Even the greatest of artists cannot foretell when a classic among his oeuvre would be born. More often than not, it appears by chance rather than by design. One of the best examples is the ink painting, Two swallows, by Wu Guanzhong. It was developed in 1981 from a chance sketch produced a year earlier in the Jiangnan area. Wu could still recall clearly how it came about in the last years of his life: “While I was teaching at the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in the early 1980s, I took my students, including my postgraduate student Zhong Shuheng, on a sketching excursion to Luzhi in Suzhou…. When all the students had returned to Beijing at the end of the excursion, Shuheng accompanied me on another sketching trip to the Zhoushan islands. We sketched freely and with great abandon there since it was not a regular class…. Then we left Zhoushan for Ningbo. When we arrived at the Ningbo train station, there was still plenty of time before departure, so we decided to search out the neighbourhood. I was excited at the sight of some waterfront dwellings and lost no time in making some quick sketches. When it was almost time to go, Shuheng rushed me back to the train station. The passers-by must have found it strange to see an old man and a young woman running frantically like that. The train was already pulling out by the time we got to our carriage. That very neighbourhood was the origin of the painting Two swallows, and I believe its days are numbered.”
The painting carries a seal that reads “The eighties”, which was very much like a milestone marking Wu’s stride towards a new horizon. The artist had these loving words for his native land, which was also his source of inspiration: “White walls under black tiled roof. Small bridges over gurgling brooks. Lakes by the side of ponds. This water-logged land, white and shimmering. Black, white and grey constitute the main colour scheme of the Jiangnan area. Silvery grey was also what I started with when I began my path of art. Silvery grey tones are often seen on overcast days. I simply love the overcast spring days of Jiangnan. I basically shun sunlight and shadows in my paintings. Even if it is a sunny day, it is the fleeting moment with the sun behind clouds that I want to express. On and off, I have been painting the Jiangnan area all my life. Of all my works on Jiangnan - or the entire corpus of my works for that matter, Two swallows is the most outstanding and most representative.”
Two swallows also inspired Wu to explore how best to blend the East and the West in art in the 1980s. In the end, he succeeded by projecting his essentially Eastern spirit and his affection for his native land through geometric simplicity and minimalism that are typical of Mondrian. These had been the perspectives for Wu in his art-making ever since.