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【Zen in Painting】 - Wu Guanzhong

Updated: Jun 17

Wu Guanzhong
Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong (also known as Tu) 1919 —— 2010

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), a native of Yixing, Jiangsu, was a renowned contemporary painter, oil painter, and art educator. He devoted his life to the "nationalization of oil painting" and the "modernization of Chinese painting."

Wu Guanzhong
Wu Guanzhong

Wu Guanzhong 1919——2010

The Zen meaning in the paintings of artist Wu Guanzhong primarily lies in his profound insight and expression of nature, life, and the integration of people and art.

In the 1950s to 1970s, Wu Guanzhong focused on landscape oil painting and explored the nationalization of oil painting. He strived to combine the vivid depiction of nature in European oil painting and the rich and delicate use of color with the spirit and aesthetic ideals of traditional Chinese art. From the 1970s onward, Wu gradually engaged in Chinese painting creation. He aimed to use traditional Chinese materials and tools to express modern spirit and sought to innovate Chinese painting.

Wu Guanzhong's works often use simple and bright lines and colors to depict the charm of natural scenery and the vitality of life. His paintings not only have visual beauty but also contain profound philosophical thoughts. In Wu Guanzhong's works, one can see his awe and respect for nature and life, as well as his exploration and understanding of the essence of the universe and life.

"Autumn Colors on the Wall," oil on canvas, created in 1994
Autumn Colors on the Wall - Wu Guanzhong

Autumn Colors on the Wall

oil on canvas, created in 1994

Jiangnan was the most attractive to Wu Guanzhong and remained his longest-lasting painting theme. Created in 1994, "Autumn Colors on the Wall" reflects the master's thoughts on time, exploration of formal beauty, and integration of Eastern and Western art after traveling the world. It also shows his enduring love for his hometown, making this piece a representative work of his Jiangnan series.

"Red Lotus," oil on canvas, created in 1996
Red Lotus - Wu Guanzhong

Red Lotus

oil on canvas, created in 1996

The entire painting is dominated by green, but the lotus leaves' distance, height, brightness, dryness, and decay are expressed using greens of different brightness and saturation—sometimes leaning towards green, sometimes towards purple, sometimes blue, and sometimes gray, presenting a subtle and rich sense of layers. The lotus flowers are beautifully bright, sketched in an almost freehand style, with concise brushstrokes emphasizing color and intent. The clear and gentle water surface reflects the shadows of the lotus flowers and stems. This technique of water surface reflection and the use of thick oil paint to express the texture of objects clearly show the influence of Impressionism, especially Monet's handling of water lilies.

Wu Guanzhong studied in Paris and delved into the optical theory and color techniques of Impressionism. He combined the color effects of Impressionism with the freehand spirit of Chinese ink painting to showcase the unique charm of lotus flowers. This work embodies Wu Guanzhong's exploration of the nationalization of oil painting and incorporates ink elements to pursue modernization, ultimately forming a unique and new artistic language. Unlike Monet's Water Lilies series, Wu Guanzhong was not influenced by the natural environment's colors but sought subtle changes within the basic tones. The overall tone of the painting is cool, with a few red lotuses dotted among the large green areas, brightening the picture without overpowering it. Overall, Monet emphasized the use of color, while Wu Guanzhong focused on the combination of lines and shapes, creating rich formal interest, influenced by Chinese painting. Wu Guanzhong once said, "The interlacing of large and small leaves in the lotus pond, the intricate interweaving of curves and straight lines, even the reflections surrounded by the leaves, make it difficult to distinguish between above and below water. It seems I am merely an insect under the leaves, lost in the maze of flowers and leaves."

Zen emphasizes inner peace and transcendence, and Wu Guanzhong's paintings incorporate this Zen meaning through artistic forms. His works are not just representations of nature and life but reflections and expressions of the inner world. By appreciating Wu Guanzhong's paintings, one can feel a spiritual realm that transcends the material world and experience a sense of unity with the universe and life.

"Beijing · Snow," oil on canvas, created in 1975
Beijing · Snow - Wu Guanzhong
"Zhouzhuang," oil on canvas, created in 1997
Zhouzhuang - Wu Guanzhong


oil on canvas, created in 1997

Beijing · Snow

oil on canvas, created in 1975

"Jiangnan Water Town," ink painting, created in 1988
Jiangnan Water Town - Wu Guanzhong

Jiangnan Water Town

ink painting, created in 1988

The work showcases the dynamics of withered lotuses and underwater scenes, using oil painting techniques to present the freehand style of Chinese painting. Amidst the vibrant colors, the broken lotus leaves and a few withered yellow lotus stems coexist, quietly displaying their respective postures: upright, curved, curled, and expanded. Despite the "chaotic cold pond, who cares?" these decayed lotus stems still steadfastly uphold the essence of beauty in life in the cold pond.

Withered lotuses do not care whether people praise them, as they know time passes, and landscapes fade. Regardless, the withered lotuses silently persist, displaying profound meaning.

Therefore, Wu Guanzhong's paintings contain deep Zen meaning, which is not only reflected in the composition and colors of the pictures but also in the thoughts and emotions conveyed by the works. By appreciating Wu Guanzhong's paintings, one can feel a unique artistic charm and gain spiritual nourishment and enlightenment.


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