Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wu Daozi, Sage in Chinese Painting

Wu Daozi, Sage in Chinese Painting

In Chinese history, three people are revered as sages: the calligrapher Wang Xizhi of the West Jin Dynasty (265-316), the poet Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the painter Wu Daozi, also of the Tang Dynasty.

Wu's most prolific period was during the Kaiyuan and Tianbao eras (713-755) in the Tang Dynasty. Born in Yangzhai (Yu County in Henan Province), Wu lost both his parents at a young age and lived a hard life in his early years. He learned how to make a living from folk artists and sculptors. Because Wu studied hard and was talented in art, he earned himself a good reputation as a painter by the time he was 20 years old. Emperor Xuanzong invited Wu as an imperial painter in the court, naming him Daoxuan. As an imperial painter, Wu only painted at the emperor's request, which was a big restriction for a civilian painter. On the other hand, the court provided the best living conditions and was an outlet for artistic creativity.

Wu's character was unrestrained, direct and indifferent to trivial matters, and it is known he always drank while painting. It is also said that when Wu drew the halo around Buddha's head in a mural, he only used his brushes without drafting the measurements first; when he painted at Longxing Temple, the temple was always packed with observers. Wu moved his brush quickly, and most of his works were accomplished in a single session. Chang'an (present day Xi'an), capital of the Tang Dynasty, was the cultural center of the time where many famous men of letters and artists lived. Wu had many opportunities to stay with them, which helped improve his painting skills.

Wu mainly created religious murals all his life and his abundant works had a wide range of subjects. According to records, Wu painted over 300 murals and more than 100 scrolls. While many of them involved Buddhism and Taoism, Wu also drew mountains, rivers, flowers and birds. The Presentation of Buddha is his most representative work. Unlike his predecessor Gu Kaizhi, whose line strokes were slender and forceful but lacked variety, Wu's strokes were full of change and vigor, expressing the internal world of his subjects. Wu was always in great ferment when he was painting, and his works exhibit an expressionist style.

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