Art What! Arts Museums National Gallery Preview

Art What!: Wu Guanzhong – Learning From The Master at National Gallery Singapore

Screenshot 2021-02-18 at 3.19.00 PM

National Gallery Singapore has opened their latest exhibition, once again focusing on Wu Guanzhong – the ‘founder’ of modern Chinese painting. Curated by Cai Heng and Jennifer K.Y. Lam, Wu Guanzhong: Learning from the Master marks the fifth Wu Guanzhong exhibition to open at National Gallery Singapore, but is the first of its kind to showcase works by students he taught, and to emphasise his contribution to academic modernism through his teachings and pedagogy.

The exhibition features over 80 works of art and archival materials from both Wu and the students he taught at China’s Central Academy of Art and Design. By shining the spotlight on Wu’s lesser-known role as an art educator and his teachings, this exhibition critically expands research on his practice, and adds to discourse on his role and influence in developing modern Chinese art and Asian modernism. It continues the Gallery’s curatorial approach of teaching and educating the audience on modern Chinese ink art through an exploration of Wu’s practice and pedagogy, which was first seen in the 2018 exhibition Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen & Palette, following thematic explorations on the artist’s life and practice in earlier exhibitions.

Through this in-depth analysis, the exhibition reveals how the artist applied his learnings on modern art and aesthetics to his teaching, and highlights the rich exploratory dialogues he shared with students. On display are a host of artworks by students whom Wu Guanzhong taught at the academy, as well as photographs and study notes from their outdoor drawing lessons. In particular, Wu’s handwritten manuscripts offer audiences a deeper, more intimate look at his thoughts, and afford a greater understanding of his ethos on art.

Regarded as one of the most significant contemporary Chinese artists of the 20th century, Wu Guanzhong is renowned for his distinctive style that integrates Western and Chinese art traditions. In addition to his artistic practice, Wu is also acclaimed as an art educator, having selflessly shared his artistic philosophies and experiences with students at leading educational institutions in China over a teaching career that spanned more than 40 years.

Before being taken on a curator tour of the exhibition with Cai Heng and Jennifer. Seng Yu Jin, Senior Curator of National Gallery Singapore, touched on the significance of the exhibition, and how it being the 5th Wu Guanzhong exhibition, also happened to coincide with the Gallery’s 5th anniversary.

“Following on from our previous exhibition Wu Guanzhong: Expressions of Pen & Palette, Learning from the Master embodies an important new phase of a deeper exploration into the various facets of this prolific artist’s practice, and is the culmination of the Gallery’s dedication to furthering research and discourse around Wu Guanzhong’s seminal role in the development of Asian modernism,” says Dr Eugene Tan. “Through this exhibition, we hope visitors will gain a newfound appreciation for the maverick artist’s boundary-defying life and practice, especially within the context of the world and the times that he lived in.”

Artwork from Wu’s outdoor drawing classes at the Central Academy of Art and Design

Staged within the Wu Guanzhong Gallery, Learning from the Master is showcased in dialogue with the ongoing exhibition Georgette Chen: At Home In The World. Not only are they physically connected through the galleries, but both also happen to have gotten their start in Paris in 1949, contemporaries of each other. In addition, they share the common thread of focusing on both artists as educators of the next generation, nurturing their artistry and influencing Asian modernism. This ties in especially with how the Georgette Chen retrospective ends with images of family portraits and human figures, emphasising the importance of relationships and the people they interacted with in their lives.

Artwork from Wu’s outdoor drawing classes at the Central Academy of Art and Design

When you do walk into the exhibition, you’ll find the first section depicting the resurgence of modern art, a time when Wu was teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, alongside magazine clippings to provide context. Jennifer shares how Wu’s teachings always emphasised the need for hands-on experiences, where he often brought his students out on field trips to see the thing itself. It was only then that they’d be able to capture the motion and life in still paintings, by learning to be aware of their surroundings, of the light, the shapes, and how to use it all to tell a story.

Charting Wu’s journey as an educator from 1976 to 1985, there are even sections of the exhibition collecting quotes from his former students. Thanks to the extensive arrangements made, the Gallery has even acquired two of his students’ notebooks, as they captured notes and lessons from Wu himself.  In sharing their thoughts about his pedagogy and process, one can practically imagine their class, forming their own intimate community of artists back in the day, as the master teaches his students. Never one to shy away from key conversation topics, or from conversation in general, we were left with new knowledge about Wu, and how he ended up teaching beyond the textbook.

As we went through the exhibition, it almost felt like we were walking through a school or art studio, and imagined Wu all those years ago at school, surrounded by eager students, with the monochrome artworks all around us, with their bold strokes and evocative sketches. And perhaps it is a reminder to us all that such teaching is hard to come by, and even today, must carry on Wu’s legacy, and keep those all-important conversations going, and learn from each other.

Editors Note: This exhibition was a visual spectacle for me. Full of “manuscripts” and never before seen sketches, it is from these that we can see the evolution of the journey of each of the students and the lengths Wu Guanzhong went to teach his students to look beyond just their regular textbooks. As I went through the exhibition with Cai Heng and Jennifer, I thought about how they too were like the teachers bringing us through a lesson on probably one of Asia’s most prolific and foremost artists, carrying on the lessons that Wu has started. 

Photos courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

Wu Guanzhong: Learning From The Master runs from 20th February to 26th September 2021 at National Gallery Singapore. For more information, visit their website here

0 comments on “Art What!: Wu Guanzhong – Learning From The Master at National Gallery Singapore

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: