In an article from Paris magazine 'French Arts', art critic Alain Jouffroy once pointed out: "The works of Zao Wou-ki clearly display a Chinese view of the universe. The distance and haziness represent a focus on a contemplative spirit rather than a contemplative thing. Such a viewpoint has become the newest viewpoint widely accepted by the entire human being." This notion has also been accepted by artists of such as Mark Tobey and Henri Michaux, and is the first time the contemporary west has explored oriental philosophy and art in such an in-depth manner.
Zao Wou-ki once said, "In Chinese tradition, poetry and painting are so closely connected that any empty space in a painting is usually filled with verse. I loved poetry since I was young. I began writing poetry as soon as I learned to write my first Chinese characters. In my opinion, these two modes of expression are essentially the same. They both express appearance of life, whether through flick of brush over a painting or motion of hand as characters take shape on paper. These are expression of our thought rather than reappearance of view. They reflect hidden significance of ours as well as that of the universe. Since 1950, whenever I've been approached by a publisher or a poet, I've always promised to make my work and poetry into such a combination. What I like most in poetry is the feeling of freedom spreading through the lines. Every word finds its own place and become part of the unified whole. The words easily amble, stop, reverse and breathe there. We then pay sudden attention to such a point that represents a beautiful moment of peace as a blank space on a painting." This point of view enables us to discover a poetic imagery belonging to poems when we view Zao Wou-ki's creations, no matter if they refer to his abstract works in his early Klee-influenced times or his later expressively exciting periods. Because of this, the viewer can freely exert an imagination of his own and immerse himself within the painting, so as to meditate upon one's own life experiences. The following works fully display the artistic richness of Zao Wou-ki between 1940 and 1970 with the many creative and conceptual changes.
Among many great Western painters, Klee and Cezanne undoubtedly inspired Zao's early development. Klee's revealed interest and incorporation of Eastern elements in his painting consolidated Zao Wou-ki's determination to embrace traditions of both the East and West. Cezanne, through his structured handling of scene and modulation of color, provided an avenue for Eastern painters to incorporate Western elements by an obvious contrast and difference in thought. The works created by Zao Wou-ki before his departure from China seemed impressionist more than Western Expressionist. However, his arrival in Paris and subsequent travels to Europe and America encouraged him to embark on a deeper exploration of his Chinese origin after his visual experience of western works as well as architectural and sculptural arts in Rome. Untitled (Deer in the Woods) (Lot 610) is a fitting example. This painting was made by the painter after his arrival in Paris in 1948 before his encounters with Klee's works. Judging from the lines and shapes of the image, he was most influenced by the hieroglyphs his grandfather showed him at a young age to excite his literal education, displaying a poetic imagery through diluted colours rather than established forms set out in Western theory.
The concept of abstraction is well reflected in Zao Wou-ki's works. He believed that the Western idea of abstraction was correspondent to Chinese ideas of the coexistence of human and nature, so he interpreted the so-called spirit of nature through his abstract approach and believed that the combination of both extended to the spirit of Chinese landscape painting. Since the early 50s, Zao Wou-ki began to be influenced by oracle-bone inscriptions on ancient bronze items.
In Eglise (Lot 611), the artist divides and overlaps images structured with dots, lines and other elements, and furthermore adds a touch of oriental flavour, generating exact correspondence of ancient oracle-bones or metal inscription. This handwritten symbolic indication and the vivid colors on the painting create a mysterious imaginative space with romantic abstraction, symbolizing a starting point for his later creations. When we quietly appreciate Paysage (Lot 612), we clearly sense the attempts for intimate dialogue between a Chinese cultural painter and nature. Zao Wou-ki frankly expresses his subjective imagery through a captivating atmosphere, successfully expressed in Daoist notions of inaction - "Joining the Universe and Human Being" in Chinese landscape painting.
