When Chinese Realism Met European Abstraction

Wu Guanzhong’s “Leaving Youth Behind.” Courtesy of The Hong Kong Museum of Art

Long tear-shaped white forms—representing bitter gourds commonly used in Chinese cuisine—stand out against a background of impassioned dark-green brushstrokes. The late Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong called his 1998 work Bitter Melon Homestead, and wrote: "This is blood. This is destiny … Bitter melons are not so bitter, since … I have fully tasted the bitterest of the bitterest."

It's the personal narratives—in Wu's case, surviving the purges of the Cultural Revolution—as much as the aesthetics that have made works by Chinese modern artists some of the most sought after by collectors today. In particular, prices of those painted in the Western-influenced style that emerged between the 1920s and the 1950s have skyrocketed as big names—like Wu—die or become too old to paint. Wu's total sales at auction were estimated at about $261 million by the end of 2009, making him the second most profitable Chinese painter, after ink master Qi Baishi. Earlier this year, bidders vying for a 1974 oil set a new record of $8.36 million at auction. "When they started in Europe, at first no one got the importance, the great leap of embracing abstraction when you are Chinese and bound by tradition," says French art impresario and dealer Philippe Koutouzis. Their works represented a crucial break from classic painting to forms of self-expression new to Chinese culture.

Indeed, Wu was one of the first to forsake realist works for abstractions, which somehow managed to remain recognizably Chinese. He had the patronage of Zhou Enlai and was the only Chinese modernist to live out his life in China. Wu, 90, died unexpectedly in Beijing on June 25—the same day his son attended a ceremony in honor of the works he donated to the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Wu's training was rooted in European style and technique. In the 1930s, he studied in China under the French-trained painter Lin Fengmian. In the 1940s, a Chinese government scholarship sent Wu to France, which incubated the careers of those eventually recognized as the greats of Chinese modernism: Lin, Wu, San Yu, and T'ang Haywen, all now deceased, and Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, who are in their 90s and live in Europe. Wu returned to his homeland after the 1949 communist victory. He suffered during the anti-intellectual purges of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, but lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of China's rise as a global economic power. In 1992 he became the first living Chinese artist to have an exhibit at the British Museum.

The Hong Kong museum, which has honored Wu with solo shows before, opened Lofty Integrity in March to commemorate his donation of dozens of paintings. It features multimedia displays, a re-creation of his studio, and 54 paintings, most of which were gifts from Wu—including Bitter Melon Homestead. "Our idea was not just to display the art but also present the history and the person behind the art," says curator Szeto Yuen-kit. The Hong Kong exhibit, the main Wu show at the time of his death, has been such a hit, it has been extended twice due to popular demand.

The same spirit of Chinese modernism can be found in the work of Wu's contemporary, Chu Teh-Chun. He reconciles Chinese tradition with an international sensibility in his calligraphy and hand-painted porcelain vases, currently on display in the exhibit Of Snow, Gold, and Sky at the Macau Museum of Art. "Chu takes the transparency of Rembrandt, the speed of calligraphy, and makes references to Chinese history," says Koutouzis, who helped manage the porcelain project for Chu.

China's modernists fascinate present-day art lovers—and investors—because they are the product of encounters with global culture. Vinci Chang of Christie's 20th-century Chinese art department notes that many collectors are reluctant to sell, but remain willing to pay triple the estimates for important works by the likes of Wu. "That period from the 1920s to the 1950s was the peak of China's interaction with Europe and the States, in art, science, and politics," she says. It was a time not too different from the present, a moment when Chinese keenly contemplate their place in the world.