by Shraddha NairApr 20, 2021
On March 20, 2021, Tina Keng Gallery opened the first of a series of curated displays which look to review and re-contextualise Greater Chinese Modernism. The investigation is rooted in gallery founder Tina Keng’s commitment to the movement, which classifies the Chinese modern art movement as we know it. The first exhibition of an ongoing series looks at the life and work of Chinese abstractionism’s frontline soldier, artist Wu Dayu. Tina Keng discusses the exhibition, which curates a display of over 40 artworks spanning half a century from Dayu’s lifetime.
Keng tells us the story of the artist’s journey saying, “As the first batch of students who studied abroad in France, Wu Dayu returned to China in 1928 to co-found the National Hangzhou Arts Academy (now China Academy of Art), and became chair of the Western painting department. National Hangzhou Arts Academy is the first institution for higher education in fine arts that combined Eastern and Western arts. Wu Dayu introduced Western avant-garde art theories, dialectically integrated them with Eastern traditional painting theories. In addition to his own exploration in abstract art, he guided and influenced countless students' exploration and development in Chinese modern art as an educator. The Dynamic Expressionism (shixiang), as raised by Wu, is the grand momentum of abstract paintings in the world of Chinese modern art. The tenet inspired masters such as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-chun and Wu Guanzhong on their understanding towards abstract art, who had later rewritten the development of Chinese oil paintings”.
The show holds particular significance in the eyes of Keng. Her personal engagement with the artist’s repertoire is reflected in the exhibition's deeply biographical narrative. She tells us about her initial encounter with the artist, “In the 90s, through a collaboration, I was introduced to Wu Dayu by Zao Wou-Ki and Chan Kuochiang, the distinctive artist and educator. I was amused and shocked when I read through the documents and learnt about the background of Wu Dayu - even in the precarious environment of severe political persecution, Wu Dayu still adheres to his aesthetic philosophy and approach, making me realise the preciousness of artistic creation and inheritance. As a gallery owner, I am shouldered with the cultural mission of studying and promoting these classic masters. Just as how contemporary thinking is reflected in the creations of artists; the acts of art practitioners represent the landscape of today's society. The European Renaissance originated from the ‘rediscovery’ of classical philosophy. Through re-contextualising and reconstructing Chinese modern art history, Tina Keng Gallery aims to introduce the art world the value of the masters in the art history beyond the market, and further drive the ‘Asian Oil Painting Renaissance’.
The exhibition series stands as an homage to Chinese abstractionism, however it also peeks into the layers which build the blocks upon which contemporary art stands. Tracing modern history, Keng talks about the continued relevance of Dayu’s vast oeuvre in context of our understanding of cross-cultural influences between Eastern and Western domains of abstract art. She says, “Wu Dayu studied in Paris, the centre of the art world at that time, when the development of modern art was at full speed. He was inspired and influenced by avant-garde art trends including fauvism and cubism. Wu Dayu was born and raised in a traditional scholarly family, which has deep roots in traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy. Wu Dayu merged the existing abstract philosophy of oriental ink and calligraphy with the colour and spatial structure in Western art theories - he experimented with different media such as oil painting, watercolour and wax colour, and became a pioneer of modern Chinese art.
Wu Dayu’s dynamic expressionism (shixiang) has incorporated the unique body and spirit of Eastern philosophy into the shape of painting; it extended the Western colour theory and unrestrained the expression of light and colour in Eastern paintings. While such consciousness of extracting the beauty of abstraction from its own figurative bodies has always existed in traditional oriental art philosophy, Wu Dayu has opened a new page for Chinese modern art”.
Dayu’s work is a testament to the resilience of the abstract movement in China, which owes much credit of its survival through the cultural revolution to the artist himself. Keng says, “Despite being the first generation of masters in Chinese oil paintings, Wu Dayu had suffered from political suppression throughout his life, and many of his works and art theories were not able to be published at that time. Wu was therefore regarded as the ‘Forgotten Star’ by his student Wu Guanzhong.
Given the politically oriented cultural movement, there was a gap in the context of Chinese abstract paintings from 1940s to 1970s. The rediscovery and research on Wu Dayu not only filled up the gap in between, it also provided a new direction to understand the context of works by Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-chun and Wu Guanzhong, as well as the genres influenced by them.
Apart from the oil paintings and work on papers shown in the auctions, this exhibition has presented rarely seen historical archives, such as a constellation of manuscripts including close correspondence with students Zao Wou-Ki and Zhuang Hwa-Yun. These dialogues show the friendship and artistic heritage between Wu Dayu and his students, while the audience can also understand the background of the era and explore the origin and continuity of Chinese modern art through the documents”.