Art What! Arts National Gallery Singapore Visual Art

Art What!: Wu Guanzhong – Traveling with the Master at National Gallery Singapore

Opening on 9 July, National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition Wu Guanzhong: Travelling with the Master is set to instill a new sense of wanderlust as it takes visitors on an intriguing journey of the artist’s life and art through the lens of everyday people.

The exhibition, conceived at a time when travel was curtailed during the pandemic, explores various aspects of “travelling” through the curatorial interventions of a group of longserving museum volunteer guides, also known as docents. This marks the Gallery’s first-ever co-created exhibition with the docent community, presenting 47 artworks by Wu Guanzhong from the National Collection and rare archival materials alongside the docent-curators’ personal stories and recollections. This new approach of co-creation champions diverse voices and continues the Gallery’s ongoing and dedicated efforts to being an inclusive and welcoming People’s Museum.

Wu Guanzhong. A Fleet of Boats in Indonesia. 1994. Oil on canvas, 48.2 x 68 cm. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

The four docent-curators – Gertrude Tan, Queenie Chow, Stella Rong and Tina Nixon – are passionate about the arts, avid fans of Wu Guanzhong and have guided visitors through his exhibitions at the Gallery since 2015. By bringing together their knowledge on Wu’s art and biography, drawing connections between his artworks and their lived experiences through personal anecdotes, reflections and photographs, the co-creation process of Travelling with the Master manifests Wu Guanzhong’s personal desires for his art to resonate with both art experts and the wider public. The docent-curators’ anecdotes also spark visitors’ memories of their own travels, bridging their own experiences with Wu’s art to draw intimate and personal connections between Wu and general audiences.

Wu Guanzhong. A Lotus Flower Island. 2003. Oil on canvas, 39.8 x 60.1 cm. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

The exhibition renews perceptions of travel, exploring physical journeys and beyond, including the conceptual, imaginative and emotional aspects of travel through the docent-curators’ presentation of the modern Chinese master’s art.

Wu Guanzhong. A Dream in the Daytime. 1991. Chinese ink and colour on paper, 68.5 x 139cm. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

In the first section Daydreaming, audiences are invited to explore the boundless mind of the master painter and his desire to roam freely – between the East and the West, the traditional and the modern, the figurative and the abstract. Stylised strokes and simple dots, lines, colours and forms portray the conceptual aspect of travel, and the abstract paintings capture the free-spirited nature of Wu’s imagination. The expressive brush strokes and vibrant colours in A Dream in the Daytime (1991) encourage the mind to wander, as audiences are taken through the depth of Wu’s artistic styles and expressions through the world of abstraction.

Wu Guanzhong. An Indian Temple in Singapore. 1990. Carbon ink and watercolour on paper, 35.5 x 25.3 cm. Gift of the artist and his family. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

Inspired by Wu’s idealised paintings of his hometown, the docent-curators travelled to Jiangnan and other parts of China to see and experience the locations and landscapes which Wu had traversed years prior, and recollect these travels through the section titled Exploring. Wu’s travels through Tibet are investigated through the juxtaposition of his painting titled A Tibetan Buddha Wall (1961), a photograph of a Buddha sculpture along the wall of a hill in Tibet and reflections of the docents’ own travels to Tibet. Viewers are prompted to imagine Wu’s difficult travels and tireless search for artistic inspiration across China, building a greater understanding of the artist’s life and artistic practice. Beyond The Horizon, which traces Wu’s extensive travels around the world, displays a world map inspired by Wu’s own hand-drawn map; his artworks are also supplemented with archival photographs and catalogues of seminal group and solo exhibitions from around the world.

Wu Guanzhong. Roaring. 1998. Oil on canvas, 80 x 201 cm. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

The exhibition culminates in the final section, Rhapsodies, with an evocative set of works that taps into Wu’s emotions as he skilfully rendered his surroundings into moving ink depictions of landscapes. A key highlight is a two-metre long painting of the Yellow River titled Roaring (1998) which captures the sights and sounds of the iconic landmark, accompanied by the docent-curators’ own experiences of their visit to the river. As audiences take a closer look at the artworks in this section, they are invited to contemplate the emotional and imaginative aspects of travel as they to take their time to perceive and connect with Wu’s art.

Wu Guanzhong. The Louvre Palace. 1989. Oil on canvas, 44.8 x 52.2 cm. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

National Gallery Singapore has been devoted to researching the life and art practice of the maverick modern master since 2015. Anchored by a collection of artworks donated by the artist and his family, the Gallery’s investigation into Wu’s unique approach to classic painting mediums is framed within the wider contexts of ink aesthetics and modern Asian art, as well as the desire to educate general audiences about Wu’s significant contributions to Chinese art history. Wu Guanzhong: Travelling with the Master is the sixth edition in an ongoing series of exhibitions dedicated to studying the artist.

Wu Guanzhong. Tigers (I). 1990. Chinese ink and colour on paper, 68.1 x 137 cm. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

Reaching out to the docent community, the Gallery held an Open Call during the pandemic in 2021, inviting non-museum professionals to submit proposals for an exhibition on Wu Guanzhong using artworks from the collection. Based on the selected exhibition proposal, the four docent-curators worked closely with the curatorial team to refine artwork selections and the exhibition narrative, as well as develop texts, design and public programmes to reach out to wider publics and inspire interest and curiosity in Wu’s art.

Wu Guanzhong. In Red and White. 2003. Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 60 cm. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

Dr. Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore, says, “As an inclusive and welcoming museum for all, the Gallery continues to explore new formats to allow us to present diverse perspectives. Docents are integral to the museum experience, and it was natural to invite them to participate in our inaugural co-created exhibition. We hope that as audiences explore Wu Guanzhong’s art through the lenses of the docent-curators, they will be inspired to connect their own experiences, and gain a newfound appreciation for his masterful practice.”

Wu Guanzhong – Traveling with the Master runs from 9th July to 30th October 2022. For more information, visit their website here

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