Scenery of Northern China by Wu Guanzhong leads Sotheby’s Fall 2020

The rise of modern art across the East and West was groundbreaking. For any artist to fuse oil painting and Chinese ink painting together was difficult.

However, Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong embarked on an extraordinary journey of success.

In 1949, he left Paris, where he resided, and returned to China, in hopes of applying knowledge of Western oil painting to Chinese modern art. Indeed, Wu specialized in both genres - In the category of Chinese Ink, his colorful ink paintings transcend exuberance amongst sceneries, providing stability and vivacity. Meanwhile, his oil paintings have gained excellent auction results in the Modern Art category. Looking at his oeuvre, he unequivocally dominated both categories with ease.

This October, Sotheby’s will present two magnificent works by Wu Guanzhong. Both of museum-quality, one describes the crisp and frosty terrain of the Northern landscape, the second depicts a serene mountain landscape of the South in Guilin. Painted with oil on wood, distinctive characteristics of Chinese ink can be found in elements of mountain and seascape. 

Lot 1013|Wu Guanzhong(1919-2010) Scenery of Northern China, oil on board 

Executed in: 1973
Size: 71.7 x 160 cm

  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2007, Lot 205
  • Important Private Asian Collection

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Scenery of Northern China holds immense significance to Wu. Completed in 1973, the painting signifies convergence of Western and Eastern art and culture in the 70’s. Upon completion, the painting was further used as a reference to create a six-meter mural painting for the Beijing Capital Airport in 1979. Hence, this unique painting is an epitome of a modernized China, portrayed by Western iconographic aesthetics. 

Indeed, this important piece was born at a time of revolution. Inspired by Mao Zedong’s well-known poem Snow: To the Tune of Spring in Qin’s Garden, its subject is filled with direct references to the poem. The title, Scenery of Northern China, was in fact based on the poem’s first line, “North Country Scene”. Furthermore, grey and white brushstrokes enhance nature’s greatness, but also mirrors similes stated in the poem. 

Scenery of Northern China

Scenery of Northern China

As Wu mentioned, “My painting starts with figures. I construct a scenery based on ambiguous figures. What follows is characters. Based on the characters, I would alter the scenery and plot.”.

At the scale of 71.7 x 160cm, every element in Scenery of Northern China harmonizes to depict the magnificent winter scene of Northern China. In the center, grand majestic mountains covered in pure white snow dominates the landscape. In the foreground, canopy of green pine trees signifies strong vitality amongst the cold breeze.

By the left of the centered mountain, a train emits steam as it passes through. This meticulous composition emphasizes industrialization and modernity in China in the 70’s. Additionally, individual details in the painting does enhance an ambience of romanticism in a grand winter plateau. 

The study of Scenery of Northern China

As Wu Guanzhong transitioned to Chinese ink paintings by the 80’s, there are only limited number of oil paintings of his on the market. Similar oil paintings to Scenery of Northern China were collected by important Chinese museums and institutions, such as National Art Museum of China, the National museum and Great Hall of People. 

It is noteworthy that there are three versions of the same painting by Wu. The first version is the upcoming lot to be sold. In 2007, it reached an astonishing auction result of HK$31.68 million at Christie’s Hong Kong. It was then in private hands for 13 years before reappearing for auction this October.  

The second version is a drawing sketch, to which its composition and dimensions remained similar to the first. In 1979, The Chinese government organized a large-scale mural project for Beijing International Airport. It was presided by Zhang Ding, then dean of the Central Academy of Art and Design. While the main creative source was from teachers and students of the Academy of Art, however, Wu Guanzhong was heavily involved as well. 

Wu and the study of Scenery of Northern China
With such major project in mind, Wu referenced the first Scenery of Northern China. The mural painting shared the same title as the first, and was reviewed by the creative team. For Wu, the sketch was not only a draft, but rather a completed work on its own.  

During the late 70’s, the Beijing airport construction was led by Li Ruihuan, the former chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. After completion of the project, the study of Scenery of Northern China was gifted to Li by the creative team. It was then auctioned at Beijing Guardian in 2009, which sold for 30.24 million RMB. 

Lastly, the third version, a six-meter oil painting was placed at the airport’s Western restaurant as a decorative piece. 

Lotus Flower (I)

Over the years, Wu’s ink paintings dominated every auction season. Nevertheless, one should also pay attention to his oil paintings. In 2019, Sotheby’s offered Wu’s Revolutionary highlight, Lotus Flower (I). With an estimate of HK$15 million, it was fiercely competed for a final price of HK$130 million, which remained as the forth painting to ever reach over HK$100 million. 

To further understand Wu’s oil paintings, it is imperative to learn of his journey in early 1970’s.

Lot 1014|Wu Guanzhong(1919-2010) Scenery of Guilin, oil on board 

Executed in: 1973
Size: 64.2 x 42 cm

  • Collection of the artist's uncle and aunt (gift of the artist in 1978) 
  • Private Asian Collection 
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2007, Lot 206
  • Important Private Asian Collection

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 26,000,000

In late 1972, en route to visit ailing mother-in-law, Wu and his wife stopped briefly at Yangshuo. In spite of the distress weather and constant rain that day, Wu Guanzhong insisted on quick sketches overnight, meanwhile, his wife held an umbrella and stood by him as he completed. Such persistence would go onto inspire his Guilin themed paintings. For Wu, inspiring places such as Jiangnan, Yulong Mountain and Guilin became perpetual motif of his. In his oeuvre, he painted a total of seven oil paintings related to the theme of Guilin. 

By 1973, Scenery of Guilin was completed. Powerful brushstrokes cascade and layered across the board, creating two majestic mountains. With each overlay, delicate strokes imitate the rippling effect that is evident in Chinese ink landscapes. Furthermore, irregular houses painted in saturated green, yellow, and orchard red filled the mountain gaps, and adds rhythmic vibrancy to the painting. Soon upon completion, Wu personally gifted the painting to his relatives for collection. 

Scenery of Guilin

It is with absolute certainty that Wu has combined two binary traditions seamlessly. The beauty of Southern China is transcended through layers of short brushstrokes, which emulates classical Chinese landscape effect of ink and wash. Thick texture of oil paint reveals dryness, dampness, density and lightness, which is crucial in traditional Chinese ink landscapes.

Such mature technique is also reflected in Guilin (1977-1996), which achieved an amazing result in 2019 at Poly Auction Hong Kong for HK$23.6 million. 

Auction Details

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Evening Sale
Preview location: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Preview date: 3-5 October 2020
Sale location: Sotheby's Gallery
Sale date: 5 October 2020