Chinese Modern Art pioneer Wu Guanzhong's landscapes created after Cultural Revolution shine at Christie's Hong Kong

Like many Chinese artists during the Cultural Revolution, Wu Guanzhong resisted painting convincing labour heroes of the Soviet model. He was denounced as a poisonous 'bourgeois formalist', being banished from the city to the remote countryside to perform manual labour for three years. 

Over subsequent decades after he returned home, Wu would go on to become one of his country’s most revered artists, highly recognized for fusing Western and Asian artistic traditions in his works.

On 1 December, two of his ink-and-colour-on-paper landscapes, created after surviving a decade of political turmoil, took centre stage at Christie's Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings Sale in Hong Kong. 

Fiercely pursued by collectors, A Hill City soared more than seven times its low estimate at HK$43.9 million (US$5.6 million), becoming the most expensive piece sold in the auction. Another work, A Village of the Zhuang People in Guangxi, also hammered for more than 1.5 times its low estimate, taking third place.  

On this occasion, let's take a brief look at the early to mid-life life of the Chinese master.

Lot 1056 | Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) | A Hill City, Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper
With two seals of the artist
137 x 67.5 cm

  • Property from the collection of Sir William G. Ehrman

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$36,000,000
Sold: HK$43,935,000 (US$5.6 million)

"Whenever I am at an impasse, I turn to natural scenery. In nature I can reveal my true feelings to the mountains and rivers: my depth of feelings toward the motherland and my love toward my people," the artist once said. 

One of the most important Chinese painters of the 20th century, Wu Guanzhong makes a name for himself with his nostalgic, poetic landscapes that embody the synthesis of traditional Chinese and Western ideas and techniques.

His encounter with art, however, was purely by chance. Born in 1919 in eastern China, he was the son of a village schoolteacher. Initially, he was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, studying electrical engineering during his university years. However, while at school, he met an art student, Chu Teh-Chun – another pioneer of Chinese modern art – who took him to visit an oil paintings exhibition at the Hangzhou Academy where he attended. 

It was here that Wu stumbled upon his passion for art, transferring to the art school in 1936 despite his father’s concerns about the poverty of a life as an artist. A few years after his graduation, in 1947, as one of three art students selected, Wu boarded a boat bound for Naples, where he would then travel by train to his artistic dreamland Paris. Upon his arrival he was, in his own words, "completely intoxicated by art after looking greedily at it all". 

Wu Guanzhong (right) and his close artist friend Chu Teh-Chun (left), who had also studied art in Paris, at Suzhou in 2000 

Three years later, when his peers chose to remain there after the Communist takeover, Wu felt compelled to return to his roots, feeling that exile would cut him off from his cultural identity.

But after his arrival in 1950, he found himself out of step artistically – he struggled immensely to paint the Communist-favoured Social Realist style that featured heroic workers, farmers, and soldiers, especially after being immersed at the vibrant European art centre.  

Later at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Wu had to destroy many of his oil paintings, for fear of what the Red Guards would make of them if they searched his house.

He was right to be fearful: he was denounced as a poisonous "bourgeois formalist", banned from painting for three years and had to take part in the "Down to the Countryside Movement" to perform hard labour. 

Lot 1169 | Wu Guanzhong | The Old Town of Lijiang (1978), Ink and colour on paper | Sold: HK$1,638,000

Lot 1117 | Wu Guanzhong | Winter Scene - Fig Tree (1976), Gouache on paper | Sold: HK$1,512,000

For those three tough years, Wu was always thinking about art even when he couldn't make it: he had to suppress his creative impulse by composing poetry in his head. As the famous saying goes, "A picture is a soundless poem, and a poem is a sound picture", this sense of poetry would interweave in many of his expressive landscapes later on. 

As the Cultural Revolution eased in the mid-1970s, Wu was allowed to return home and paint again. It was when he made the switch back to the traditional Chinese style from oil paintings, a medium to which he had devoted his early career. 

This transition was not only because working in ink on paper was prevailing in the Chinese art circle then, but was also simply a matter of practicality: his home in Beijing was too small for storing large canvases, whereas traditional Chinese paintings on paper could be folded and stowed away. 

Above all, however, his return to the Chinese medium stemmed from his desire to convey moods and feelings beyond the technical scope of oil paints. 

A Hill City, the top lot of the sale 

The present-day Hill City

With newfound freedom, Wu began to travel extensively across his beloved motherland, tirelessly carrying his painting materials up through hills and down alleyways in small towns, seeking, recapturing, and immortalizing its vistas and natural beauty. 

A place he particularly took interest in was the mountain city of Chongqing, which sat at the intersection of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers in southwestern China. He later explained, "During the Japanese occupation, I lived on the outskirts of Chongqing for five years. I have fond memories of my days in this city, a place which can be called my second home and one of my favourite subjects for painting."

Depicting his "second home", A Hill City demonstrates the artist's enthusiasm for the transition from oil to ink painting. Here, the composition is distinctly different from the flattened perspective of traditional landscapes.

