THE literati painting, a major genre of traditional Chinese painting that focuses more on personal expression and subjective treatment of reality, hit its last golden age during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the early 20th century. Many art critics in the country agree that the most remarkable representative of this “last glory” of the Chinese scholar-official painting is none other than Wu Changshuo (1844-1927), a great painter, poet, calligrapher and seal cutter of his era.
After the two opium wars in the mid-19th century, Shanghai and several other Chinese port cities were forced to open to foreign trade. Then, following the gradual booming of these cities, a new Chinese artistic movement known as Haipai, or the Shanghai School, began to emerge. It later became a dominant force in Chinese painting and influenced many other forms of art, such as theater, cinema, music and literature.
The Shanghai School was a rather romantic movement that combined traditional Chinese and Western aesthetics and appealed to the tastes of an emerging urban class.
Wu was widely reputed as one of the Four Masters of the Shanghai School in the late Qing years. The other three were Ren Bonian (1840-96), Pu Hua (1839-1911) and Xu Gu (1823-96).
Wu was born into a scholar’s family in today’s Anji County in east China’s Zhejiang Province. When he was only 10, he began to study seal carving under the tutelage of his father.
For more than 2,000 years, seal carving had been deemed as a unique art form and seals were a sine quo non element of all Chinese paintings and calligraphy works. And this tradition is still being carried out today.
For Wu, seal carving was a lifetime addiction and in 1913, he became the first president of the Xiling Society of Seal Art. Based in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, Xiling Society, since its founding, has been regarded as the most prestigious organization of epigraphers in China.
Wu’s peaceful childhood, however, was disrupted by a peasant rebellion and he was eventually separated from his family. After a few years of harsh living, he settled down in Suzhou, a city close to Shanghai to continue his study of seal carving, calligraphy and poetry.
Wu once said that he didn’t start to write poems until he was already in his thirties and did not began painting until he was in his fifties.
As a top artist in the literati painting tradition, Wu specialized in the genre of flowers and birds. He not only inherited the basic concept of expressive and individualistic style of this school, but also created many new forms and techniques. For instance, he was believed to be the first Chinese painter to use yanghong, literally “Western red,” to brighten his flowers. Yanghong, or magenta, was so called at the time because it was “imported” from the West.
Due to his long time study of seal carvings and calligraphy, Wu also adopted an antiquarian epigrapher’s style in his paintings, which features large bold brush strokes, daring bright colors and sharp contrasts.
In addition, Wu was a master in creating a deliberately naïve manner that belied a very sophisticated hand.
However, thanks to his masterful control, Wu’s bright, vibrant colors never cross the line of becoming gaudy and his naivety never becoming grotesque.
Chrysanthemum and plum blossoms were clear favorite subjects of Wu, particularly the latter. More than once, he called himself “plum’s confidant.”
He left behind quite a few images of plum blossoms. Among them is his 1916 painting, “Plum Blossoms,” now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum, which is widely considered to be one of his best plum works.
In this 159.2 x 77.6 cm, ink and color on paper hanging scroll, Wu, as usual, added burin work and calligraphy to his brushwork. The painting was executed with rough, bold brush strokes as well as strong, vivid colors. This distinguished the piece from the fine, meticulous brushwork and pale colors favored by many other painters of the time.
Wu also graced this painting with a long inscription featuring his fantastic calligraphy and poetic prose. He was a rare artist in China’s history in that he could so skillfully combine his painting, calligraphy, poetry and seal carving art into a single work.
Wu’s art not only inspired his contemporaries, but also influenced several following generations of Chinese artists, including great masters such as Qi Baishi (1864-1957), Pan Tianshou (1897-1971) and Wang Geyi (1897-1988).
Today, Wu’s works remain in hot demand in the market, not only in China, but in other parts of the world.
In November 2011, a traditional ink-wash painting jointly created by Wu and his follower Qi Baishi fetched 27.5 million yuan (US$4.3 million) at auction in Shanghai.
Artist: Wu Changshuo (1844-1927)
Year: Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Type: Ink and color on paper
Dimensions: 77.6 cm × 159.2 cm
Location: Shanghai Museum