Wu Guanzhong (1910-2010), Father of Modern Chinese Art

Aug 04, 2010

Lauded in both the East and the West, the influential painter was also a generous man who donated his best works to museums instead of selling them.


wu guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong

Photo credit: Daniel Yun


Wu Guanzhong (吴冠中,1919-2010), one of the most accomplished and outspoken Chinese painters, died at the age of 90 in Beijing on June 25.

Wu received artistic education in the Hangzhou National Arts Academy under the guidance of famous painters such as Pan Tianshou (潘天寿, 1897–1971) and innovative Impressionistic artist and educator Lin Fengmian (林风眠, 1900–1991) in the early 20th century.

In 1947, Wu went to Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts of France, together with some other Chinese painters including Xiong Bingming (熊秉明), Zhu Dequn (朱德群) and Zhao Wuji (赵无极). He became the only one who decided to go back to an uncertain China to become “a plum blossom in the winter of one’s hometown instead of a rose in an already prosperous garden of others”. Since 1950, Wu taught art successively in the Central Academy of Art, Tsinghua University and the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts.

In the meantime, Wu’s painting style, which is a refined combination of Western “bourgeois” artistic experience with traditional Chinese brush painting, made him a target of mainstream criticism which believed that art must serve “the masses” with undiscounted social realism of the time. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when all the “labour-ignorant” intellectuals were dispatched to work in the fields, Wu continued to paint with every minute that he could grasp, with simple utensils stacked in ox-den baskets. That earned him the nickname of “ox-den basket painter” amongst peasants.

When I showed my paintings to the country folks who offered me boarding, they could judge it sometimes as ’real’ or ‘beautiful’; obviously they know the difference very well.

“Sometimes I’d spent hours gazing at a vegetable field from different angles to decide on my composition, and the folks would ask if I had lost my watch or something… But still, when I showed my paintings to the country folks who offered me boarding, they could judge it sometimes as ‘real’ (for the works I feel not so good about) or ‘beautiful’ (for those I’m really proud of); obviously they know the difference very well, ” recalled Wu in one of his interviews.

Wu spent 15 years in the countryside, and one place in which he painted a lot is Anhui Province, which is frequented by many art students and tourists.

In the 1980s, Wu’s paintings and theories suddenly rose to fame along with the comeback of a large number of surviving intellectuals in mainstream Chinese society, which was marked by fervent trends of “learning from the West” in both scientific and literary fields.

In the 1990s and after, with more and more Chinese collectors getting rich and international collectors throwing di

ces over the Chinese art scene, Wu Guanzhong, who was among the few artists well-trained in both Chinese and Western painting, soon found his paintings rocketing to phenomenal value (40.70 million yuan for his painting “Ancient City of Jiaohe” in 2007).