Starting from the foot of the mountain, the body of hills rises upward along with the tall trees. The mighty mountains are dotted with the colours of the people living in the mid-levels so that it is not impermeable. 

Though the mountain is steep, a narrow path of stairs curves through the mass to lead up to the clouds, giving a sense of dynamism in the otherwise vertical structure. At the top of the hill is the “Hill City,” where modern buildings are stacked and arranged, becoming one of the focal points of the painting.

Details of the top lot

Details of the top lot

Details of the top lot

The work came from the collection of Sir William Ehrman, a retired British diplomat and ambassador who was stationed in Mainland China and Hong Kong in his early years, and participated in the Sino-British negotiations on the handover of Hong Kong in the 1980s. He later served as Political Adviser to the Hong Kong Government and British Ambassador to China from 2006 to 2010.

He and his wife recalled that they had first seen this work in an exhibition at the National Art Museum of China between late 1977 and early 1978 and that it was one of the first works of art at the time that did not depict themes of “workers, peasants, and soldiers".

Shortly after its completion, A Hill City was exhibited at Shenzhen Exhibition Hall’s Exhibition of Beijing Rong Bao Zhai Woodblock Prints, Calligraphy, and Paintings in Hong Kong in 1977, and was well-received by the Hong Kong audience, with tens of thousands of visitors attending the event.

A photo of the painting was later published in the October 1977 issue of Ming Pao Monthly. This was also the first time Wu Guanzhong’s name and work appeared in a Hong Kong publication.

Sir William Ehrman

Shenzhen Exhibition Hall’s Exhibition of Beijing Rong Bao Zhai Woodblock Prints, Calligraphy, and Paintings in Hong Kong in 1977

Lot 1168 | Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) | A Village of the Zhuang People in Guangxi, Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper
With one seal of the artist
90 x 96 cm

  • Property from an important Asian private collection

Estimate: HK$13,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$22,000,000
Sold: HK$26,995,000 (US$3.5 million) 

In 1977, Wu Guanzhong paid visits to Guilin and Nanning in Guangxi Province. In Longsheng County, Guangxi Province, he was impressed by the unique natural scenery, especially the terraced rice paddies that are rarely seen in the north.

Also inspired by the culture of the various ethnic groups, he created a series of new works, of which he later wrote: “Most of my oil paintings and ink paintings of the terraced fields were painted in Longsheng in Guangxi and Wanxian in Sichuan Province.”

In this work, the local dwellings are positioned as the main subject, with the terraced fields outlined in the upper right corner. The work’s large-scale and deep perspective together evoke a sense of sketch-like liveliness.

With plantain trees in the foreground anchoring the artist’s viewpoint, the traditional houses of the Zhuang people dotted along the mountain streams and terraced fields stretch all the way into the clouds. The cloudy green ink is embellished with crowds of villagers and hung clothes using dots of oil paint, reflecting Wu’s distinctive characteristics as he transitioned from oil to ink paintings.

The present-day Longsheng in Guangxi

Details of the lot 

Details of the lot 

Details of the lot 

Besides Wu Guanzhong, another artist who fared well at Christie's Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings in Hong Kong was "Picasso of the East" Zhang Daqian.

Achieving the second-highest price in the sale, his Heavy Snow on a Mountain Pass, an attribution to the painting of the same name by Xu Daoning, a painter from the Northern Song Dynasty, sold for HK$33 million, more than doubling its pre-sale low estimate of HK$15 million.

Other highlight lots from the auction:

Lot 1064 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Heavy Snow a Mountain Pass, Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper
Dated twelfth month, dinghai year (1948)
Inscribed and signed, with two seals of the artist
137.2 x 70.5 cm

  • The Liu Jing Xiu Tang Collection of Chinese Paintings

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$27,000,000
Sold: HK$33,045,000 

Lot 1156 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Lotus in Rain, Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper
Inscribed and signed, with three seals of the artist
89.7 x 44.7 cm
Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$16,000,000
Sold: HK$19,735,000

Lot 1063 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Scholar in the Pine Forest, Horizontal scroll, ink and colour on paper
Dated after Ching Ming Festival, wuzi year (1948)
Titleslip by the artist
44 x 357.5 cm

  • The Liu Jing Xiu Tang Collection of Chinese Paintings

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$7,200,000
Sold: HK$9,072,000

Lot 1150 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Lady, Scroll, mounted on cardboard and framed, ink and colour on paper
Inscribed and signed, with three seals of the artist
27 x 24 cm

  • Christie's Hong Kong, Fine Chinese Modern Paintings, 26 May 2014, Lot 1233
  • From an important Hong Kong private collection

Estimate: HK$6,500,000 - 8,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$6,000,000
Sold: HK$7,560,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's Hong Kong
Sale: Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings
Date: 1 December 2023
Number of Lots: 219
Sold: 139
Unsold: 80
Sale Rate: 63.5%
Sale Total: HK$233,564,360