Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chinese master's Singapore calling

Dec 5, 2010
It was here that late artist Wu Guanzhong's works caught world's attention
By Teo Han Wue

Of the 300 paintings that late Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong had given away before he died, aged 91, in Beijing in June this year, the National Art Gallery of Singapore received 113 - a lot more than any of the other recipients in China.

News of his donation to Singapore first broke in September 2008 and was immediately greeted with disbelief and even outrage among Chinese netizens, some of whom accused him of being unpatriotic.

More surprisingly, Hangzhou was the last to receive his paintings - in December last year - after Shanghai, Singapore, Beijing and Hong Kong. It received 72 paintings - a small number, considering Wu had spent his formative years studying in this scenic city he fondly called 'my artistic and spiritual home'.

Yet that did not stop Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, from outdoing previous recipients - by mounting the biggest showcase ever of Wu's paintings (300 in total, many of which were on loan from other museums) from Nov 20 to Dec 25.

I was in the city for the opening of East Meets West: The Exhibition Of Wu Guanzhong's Paintings, and heard moving tributes to this distinguished native son. More than 10,000 people thronged the Zhejiang Art Museum on the first day of the exhibition and set a new record for visitor numbers.

For a moment, one would be easily led to wonder: What has Singapore done to deserve such a generous gift from Wu, regarded as one of China's greatest artists of the modern era? Why did the artist, whose love for his motherland was evident all over his works, favour Singapore this much and risk being called unpatriotic by his countrymen for such an obvious 'bias'?

Few people in China and elsewhere, however, knew of Wu's close association with Singapore which goes as far back as the early 1980s.

I was able to address this question in a paper, Wu Guanzhong And Singapore, at an international conference at the China Academy of Art to mark the 110th anniversary of Lin Fengmian's birth - held to coincide with the Wu Guanzhong showcase. Lin was the academy's first principal, and was Wu's teacher there between 1936 and 1942.

It was probably the first time that the story came to be told at such a meeting - attended by Chinese and international scholars as well as students of the academy. Intrigued by my presentation, a professor from Qinghua University told me: 'Wu had taught in Qinghua for a few years but we didn't even get a single painting.'

On his gift to Singapore, Wu himself said to the media: 'Throughout my life, I have tried very hard to find the common sentiments shared by all mankind. Singapore is close to me - sentimentally closer.'

His gift came with no strings attached. 'I have no expectations but only trust in Singapore.'

While the state-owned Rongbaozhai gallery in Beijing paid Wu little more than 5 yuan per square chi (about 1 sq ft) for his works in the early 1980s, Singapore dealers such as Sin Hua Gallery and Tzen Gallery sought his distinctive ink paintings to sell to eager collectors - mainly English-educated professionals here.

'Perhaps it was the collectors' Westernised background that led them to identify with the unique hybridised style in Wu's works,' said Mr Chan Kok Hua of Sin Hua Gallery, who first brought in the artist's ink paintings in 1982.

The same year saw Western modernist ideas that Wu advocated come under severe attack by ideologues in China.

As a journalist in The Straits Times during the 1980s, I reported the stir his work was causing in the Singapore art scene on Sept 25, 1986. When in Beijing the following year for a journalists' conference, I visited him at his modest apartment in the Jingsong area and interviewed him for a report about his forthcoming solo showcase in Singapore.

With the help of former Nanyang Siang Pau editor Mok Lee Kwang and his friend, artist Tan Swie Hian, Wu's month-long exhibition opened at the then National Museum Art Gallery in 1988. It was Wu's first important step in his international career. While here, he also spent time sketching and painting in places like Changi and the Jurong BirdPark.

From then on, he held many more shows in Singapore and other cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, London, Paris and San Francisco, always to critical acclaim from art historians such as Michael Sullivan, James Cahill and Richard Banhart.

But it was in Singapore that his art gained a firmer foothold. For much of the 1990s, photographer and gallery owner Chua Soo Bin became the main driving force behind the increasing popularity of Wu's art in Singapore and the region - by organising a series of important and memorable shows, complete with impressive catalogues.

Indonesian collector Kwee Swie Teng sought Mr Chua out in 1993 and bought up his entire exhibition of 20 of Wu's works to start a collection, which would grow to about 200. The collection was used to inaugurate the private museum Art Retreat at Ubi Techpark in 2003. It is the only museum to have an ongoing Wu Guanzhong exhibition in a dedicated gallery open to the public free of charge.

Wu's art was introduced to Indo-nesia through Mr Chua and Mr Kwee - who invited him in 1994 to visit Bali and Java where he made sketches for paintings he later showed in a solo exhibition, together with those from Mr Kwee's collection in Jakarta in 1996.

Mr Kwee also supported the publication of The Complete Works Of Wu Guanzhong, a nine-volume set, in China. At its Singapore launch in 2008, Art Retreat donated copies of the book to the libraries of tertiary institutions, art academies and Singapore Press Holdings.

In a 1992 essay, Wu wrote: 'For some years now, whenever I have exhibited my paintings... the reception has always been more heartening than back in China. Though deeply rooted in my native land, my art has received more criticism than approval and I have always been condemned as wayward and unorthodox.'

In the same essay, he recalled how for his first show at the National Art Museum of China in 1979, a China Central Television programme about it was not only suspended but also had its footage completely erased for reasons unknown to him. He cited this in contrast to how Singapore, London and Tokyo broadcast special TV documentaries during his exhibitions there.

It had been the artist's desire that people all over the world would be able to see his art. In his encounter with Singapore in the past, he probably saw a great possibility of being able to make that happen in the future.

With all the Wu Guanzhong paintings in the Kwee Swie Teng collection and the National Art Gallery together, Singapore is privileged to have the largest number of the artist's works in one place.

In the spirit of the artist's generous gesture, it is really not about what Singapore has done to deserve the donation but what Singapore as a trusted keeper of Wu's rich legacy should do to make ourselves worthy of such a rare, magnificent gift.

The writer is executive director of Art Retreat incorporating Wu Guanzhong Gallery.

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