A Review of 'Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette' at National Gallery Singapore

NGS misses the hat trick in its third exhibition dedicated to the Chinese ink master
By Ian Tee

Wu Guanzhong, ‘Falling Flowers’, 2007, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 94.8 x 176cm. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.’

Wu Guanzhong, ‘Falling Flowers’, 2007, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 94.8 x 176cm. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.’

‘Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette’, 2018, gallery installation view. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

‘Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette’, 2018, gallery installation view. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

The late Wu Guanzhong is recognised as one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century, well-known for his approach to Chinese ink and western formalism. It is a reputation bolstered by the numerous museum exhibitions since his death in 2010, which includes the high-profile retrospective ‘Revolutionary Ink’ (2012) at the Asia Society in New York. This prominence is certainly reflected in the prices his works achieved at auction, with Wu’s oil on canvas ‘The Zhou Village’ fetching the hammer price of HKD23 million (USD 30.4 million) in 2016.

A lesser known fact might be that Wu was also an eloquent writer, which made him a master of both culture and literature. It is an ideal succinctly communicated by the character "文" (wén), encompassing both meanings. What insights can we expect then from an exhibition that seeks to mine the rich oeuvre of an artist as articulate as he was prolific in painting?   

Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette took that as its curatorial premise to explore recurring themes in the painter's work. This strategy manifested in the form of didactic quotations from Wu's writings, printed on scrolls dispersed among the exhibition's seven sections. These excerpts range from heartfelt entries about Wu's struggles during the Cultural Revolution, to his descriptions of nature and notes on the discourse of abstraction. For viewers, it becomes evident that they are to be guided by these quotations (unless one is compelled to read through the curatorial essay).

‘Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette’, 2018, ‘Beyond the Image’ section gallery installation view. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

‘Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette’, 2018, ‘Beyond the Image’ section gallery installation view. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Between Wu's paintings and these anecdotes, what this side-by-side display does for me is to reduce literature to mere description. This is especially for quotes that corresponded to a specific artwork such as for ‘Falling Flowers’, from 2007. It is a function more effectively communicated through an audio guide, given that the script on these scrolls is not the artist's handwriting either. What is lost, beyond valuable wall space, is also the nuance of particular moments found in the curatorial text that could have been insightful points in the exhibition. They drift in quotation, washed down the river between the two banks. There are two instances that could have brought audiences familiar with Wu's work new discoveries: firstly, a more focused exploration of works made during the Cultural Revolution and secondly, Wu's engagement with the genre of the Nude.

While the former is given a fair display in section titled ‘Land’, there is a distance from fully engaging with the socio-political context of the Cultural Revolution and all its implications. This is puzzling too, given that the highly emotional text chosen showed Wu at his most defeated and vulnerable. The latter is also tied with the impact of the Cultural Revolution, with Wu's abandonment of painting Nudes. The section ‘Nudes in Twilight’ is brief beyond an acknowledgement of his return to the genre after 40 years.

‘Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette’, 2018, ‘Nudes in Twilight’ section gallery installation view. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

‘Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen and Palette’, 2018, ‘Nudes in Twilight’ section gallery installation view. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Where ‘Expressions of Pen and Palette’ succeeds for me, is in its compelling selection of Wu's oil paintings, which are usually overshadowed in exhibitions by larger, more colourful displays of ink works. This in part might have to do with the scale of paintings on show, which are generally intimate to medium sized, allowing for close encounter with subtle details and texture. Viewers might find this show an opportunity to revisit and further appreciate Wu's handling of the medium and its formal relation to ink aesthetics. Notably, the fact that Wu's engagement with both traditions resulted in a completely different style to that of his contemporaries Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun.

As the third Wu Guanzhong exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, it perhaps should reflect the growth in knowledge of audiences to Wu's work as they return its hang of the collection. This iteration around the theme of literature and painting paled in contrast to the two previous exhibitions at the eponymous gallery. One key aspect that weakened the show is a clear curatorial intent at a larger contextualisation, previously supported by parallel exhibitions in the adjacent gallery. One would recall the stimulating dialogue between Wu Guanzhong and Singaporean ink painters, such as Chua Ek Kay (‘After the Rain’ in 2015) and Chen Chong Swee (‘Strokes of Life’ in 2016); as well as with the larger historical arc of ink aesthetics in ‘Rediscovering Treasures: Ink Art from the Xiu Hai Lou Collection’ (2017).

Wu Guanzhong, ‘Riverside Households’, 1985, oil on canvas, 43 x 51cm. Collection of Liu Gang and Chen Yu, China. Image courtesy of Liu Gang and Chen Yu.

Wu Guanzhong, ‘Riverside Households’, 1985, oil on canvas, 43 x 51cm. Collection of Liu Gang and Chen Yu, China. Image courtesy of Liu Gang and Chen Yu.

The conversation this time was instead initiated via a programme of talks by Singaporean artists Zhuang Shengtao and Hong Sek Chern, as well as Liu Kuo-song, a contemporary and friend of Wu. They were valuable and insightful afternoons that proved his legacy is best activated through the voices of the living.

On this topic of legacy, ‘Expressions of Pen and Palette’ is also promoted as an exhibition celebrating centennial year of Wu Guanzhong's birth in 2019. This is just as Hong Kong Museum of Art, slated to reopen next year following a three-year renovation, announced that it now has the largest collection of Wu's work in any public institution. As we wait to hear more about their plans for the collection, it is an important point to take stock and assess National Gallery Singapore's role in these areas of knowledge production and public education about the ink master's work. In particular, pertinent questions would have to be asked with regard to the conversations such a collection has to its site and audience, as well as the long term trajectory of its exhibitions.