Wu Daozi (c. 685 – 758 CE or 680-759 CE), also known as Daoxuan, was a Chinese painter of the Tang dynasty. The British art historian Michael Sullivan considers him one of "the masters of the seventh century," Some of his works survive; many, mostly murals, have been lost.
Wu lost his father at an early age and lived in poverty.
He learned calligraphy from Zhang Xu and He Zhizhang, before specialising in painting.
He pioneered realistic techniques, the formal establishment of brushwork, and landscape painting. He painted figures with round strokes so as to show their flowing clothes.
He traveled widely and created murals in Buddhist and Daoist temples. Wu also drew mountains, rivers, flowers, birds. No authentic originals are extant, though some exist in later copies or stone carvings. Wu's famous painting of Confucius was preserved by having been copied in a stone engraving.
In one, Emperor Xuanzong called him to paint a wall of his palace. He painted a wall mural displaying a rich nature-scene set in a valley, containing a stunning array of flora and fauna and including a cave at the foot of a mountain. The story goes that he informed the emperor that it's not just what the emperor is able to see, Wu Daozi has made this painting in such a way, that a spirit dwells in the cave. Next, he clapped his hands and entered the cave, inviting the emperor to follow. The painter entered the cave but the entrance closed behind him and, before the astonished emperor could move or utter a word, the painting vanished from the wall. This story depicts the spirituality of art. The contemporary Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist meditates on this legend and the challenge that it poses to modern aesthetics in his book, The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu.
Another legend states that Emperor Xuanzong sent Wu Daozi to Sichuan to study the green waters of the Jialing River in order to complete a mural of its entire course. Supposedly, Wu returned without sketches and rapidly painted the entire river from memory, completing the 300-li account within a single day. It is sometimes added that his technique was foiled by Li Sixun, who accompanied him and followed the traditional practice of working slowly from numerous prepared sketches. To the extent that it is grounded in a real event, however, it probably only reflects Wu's speed of execution and not a lack of reliance on sketches.
Another has it that a painter found one of the last surviving murals of Wu Daozi and learned to imitate the style. He then destroyed the wall, possibly by pushing it into a river, to ensure that no one else could learn the same secrets.
- Chinese Landscape Painting: The Sui and T'ang Dynasties. (Berkeley: University of California press, 1980. ISBN 0520035585), pp. 50-52.
- James Cahill. An Index of Early Chinese Painters and Paintings: T'ang, Sung, and Yüan. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. ISBN 0520035763), pp. 21-22.
- A version of this story appears in Herbert Allen Giles. An Introduction to the History of Chinese Pictorial Art. (London: Quaritch, 2d ed., 1918), pp. 47-48.
- Sven Lindqvist, translated by Joan Tate. The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu. (1967; rpr. London: Granta, 2012. ISBN 9781847085221).
- 《中国文化历史故事》 [Zhongguo Wenhua Gushi Congshu], p. 232–3. (in English)
- Strassberg, Richard E. (ed.), Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, p. 35.
- Van Briessen, Fritz (1964), The Way of the Brush: Painting Techniques of China and Japan, p. 52.
- Kao Yu-kung, "Chinese Lyric Aesthetics", Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting, pp. 84–5.
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