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Two swallows

Wu Guanzhong1981

Hong Kong Museum of Art

Hong Kong Museum of Art

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.

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Details

  • Title: Two swallows
  • Date Created: 1981
  • Theme: Landscape
  • Professor of the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, Painter: Wu Guanzhong
  • Physical Dimensions: w137.4 x h68.5 cm
  • Location in the artwork: Ningbo, Zhejinag province, China
  • History of Donation: Donated by the artist to the Museum in 2002
  • Artist's Statement: In the words of the artist himself: "Across the painting surface, the whitewashed wall dominates like an immaculate princess dressed in white. The black doors and window stand out, cutting up the wall into novel planes that rejuvenate the old looks. In essence, the East and the West are no different aesthetically. Even with the absence of swallows, Mondrian would have been impressed by the minimalist rendering of oriental dwellings."
  • Artist's Biography: Wu Guanzhong is one of the most important and innovative artists in 20th century Chinese art for the explorations and contributions he has made by blending the essences of the East and the West through the untiring dialogues he conducted between oil painting and ink painting. Wu was born in Yixing, Jiangsu, in 1919, and went to study in France on a national scholarship in 1946. Upon his return in 1950, he taught at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. In 1991, he was honoured by the French Ministry of Culture with the Officier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, to be followed in 1992 by the exhibition “Wu Guanzhong: A Twentieth-century Chinese Painter”, or the first ever solo exhibition for a living Chinese artist presented by the British Museum. In 1993, he received a gold medal from the City of Paris to coincide with the exhibition “Encres Récentes de Wu Guanzhong” (“Recent Ink Paintings of Wu Guanzhong”) organized by the Musée Cernuschi, Paris. Back home in China, he was elected a deputy to the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China in 1994, and had a solo exhibition held in his honour by the Ministry of Culture in 1999. In 2002, Wu became the first Chinese national to be named Correspondant by the Academie des Beaux-Arts de I’Institut de France. In 2006, the Beijing Palace Museum ran a feature exhibition in his honour to mark its first collection of a living artist’s works, including the masterpiece, Yangtze River, done by Wu in 1974. That year also saw The Chinese University of Hong Kong conferring an Honorary Doctor of Arts degree to the artist. In 2000, Wu began making generous donations of his masterpieces to public museums both in China and overseas. Even before that, the Hong Kong Museum of Art was privileged to have received two ink paintings from the artist in 1995, to be followed by twelve oil paintings, ink paintings and manuscripts in 2002. In 2009, Wu donated another thirty-three paintings mostly done between 2005 and 2009 to the Museum. Then in 2010, Wu donated five more paintings, including his last works, to the Museum.
  • Type: Ink and colour on paper

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