Its semi-visible mysterious symbols and lines hold a holy sense of fantasy, and is an important style during this period. Francois Cheng remarked on Zao Wou-ki's painting evolution, "For the paintings of this phase, Zao has ended his bondage to the physical world and entered into an entirely new realm." During a short period of five years, Zao Wou-ki's vision and brushstroke presents to us objects that have transformed into symbols and danced across the canvas like musical notes, recalling the markings of oracle-bone inscriptions on ancient bronze items, transformed into bright lights leading our way towards an expansive space. If such a deployment of literal symbols is a milestone for his creation, the deployment of color further broadens the merging of space, motion and life within. Since 1959, Zao Wou-ki began to date works on the back of his canvas, to ensure that viewers were able to respond directly to the poetic imagery of his work without any external interference outside the image. He further abandoned the use of variegated colors and often limited himself to no more than three colors on a painting, creating a strong composition of plain simplicity. This so-called "the five colors of ink" in traditional Chinese painting means using various concentration levels of pure black and white to express the highly complicated nature. Contrasting 22-10-59 (Lot 613) and 2-7-62 (Lot 614), we can tell that Zao Wou-ki intended to seek a harmonious balance point of black and white. 22-10-59 had stepped out from the bondages of external form and entered a world of complete abstraction. The image, in a gloomy background, presents an emotional freedom, and allow us to visualize the beauty of nature through the clouds and fog. The warm grey tone on the lower part seems to deliver a beam of the morning light. We feel that we have gone beyond the canvas and to the inexhaustible universe. The colors of 2-7-62 are light and holy. Zao Wou-ki's painting communicates the basic truth, and beauty of nature and human life with the artist's own viewpoints, expressed through lines that are resonant with the viewer. Through mature and unrestrained brushwork, he expresses his inner understanding of Chinese landscape and the "appearance" of nature in philosophy. The expression "Let Art Serve Art" could not have been better used.
In his autobiography of 1961: "Paris undeniably exerted an influence during my transformation into an artist, but I have to point out that finding my own character meant also beginning to gradually rediscover China." Paris liberated him paved ways for new direction in his painting while China's tradition remained alive in his heart, strengthened by new perspectives-viewing other cultures allowed him to rediscover his most personal and sacred possession, his own culture. With the continuous influence of traditional Chinese culture, many Chinese artists have sought to continue expressing this spirit to its amplitude. In Chinese painting tradition, we rarely find artists who depart from the influence of empirical rules and use a completely abstract style to interpret natural images and efforts.
In the following 60 to 70 years, Zao Wou-ki extracted inspirations from Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. 05-01-67 (Lot 615) employs beautiful lines of calligraphy on brushwork and uses strong colors to move the viewer. His positive spirit is shown on the canvas, corresponding to the painter's perfect brushwork, delivering his message through form and style. Elements from Chinese traditions give the painter a space that is fully in his own control, to help express real objects in an abstract manner. Zao Wou-ki skillfully adds mystery into the space and creates energy and beauty through detailed shapes and colors. From the abstract structure of 15-4-70 (Lot 616) in 1970, we can tell that Zao Wou-ki strived to make space and light an important aspect in his creations. The image creates a heavy meaning similar to the early works and fills it with a kind of unique landscape atmosphere. The horizontal lines on lower part of the canvas, not only divide the canvas into upper and lower parts, but also creates space in a different direction through the changes of thick and dense lines. The central image is expressed with rough brushwork as well as fine lines, by the alternating use of thick and diluted paints, enriching the painting with a conflicting sense of beauty and brutality, hinting at a struggle within the painter's mind. Zao focuses his discovery to the shape-oriented world, to understand the spirit-oriented world, before expressing spirit through shape, culminating into creation. Although we are often amazed by nature's organic creation of various forms, such as the detailed appearances of mountains and waterfalls, Zao Wou-ki delivers a poetic imagery of such landscapes through his paintings, enabling the audiences to gain different perceptions whilst in quiet aesthetic appreciation of his works.