Chinese Artist Wu Guanzhen Recreates Mademoiselle Chanel’s Favourite Coromandel Screens
The apartment of French couturier Coco Chanel at 31 Rue Cambon, Paris is a breathtaking space teeming with eclectic, inspiring art. Her love for Oriental bric-à-brac is palpable, particularly evident in the many Coromandel screens she proudly called her own.
These screens are a great source of inspiration, be it for Mademoiselle Chanel herself or in more recent years, when the creative minds behind Chanel’s high jewellery chose to pay tribute to Coco’s object of obsession by putting together the Coromandel collection.
Also see: The seduction of Chanel's timepieces
At the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition that’s currently taking place in Shanghai, the screens once again made a special appearance. In one of the exhibition rooms that house the high jewellery collection, the screens were beautifully reinterpreted by Wu Guanzhen, a rising star in the contemporary art scene in China.
Wu’s body of work is a juxtaposition of ancient lacquering technique and small lashes of contemporary accents. Here, he shares his experience working on the Coromandel screens and how he stays true to the traditional art form despite the many challenges.
1/4 You created 3 large Coromandel screens for this year’s Chanel Mademoiselle Privé Shanghai exhibition. How did your creative concepts develop?
The 3 Coromandel lacquer screens especially commissioned for the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition are named Lofty Mountain, Early Spring and Garden of Pleasure. Thinking in terms of human-space interactions, I used Chinese lacquer to paint traditional Chinese art content such as mountains, birds and flowers to construct a visual flow between the viewers and the works. The light and shadow effects also help create a dreamlike atmosphere. A sense of familiarity was my main response to the Chinese Coromandel screens from Mademoiselle Chanel’s collection.
2/4 How did this “sense of familiarity” help you put together this work?
My hometown in the Fujian province is surrounded by mountains, with many beautiful and interesting natural landscapes, while Fujian is also well known for its traditions of using lacquer. Growing up in such an environment, lacquer has long been a part of my life. So, between the themes painted on the artwork and the charm of the ebony lacquer craftsmanship, it was all very familiar to me. Lacquer is one of China’s most ancient crafts.
3/4 As an artist born in the 1980s, why have you chosen such a traditional artistic medium over other presentation forms such as oil painting, video art or conceptual art?
It could possibly because China still upholds the tradition of using lacquer, especially in the Fujian Province. I have always felt drawn to natural materials and handmade crafts, hence I chose lacquer as the material for creation. Of course, the current choice of combining lacquer with ramie fabric is closely related to how I wish to convey concepts in my works.
I have worked with other art mediums such as oil paintings and video art, however I quickly found that even though they are seen as the mainstream “contemporary art mediums”, I felt very distanced from them. In the end, I returned to lacquer. To me, lacquer feels more aligned with my original aspirations. Removing lacquer from its lacquer panels and combining it with ramie materials, the lacquer artworks create a translucent visual effect.
4/4 What were some of the challenges you faced during this artistic process?
Lacquer is a material with a long history, the craftsmanship also has its ancient traditions. Since the old ages, lacquerware has never been created away from its heavy base. The base is made of raw lacquer, linen, brick dust, clay, gypsum powder, etc. Hence, lacquer paintings did not exist without its lacquer board and it has always been made with this type of lacquer base.
From 2011, I started to experiment separating lacquer from its lacquer board, to represent its light, natural and almost transient beauty. I experimented on many materials, such as acrylic, raw silk, paper and all sorts of linen. The difficulty I faced was unimaginable, as with lacquer, I couldn’t see its effects immediately, I needed to wait until it dries. Even on a good day when the temperature and humidity is favorable, I still need to wait a couple of days. Sometimes, the wait could take about two weeks.
The experimenting on the materials alone took me 6 years. It wasn’t until February 2016 that I finally presented my new works in Xiamen’s exhibition. The real challenge came after the opening. All sorts of voices spoke out, I needed to face the challenge to decide whether I must continue in this path.
An artistic journey without struggle is non-existent. Wu's ability to create a layered, multi-dimensional landscape of the Orient is commendable and this artist is definitely one to watch.
Also read: 4 Malaysian contemporary artists to watch now in our first ever pavilion at Venice Biennale 2019