Three things I learnt from Wu Guanzhong about life and art
1. Get Understanding
To cut across anything takes vision and boldness but it also requires understanding and a deep respect for what we are transcending.
Wu always appreciated the tension between different elements. This is evident in his approach to life and work. In a sense, it is not a surprise that he donated a significant portion of his life’s work to Singapore. He saw in Singapore a nation straddled between the East and West, a melting pot of diverse cultures, Asian and Western, traditional and contemporary, the individual and community, just to name a few.
He said of Singapore, “…positioned between the east and the west with regards to ethics and quality of life; it is close to China, as it is close to the west; the virtues of both sides are concentrated in you.” What an amazing observation.
Understanding Builds Bridges
Wu could preserve the soul of Chinese ink painting even while he introduced the medium of oil and splashed colours to an ancient art form. As an artist, Wu was always respectful of the genre of art he had been trained in. Chinese calligraphy and ink painting have been the visual art forms that had captured for over two millennia, the poetic essence of the Chinese soul, its cultural history and thinking.
“Wu's paintings have the color sense and formal principles of Western paintings, but a spirit and tonal variations of ink that are typically Chinese. Natural scenery is reduced to its essentials - simple but powerful abstract forms.” 
It takes someone who truly understands the nature of Chinese art and culture to be able to take such bold steps creatively, to bring seemingly contradictory principles into its art form without compromising or destroying it.
Understanding means being able to grasp the core of an issue and to see the essence of a thing. It allows us to make those intuitive decisions that cut a way through to new seeing. Can we be both liberal and yet respectful of traditions? To be totally open to life and its expressions and yet be conservative? Only understanding can build bridges to a better whatever that we are seeking for. This principle applies to everything.
2. Synthesise Differences
With regards to his work, his piece on Synthesis of Oil and Ink Practices, Wu said:
“[…] Oil and ink painting are like the two blades of a pair of scissors cutting out a new outfit. The two blades may not necessarily be of the same length, and the ways of using the scissors, exerting different strengths, for example, may also differ from time to time. Hence, when I feel that I have come to a deadlock in oil painting, I will choose to paint in ink. However, I will revert to oil when I feel that my dabbling in ink has come to a deadlock.”
Art is a medium that expresses the spiritual through movement of lines and colours. Different mediums are necessary to express different things, however, even then, there are limitations to each art form.
Limitations Become Strengths in Proper Context
I learnt that it in understanding the strengths and limitations of different elements that gives one the ability to synthesize them into a creative force. Wu’s analogy that different elements could be brought together to produce new realities applies only in art but also in our work and relationships.
Wu’s insight is that new realities can be forged into existence when different elements, though limited in themselves, come together in an interplay of different strengths working to create an effect that each by itself, would have been incapable of achieving.
As an artist, Wu crossed over oil and ink painting to make connections that would have been daunting for most, and he did this in bold strokes, which reflects strength of vision and faith.
3. Innovation is an Art
Every functioning team is an innovation that is the outcome of a creative process. It is a body of different parts moving in tandem, like blades of a pair of scissors.
In the realm of ideas and work, no two persons think alike in form, style and structure but when they are able to work together, like two blades of a pair of scissors, they have a power to cut through old thinking and realities. Each role, when it comes to a deadlock, finds a breakthrough through the thinking or actions of another person.
The beauty of this is that the “blades” need not be of the same length nor strength, as long as they are part of a group with a common set of values and beliefs, working towards a common objective. There is power to create powerful new realities, that a person by himself, may never be able to achieve.
One of China’s most respected artists, Wu Guanzhong 吳冠中 (1919-2010), represents five decades of creative oeuvre that has significantly influenced the development of Chinese modern painting, not just through his works but notably through his conception of art. He once said, “After people master the skills, contemplation would replace skills.” His art process was not the process of obtaining a certain art skill or “craftsmanship”, but the process of ceaseless thinking.
In his final years, he donated over a hundred of his precious paintings to Singapore Art Museum (SAM), one of the highest valued donations of its kind presented to a public museum in Singapore. He was devoted to the development of culture, arts and education throughout his life.
My first introduction to Wu Guanzhong’s work was at the exhibition, An Unbroken Line: The Wu Guanzhong Donation Collection (April 9-August 16, 2009) by SAM. I had expected to see traditional Chinese ink landscape paintings from a Master but was instead struck by colours that splashed across traditions. I was simply amazed. Who is this man? I learnt so much at the exhibition and am thankful not only for the vision and beauty of his work but also for his writings on life, art and creativity that accompanied them.