Wu Guanzong left China in 1947, on the eve of the Communist takeover, to study art in Paris. He returned three years later, only to face 25 years of persecution for being too "Western" and "abstract."
But his detractors fell from power, and when China reopened its doors to the world Wu began to gain the recognition art critics and historians believe he deserves.
Now Wu's paintings can be seen in Lawrence, in a show that opens today at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art on the Kansas University campus.
"I think he was the first main link between China and the West when China first opened up 10, 12 years ago, because he studied in France," said Chu-tsing Li, distinguished professor of art history at KU.
"After China closed, of course, there wasn't anything coming in. So when it opened, young painters came to look to him as one who understood mordern art."
THE WORKS that will be on display at the Spencer include colorful, spare landscapes and designs that show both an influence of modernist, abstract painters, such as Matisse, and traditional Chinese forms. The showing is part of a tour of Wu's art that originated in San Francisco. The exhibition opens today and runs through March 4.
Li, who also left China in 1947, first met Wu in the 1970s, after the regime of Mao Tse-tung's widow, called "The Gang of Four," had been removed from power. Li again saw Wu last year, when the painter last visited the United States. After the crackdown on protesters in Beijing in June, Wu returned again to China, where he is now, Li said.
MANY OF THE 63 works on display at the Spencer are landscapes. Some aren't recognizable as landscapes right off; Wu uses a minimum of strokes to create his images. A black swath becomes a river, five or six curved lines become a house, beads of paint become flowers or water falling from a cliff.
The dabs of color and the broad brush strokes remind one of the Western minimalist art of Jackson Pollack or Roy Lichtenstein. But the paintings are also reminiscent of traditional Chinese and Japanese scroll painting.
"You can see his transition from abstract to more traditional," Li said. "You can go back and look at the actual landscape he painted and compare it with what he shows in his paintings. He's taken the landscape and turned it into something much more marvelous."
WU'S STRUGGLE during the years of Maoist rule and the Cultural Revolution grew out of the Western taint in his work. In 1942, Mao issued an essay in which he called for forms of art that would serve the peasants and workers, Li said.
"Mao's act in 1942 said Communist art had to serve the interests of the peasants and the workers, and for a long period artists had to produce art that would be understood by those people," Li said.
ABSTRACT ART, the kind Wu studied, didn't fit the definition. As a result, Wu was forced to use "socialist realism" in his work, and he had to destroy some of his early work.
"During the cultural revolution he had to burn most of his work with figures," Li said. "During that period, he knew it would be difficult to survive with those, because most of the paintings depicted figures, mostly nudes, that were more abstract. The exhibition shows only a couple of paintings in that category."
But after Mao's death, Wu managed show his work was rooted in the tradition of Chinese painting as much as Western traditions.
"He has convinced the government that abstract art is a part of the Chinese tradition, so there is no reason to object," Li said.
By staying in China, despite the dogma and oppression over the years, Wu has maintained his identity as an Asian artist, Li said.
"He is very honest and straight-forward and very dedicated to his art," Li said. "He travels all around the country, he can live in any kind of situation."