An insight into the legacy of Wu Changshuo


Works and life stories of Wu Changshuo and his friends and apprentices are now on display in Zhejiang Museum through October 7.

Wu was a prominent painter, calligrapher, poet and seal artist. As a master living in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and early Republic of China (1912-1949) when a myriad of art societies thrived across the country, Wu made friends with artists of all fields and gradually gained prestige.

His friends ranged from magnates and collectors to top officials and secluded literati. During that age, they communicated with each other via letters, in which they exchanged ideas on literature and art. Now, a pile of letters between Wu and artists Yang Xian and Wu Yun are displayed in the exhibition.

The three all came from Huzhou in northern Zhejiang Province and specialized in seal art. These letters reflect changes in social ethos and art trends, showcase their gratitude for each other, display aspirations and responsibility of traditional scholars, and offer a new angle to view Wu’s life.

Wu and his friends always finished a letter with a seal, typical of Chinese scholars. Seal art is a distinct and indispensable part of Chinese painting and calligraphy. On the letters, such precious seal stamps typify the top level of seal art.

The exhibition also displays manuscripts written by Wu’s friends, which were later prefixed to his books. These noted friends included artists Yu Yue, Yang Runbo, Tang Jingchang and Wu Gan.

They were popular calligraphers and painters in Shanghai at the time, which was one of the earliest open ports during the late Qing Dynasty and then home to a booming and sophisticated art industry. The city lured endless streams of artists from across China, especially Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces.

In addition to Shanghai, Suzhou in southern Jiangsu Province was another attractive city for artists because of its long history of collections and powerful voices in art criticism.

Wu commuted between Shanghai and Suzhou to join in seminars and gatherings. That helped him expand his horizons and circles of friends and colleagues, including renowned painters Ren Bonian and Wang Zhen.

The exhibition displays paintings from Ren. The elder Ren often instructed him on painting and calligraphy. In one portrait, Wu is sitting on a bamboo chair, waving a fan under a Japanese banana tree. Wu cherished this portrait, but later it was stolen. After years, it was discovered again in Shanghai and returned to him.

During the early 20th century, Wu made friends with a group of seal artists. At the time, many small-sized organizations were not officially registered. In 1904, the Xiling Seal Society was established in Hangzhou and Wu served as its first president. Thereafter, it became the top academic seal art association in China. Today, it is still a mecca for artists.

Seal art cannot develop without literati paintings, which are a tradition in China and a required skill for scholars. They started with calligraphy because they needed to write with a brush and then moved on to painting. Their paintings have always included calligraphy and seal stamps, two necessary parts of traditional ink-wash paintings.

Literati paintings from Wang Zhen, Wu Guxiang and Wu Changshuo are also displayed in this exhibition. They are the epitome of scholars’ versatility and the best level of this genre during that period.

Also on show is a portrait by Wu’s two apprentices, Zhu Wenyun and Pan Tianshou, a typical example of the so-called literati style. The two combined Western realism and traditional ink-wash painting through sharp color contrast and bold strokes. It symbolizes the artistic fusion of the open attitudes of Shanghai and painters.

In this portrait, Wu was clad in kasaya (a Buddhist monk’s robe) and sitting in meditation. During later years, he burned incense in front of Buddha statues every morning. He acquired tranquility from the religion.

Wu initially devoted himself to seals and calligraphy but later came to be considered the lead painter of the Shanghai school. As a painter, he was noted for helping rejuvenate flowers and birds as a subject for art.

In the 1910s, He switched focus to painting, and settled in Shanghai. During that period, he and Wang were dubbed “two jades of the Shanghai school” and enjoyed widespread fame. They promoted the social influence of painters and accelerated the development of the Shanghai school. Wang’s works are also on display.

Date: Through October 7, closed on Mondays

Address: Zone E, West Lake Culture Plaza, 581 Zhongshan Rd N.

Admission: Free