fog and rainy, so much so that it is sometimes referred to colloquially as the “City of Fog.” At the same time, it used to be a random mishmash of old and new buildings next to the fast-flowing Changjiang and Jialing rivers, forming the unique three gorges landscape. As a result, old and new engaged in dialogue and blended together to create unique features, which very much appealed to Wu Guanzhong, hence his numerous paintings of Chongqing scenes. Records indicate that from 1972 to 2003 the artist painted 13 individual works recognized as part of his Chongqing series -- six oil paintings and seven ink and colour paintings. Four of these works were owned by Wu's good friend Chu Teh-Chun, renowned Hong Kong art collector Lo Kwee-seong and Shanghai Art Museum. On this occasion, the work being auctioned is Chonging of the Old Times, completed in 1996, one of only five oil paintings from the Chongqing series held privately. It is also a testament to breadth of the Wu's creative outlook and embrace of new things. The work was procured by an important Asian art collector in 2005 and remained part of that collection for 18 years, so its inclusion in the current auction is a rare and precious opportunity for art lovers everywhere.

When Wu Guanzhong painted Chonging of the Old Time she already had an international reputation in the wake of China's policy of reform and opening. Not only did he visit West Africa and Japan as head of a “Chinese Artists Delegation” in 1981, he held a solo exhibition at this British Museum in London in 1992. He is the first living artist to ever hold a solo exhibition at this museum. As Wu increasingly found success as an artist, he became more established and experienced, giving everything he could to each work in an effort to present the most beautiful and elegant works possible. If we look back at the artist's creative style in the 1990s, he adopted a more abstract and freehand approach, simplified the real world details of landscapes and highlighted more the geometric and abstract aesthetics hidden in such vistas, infusing his paintings with rhythm, artistic conception and spiritual awareness. Chonging of the Old Times is the perfect example of this “more mature perspective” and a masterpiece presented in his new painting style.

Embracing Abstraction and Freedom

In his memoirs Wu Guanzhong recalled: “Pure form detached from content is unable to truly encapsulate reality; At the core of representational art always exists a certain degree of abstract beauty.” Against this backdrop, Chonging of the Old Times is a classic work that perfectly captures the artist's embrace of abstraction and “plane of freedom.” A detailed look at the painting indicates that Wu was cautious in his approach and did not blindly embrace the complete abstraction of the West. Indeed, he takes the relationship between the viewpoint of the artist and objective reality as analogous to the unbroken string of a kite, wherein abstraction is limited to extracting “essence” from form: In terms of composition Chonging of the Old Times differentiates between buildings and the river through form and colour, using abstract coloured blocks to demarcate boundaries. This serves to highlight the representational and richly detailed boats, homes and the Changjiang, creating an old Chongqing that is replete with forms and spirit and a space brimming with poetic imagination.

Combining East and West, Painting the Times

In Chonging of the Old Times the main focus is the row upon row of houses. It is here that Wu Guanzhong employs heavy, short and quick dabbed brush strokes to depict the densely concentrated homes stacked on top of each other and reaching upwards. Vertical and horizontal short daubed strokes create the main rhythm, backed up by twisting and undulating strokes. The oils added from different angles and directions accumulate to create layers, leaving behind a visual effect of curved, straight, twisted and circuitous lines. Seen from a distance, the colours appear as one row of buildings after another, whereas seen up close the hues are often grouped together in diverse coloured layers. The artist also uses accumulated oil colours to highlight the thick heavy texture of the medium, showcasing the overlapping and interweaving of oil colour layers. This work also confirms Wu's observation: “Beauty is to be found between the row upon row of uneven and jumbled buildings.” His use of geometric blocks is also reminiscent of the work Broadway Boogie Woogie by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. That painting contains coloured blocks with their own independent aesthetic, but unlike Mondrian Wu does not completely do away with representational images of external objects, preferring to retain them as clues through which he communicates with the public.

Forging Ahead, Looking Back at a Grand Landscape

In Chonging of the Old Times, the mountain city is surrounded by emerald water and blue sky. Wu uses a misty light blue and white hue to depict the river and in so doing creates an ethereal landscape imbued with rolling clouds and dark changes more reminiscent of Chinese ink painting, which brings to life the vital energy of the big waves hitting the riverbank and vitality of the mountain city. Moreover, on the bank we can see several small boats that have slowly made their way to the mountain city from afar and are preparing to dock, filling the composition with a sense of dynamic development. Wu uses this to guide the viewer's visual centre and scope to the left and right, even extending into the imaginary space beyond the painting, to showcase an almost movie-like scanning and movement, with the continuous imagery a perfect allusion to the passing of time. In addition, the way in which the clear sky and river surround the man-made city and nature also speaks to the philosophical view that “mankind is dependent on nature” which is a distinctive element of Chinese culture. This highlights the artist's breadth of mind in his later years, marked by contentment and a belief in the unity of mankind and nature.

Interplay of Ink and Colour, Replete with Sentiment

“Smoke and fire dot millions of households;
Surf and billows roll three thousand waves.
The river flow inscribes the character ba down through the ages;
The mountain scenery paints Juran until this day.”
——He Mingli Chongqing Prefecture

The poem Chongqing Prefecture by Qing Dynasty literati He Mingli gives the reader a sense of the surging water along the riverbanks of Chongqing and bustling scenes of humanity inside the mountain city. Indeed, it is precisely this landscape of man and nature that imbues the Chongqing scenes painted by Wu Guanzhong with such a towering and ethereal feel. In the painting, the water and sky are the same blue-green colour, with the artist repeatedly changing brush strokes and introducing tiny amounts of black and white, along with varied layers of grey. This showcases minute changes among similar colours akin to the “five grades of ink” and “dispersed colours” employed in Chinese ink painting. The small boats carrying passengers and the continuous flow of people in the foreground decorate the rows of homes in the mountain vista, while fishermen return home, housewives wash silk, the courageous set forth on ocean-bound adventures and children play on the riverbank. Although the painting depicts an overview of Chongqing, it is the artist's use of simple brushstrokes to add details that breathe life into the city and presents viewers with a vivid “human” story, which in turn infuses the work with an unprecedented and deeply evocative humanity.

In Chonging of the Old Times Wu conveys the scenes and philosophy that inform Chinese aesthetic culture, while also highlighting his great success in employing Chinese aesthetic elements. “I hope the city remains forever young and never ages as I have done.” Today, the city of Chongqing is ancient and full of vitality, an endless flowing display of precisely the life energy for which Wu Guanzhong hoped, witnessed by the surging waters of the Jialing River.

Price estimate:
HKD: 8,000,000 – 12,000,000
USD: 1,019,100 – 1,528,700

Auction Result:
HKD: 9,510,000



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