Gallery 10 & 38 | Admission Free
The Ashmolean Museum is currently displaying in two galleries a selection of works by the Hong Kong artist Wucius Wong. This display based on the Museum’s collection is linked to the Lui Shou-kwan Centenary Exhibition: Abstraction, Ink and Enlightenment on view in the The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery (Gallery 11) until the 7th of April 2019.
Born in Guangdong province on mainland China in 1936, Wucius Wong moved with his family to Hong Kong when he was not yet ten years of age. The influx of many aspects of Chinese culture that arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland, throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries, created a unique multi-cultural atmosphere that permeated all aspects of life in what was then a British Crown Colony. Wong grew up in this cross-cultural atmosphere, one that he later saw as being a dialogue between East and West. His Hong Kong upbringing, and the three periods in which he lived in the USA later in life, all greatly affected his art work and resulted in the unique transcultural flavour that is evident in his painting. Despite spending sixteen years of his adult life in the USA, Wong identifies Hong Kong as being his home; the place where his roots truly lie.
With regard to the question of what the contribution of Hong Kong artists has been to the broader worldwide artistic endeavor, Wong has suggested that the answer lies in the cross-cultural nature of Hong Kong. He considers Hong Kong artists to be in a unique position to use this cross-cultural phenomenon in the formulation of new approaches to ink painting, and in the seeking out of new directions that cut across cultures, media and forms. Of course, it might well be suggested that this was something that had already been achieved with considerable success by Wong’s one-time teacher Lui Shou-kwan. In the case of the landscapes of Lui Shou-kwan they represent aspects of the Hong Kong landscape as he saw them on his sketching and painting trips around the islands from the 1950s to the 1970s. Wong, on the other hand deals with this in his own way.
For Wong it has been the modern city landscape, together with imagined landscapes, some of which show the starkest of scenes, that have been at different times the main themes in his work. Since the mid-2000s Wong has thought increasingly about Chinese traditions, following his lifelong engagement with East and West, to work “towards a new understanding of ink and brush.” At this time he was producing ink paintings of landscapes in series on such apparently Chinese-inspired themes as Great River, Deep in the Mountains, and Searching for Plum Trees.
Wong was heavily involved in the Hong Kong modern art scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in 1958, at the age of 24, was a co-founder of the Modern Literature and Art Association. This was the same year in which he began his studies with Lui Shou-kwan. As had been the case with his teacher, in order to perfect his skills, Wong copied the Chinese masters of the Song and Yuan dynasties, and a firm grounding in landscape painting is reflected clearly in his own creative work during subsequent years.
Wucius Wong first went to the USA in 1961, in order to pursue his painting studies. Following five initial years of training at the Columbus College of Art and Design, Ohio, and the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, when his work is seen to have been heavily influenced by abstract expressionism, he went on to produce works that incorporated elements of popular culture and mixed media. This can be seen, for example, in an album leaf dedicated by inscription to Michael Sullivan in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum. This album (EA2015.421) is one of two in the museum’s collection that demonstrate the state of modern art at the time when they were compiled. The other (EA2015.422), was compiled two years later, in 1970.
Wong produced this album leaf the year after he became curator of the City Hall Museum and Art Gallery. He remained in that post for a number of years, making his second trip to the USA during this period as recipient of a John D Rockefeller 3rd Fund Grant. This took him to New York for a year and it was at this time that he turned to Chinese brush and ink again. By his own estimation, during the year he spent in New York, his works were “subtle and muted”, while, following his return to Hong Kong, they became increasingly “colourful and vibrant”.
On his return to Hong Kong he resumed his post as curator but resigned in 1974 in order to take up a post in the Design Department of Hong Kong Polytechnic. The teaching of graphic design was something that has occupied him throughout his professional career.
In 1984 Wong went again to the USA and took up residence, first in Minnesota and then in New Jersey, remaining there until 1994. His decisive homecoming was as a result of Britain’s historic return of Hong Kong to China. Thinking back to this time, in 2006 he wrote, my “…main motivation for coming back was to bear witness to the historic day in 1997 when Hong Kong returned to China.”
His involvement since his youth in writing and literature can be seen to great effect in his later works, in the use of his own poetical inscriptions as well as those by major poets from China’s past. An impressive large-scale calligraphic work from 1999 entitled Expression in Calligraphy #25 (書興之廿五) is currently on display in the Early China Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. This example, of a well-known poem by Su Dongpo 蘇東坡 (1037-1101), displays his own remarkably idiosyncratic calligraphic style to great affect – a style in which he appears to have deliberately avoided adopting the trappings of traditional calligraphic models from China’s past.
Despite this poem being very well-known, in Wong’s hands, a new dimension can be observed, the profound sentiments found within the text expressing thoughts and feelings that are frequently represented in visual form in his own landscapes:
“Viewed from the front, an entire mountain range; from the side, forming into a peak; from a distance, close up, high, and low – all [views] are different. I cannot recognise the true appearance of Lushan precisely because I am in the midst of the mountain itself.”
According to Pat Hui (b. 1943), collaborator with Wong on over 200 works – for a period of more than twenty years – it was in the 1980s that Wong began to concentrate more on the development of his calligraphic skills and made a return to the writing of poetry that had occupied him in his youth. The use of poems from the Song dynasty can also be seen in two other examples in the museum collection, one of which is currently on display in the Later China Gallery (EA2015.191), in which a Ci lyric by Xin Qiji 辛棄疾 (1140-1207) appears to move from left to right, floating above Pat Hui’s painted ground, lending a new dimension to this poem of nostalgia and regret.
These collaborative works – combining the calligraphy of Wong with the painting of Pat Hui – they named “poetic visions” (詩情畫意). As well as historical poems Wucius Wong uses his own poetry with which to construct the very fabric of his landscape, where a literary text or poem is subsumed into the main body of the painting. This is illustrated well in New Dream no. 4 新夢之四 (1997).
In the poem hidden within this painting Wong displays a nostalgic view for the Hong Kong in which he grew up, while at the same time expressing a profound understanding of the landscapes of both China’s past, and the American landscape of his personal experience:
“Can you cut your vision into strips and arrange them vertically and horizontally like all the tall buildings you once grew up with; and then desire to forget that which you have so often seen; and chase those mountains and waters that it has not been so easy to see? On awakening could you seek a new dream, and not care what mountains are, or what waters are, because you have your own dream?”
Dr Paul Bevan, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting, Ashmolean Museum
The Poetic Visions 詩情畫意 (Hong Kong: Alisan Fine Arts, 2005)
Wucius Wong, Pleasure in Ink 筆情墨一 (Hong Kong: hanart T Z Gallery, 2006)
Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Wucius Wong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1979)
Mountain Thoughts: Landscape Paintings by Wucius Wong (Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Art, 1987)
The Paintings of Wucius Wong (London: Goedhus Contemporary, 2000)
Wucius Wong, Visions of a Wanderer (Hong Kong: Plum Blossoms, 1997)
Wucius Wong City Dream 王無邪，城夢 (Hong Kong: hanart T Z Gallery, 2002)
Calligraphy and Beyond: Wang Jiqian, Wucius Wong 書意畫情：王己千，王無邪 (Hong |Kong: Plum Blossoms, 1999)