When he made Singapore a recipient of his gift in 2008 much to the ire of his countrymen who called him unpatriotic, Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong had good reasons for his choice.

“Art has no national boundaries... Singapore is close to me – emotionally closer,” Wu, one of China’s greatest painters of the modern era, told a journalist on his donation of 113 oil and ink paintings to Singapore.

It is his single largest donation among those he made to museums in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Hong Kong. More recently in July 2019 Wu’s family made what they called his final most important donation to Qinghua University where the late artist had once taught.

To commemorate this generous gift to Singapore, a special exhibition Wu Guanzhong: Beauty Beyond Form was specially presented as an inauguration event at National Gallery, Singapore in 2015, dedicated to the memory of the artist who passed on in Beijing in 2010 at the age of 91.

In their continuing effort to showcase Wu’s art the National Gallery recently mounted yet another exhibition Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen & Palette from now till end of September 2019. It illustrates the important link between the artist’s literary writings and his paintings. Besides painting Wu is also known for being a proli c writer of prose as evident in many collections of essays he published.

Most of us would think that Wu felt close to Singapore naturally because his son Wu Keyu’s family had chosen to settle in Singapore. Besides, his works had been particularly well received by art lovers, collectors and the media in Singapore since they first appeared here in the early 1980s.

Wu visited Singapore several times after he held his first solo show outside China at Singapore’s former National Museum Art Gallery in 1988. During the 1990s, especially, he had frequent exhibitions organized by various private art galleries here.

There is little doubt that the Yixing-born Paris-trained artist was fond of Singapore, which he in his twilight years came to pick as the custodian and ambassador of his legacy abroad among all the countries where he had exhibited before during his long career.

Though he never said it on records, he was closer to Singapore in terms of his artistic position than he himself realized.

Wu would have felt an even greater affinity to Singapore if he had been more engaged with and learnt more about our art scene instead of merely holding exhibitions and sketching during his visits, as records including his own writings seem to suggest.

Indeed, he would have found kindred spirits during his 1988 visit and several subsequent ones throughout the 1990s, if he had had the opportunity to view the works of artists in Singapore.

He would have felt very much at home in Singapore where many artists of his generation as well as younger ones excel in both Chinese and western painting. How delighted he would have been to nd in them af rmations of his life-long endeavor: to indigenize oil painting and modernize Chinese ink painting. Many works by Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen would have struck him as good examples of oil paintings as indigenous expressions and ink and brush art keeping up with the times.

As a prolific writer he would have been excited enough to mention them as he did Liu Kuo-sung, a Taiwanese ink painter. Wu wrote at least three essays about Liu praising him for bold experimentations in ink painting and is reported to have said enthusiastically to him, “Our hearts are connected!” In contrast, unfortunately,
one nds in Wu’s hundreds of published essays scant reference to his Singapore experience let alone discussions about the art of any of her leading artists. One would assume that during his visits he was most probably always kept so busy with his exhibitions that he was left with little or no time to sufficiently engage with local artists and learn more about their works.

Even more surprisingly, he also made no mention of any visit to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), a standard stop in the itinerary of most visiting artists from China, although it co-presented his rst exhibition with the National Museum in 1988.

If he visited NAFA he would have been able to learn that the academy was very much of a similar mould to the art education he was familiar with in China. He also would have discovered how Singapore artists had in their own way embarked on the journey to create a new art by blending features of Western and Chinese art as well as incorporating indigenous elements – a goal he would have readily resonated with.

NAFA was founded in 1938 as a modern art institution that focused on the fusion of Chinese and Western art while integrating local culture. With this vision its founder Lim Hak Tai together with faculty members he recruited from China such as Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, and Cheong Soo Pieng shaped Singapore art significantly imbuing it with a distinct Southeast Asian character.

This should have struck a chord in Wu who had always been searching East and West to create a new art for China. His abiding concern was on the one hand
the rendering of oil painting, essentially a Western medium, as a function of an indigenous Chinese expression, and breaking away from the restrictive conventions of Chinese ink painting.

Though Wu met Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang at the opening of his 1988 solo exhibition, he apparently did not visit them or get to view their works. If he did he would have found them interesting artists to write about and to engage with.

Chen in particular would have been of special interest to him because both of
them had studied Chinese painting under the great master Pan Tianshou in China
at different times. In addition Wu would not have left out any reference to Chen’s prized collection of Bada Shanren (1626-1705) and Xu Gu (1823-1896) if he had had the opportunity to view it. Like Chen, Wu was also a great admirer of the works of these two Qing Dynasty ink masters.

Both Wu and Chen excelled in oil and ink painting and experimented simultaneously in a sort of cross-fertilization process, which Wu described as “amphibious journey”. Wu would have identified with Chen’s works and called them “children of mixed blood”, a term he used for his own paintings.

Unfortunately, Cheong Soo Pieng had passed on when Wu came to exhibit in 1988. But if Wu had been shown Cheong’s works, he would have been struck by the explorations in Cheong’s Nanyang-style paintings in oil and ink.

Cheong’s experimental spirit in blending the elements of oil and ink was particularly remarkable and would have resonated with Wu. What he tried to do went beyond “indigenizing oil painting and modernizing ink painting”, a goal which Wu adhered to all his life.

Wu would have been deeply impressed with Cheong’s integrated approach that blends East and West, tradition and modernity, representation and abstraction, the local and the general into an organic whole. He might also have come to recognize that Cheong together with his peers were also fellow travellers in the “amphibious journey” in their painter’s practice.

He might perhaps even have been surprised that the explorations of his Singapore counterparts had begun in the 1950s and ‘60s preceding his own in the 1970s and ‘80s by many years.

But now, as though destined, Wu Guanzhong’s works finally met in a dialogue with those of Singapore artists in the National Gallery where the Wu Guanzhong show was on alongside two major Singapore exhibitions: Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century and Chua Ek Kay: After the Rain.

In these exhibitions viewers were able to see what common artistic ideas run through the paintings of Wu Guanzhong, and those of Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and others, as well as Chua Ek Kay, a new generation ink artist of Singapore.

Those who disapproved the donation before can take a good look at the paintings shown at these exhibitions in the catalogues published by the National Gallery. Perhaps they will now change their minds.

*Teo Han Wue was the former director of Art Retreat incorporating Wu Guanzhong Gallery. He also advised the National Gallery Singapore on the exhibitions: Wu Guanzhong: Beauty Beyond Form and Chua Ek Kay: After the Rain.

**This article was published in Singapore Watercolour Society 50th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine "Singapore Expressions" P39-42