Wu Dayu’s ‘Documentary Exhibition: The Forgotten, the Discovered Star’ at the Chinese Academy of Oil Painting showed how distant an artist’s creative practice can sometimes be from his or her life circumstances, even though the two are necessarily intertwined. A pioneering figure of Chinese modernist painting, Wu was a prolific artist, a vocal theoretician and an influential teacher during the 1940s. As a student, he had been part of a generation of young artists and patriotic intellectuals with deep roots in Chinese cultural traditions. But, after studying in Europe in the 1920s, he returned to China eager to develop Chinese art and culture via Western modernism. From the 1940s until his death in 1988, Wu committed himself to exploring abstract painting, which made him both a unique art-historical case in China and an extremely marginalized figure: during his lifetime, he never had a solo exhibition and rarely published his works or writings.
This exhibition presented a vast array of Wu’s output: cartoon drawings for newspapers, book cover designs, sketches and portrait paintings made during his five years of study in Paris; poetry, calligraphy, watercolour paintings and oils on canvas, mostly arranged chronologically and organized by media. Paragraphs taken from Wu’s writings were printed on canvases and used to introduce each section, shedding light on his thoughts on art and the role of the artist. The two narratives in the show – his unwavering artistic position and the persecution he faced for it – were a powerful manifestation of this complicated period in Chinese culture.
In his painting, freely combined techniques from calligraphy and impressionism gave primary consideration to colour, light and rhythmic motion. Though he never signed or dated any of his works, the exceptionally bright and contrasting colours and the vibrancy of his forms – vaguely evoking flowers, birds, objects and human beings, but more often dissolving into abstract shapes – unquestionably became a signature of sorts. Many of Wu’s works are small enough to fit into a drawer, which was where he painted some of them. As the communist government launched a nationwide movement to turn private property into public possession in the 1950s, other families took up residence in Wu’s house in Shanghai, forcing him to move into the attic. He continued painting but, during the Cultural Revolution, had to be prepared to hide his work at any moment.
Wu’s exploration of abstract painting was out of place in the face of the formation of a dominant realist tradition in China. Ultimately, it jeopardized his teaching post at the Hangzhou Art Academy. As the discourse of realism gained momentum, artists who were educated in the Soviet Union took the helm at art academies, quickly replacing artists and professors who were originally trained in Japan or Europe and were more sympathetic toward Western modernism. Subsequently, Wu remained unemployed from 1950 to 1960. Even when he was invited to teach at the Shanghai Art Academy in 1960, his ideas received no sympathy. His art, unlike the socialist realism that was officially permitted at the time, was accused of decadence and amounted to a crime. More than 200 of his watercolour paintings were confiscated and have never been rediscovered. He was harshly criticized and fell gravely ill twice. Yet, even when his choice of artistic practice became a political and potentially life-threatening decision, Wu never wavered. Such persistence shined through in this exhibition – a power that belied the difficult times the artist survived.