The greatest works of art invite us to delve into such deep and expansive realms that, as the tides of history pass, these masterpieces come to be recognized as transcending geographical limits and embodying a broader, richer cultural essence. Brilliant and lyrical, with emotional resonance and diverse meanings, these works impart new life and draw us into philosophical reflections about human life, history, and the universe. Few works can radiate this highest level of creative achievement more than the mid 1950s oils of Zao Wou-ki.
The mid-1950s brought several crucial developments in Zao Wou-ki's career. During that period he created a number of valuable works representing the finest embodiment of his style and achievements, many of which now reside in the permanent collections of major museums. Among the important works created during this period are Hommage a Chu-Yun and Hommage á Tou-Fou, part of a series from 1955 and 1956, and another series of works from 1956 and 1957 featuring the natural themes of wind, light, mist, and cloud, or in which Zao employs motifs recalling ancient oracle-bone texts. Some of these were retained in the permanent collection of the artist himself; others, such as Zao's 1957 Mistral, one of his best-known works and currently housed at the Guggenheim in New York, were immediately purchased by major museums and institutions for their permanent collections. The infrequency with which the works of this period appear at public sale today is one indication of their rarity and value. Fortunately for collectors of Zao Wou-ki's art, the two works offered here, Nous Deux "We Two" (Lot 528) and Vent et Poussière "Wind and Dust" (Lot 529), also date from 1957 and reflect the mindset and the creative approach of the artist during this crucial period. In addition to their unquestionably high artistic value, they have also served as key links for scholars who wish to understand the course of Zao's personal life and his artistic achievements.
Vent et Poussière and , Nous Deux were both part of the Fogg Art museum collection at Harvard University. Over a century ago, towards the end of the 1950s, collectors bought these works and, subsequently, donated them to Harvard. Opened to the public since 1985, the Fogg Art Museum is Harvard's oldest museum; in addition to masterpieces by Picasso, it also houses many different and previous works, such as those from the Renaissance, 19th Century French, Impressionist, post-Impresisonist, Modern and Contemporary periods.
The period just before and after 1957 represented a critical transitional phase for Zao, a period in which he was shadowed by uncertainty and creative obstruction, which in some respects marked the summit of his work in the '50s. In the artist's words, this period "marked the end of one creative period, or more accurately, the beginning of a new phase from which there would be no looking back." As he underwent this new creative genesis, Zao moved beyond the narrative focus of earlier works concerned with landscape or early Chinese artifacts. He began looking at the world and creating art in a reformed way; he attempted to depict the wind, the feeling of movement, the life within objects, colors unfolding and merging with other hues and all the unseen but vital energies of life. In so doing, he created a new world with infinite artistic possibility.
Understanding how Zao Wou-ki arrived at this new phase of achievement requires a closer look at the artist's life and his creative journey in the '50s. As the decade began, Zao was settling into life in Paris, eagerly pursuing artistic advancement and positioning himself within the trends of the time. This led him to give up for a time his work with ink paintings and traditional Chinese forms. "Not wanting to do work with a Chinese flavor," he said, he concentrated on delving into the western techniques of abstract expressionism. As his memoirs reveal, he then "fell into the opposite extreme: I was only interested in whatever was different." Zao had an eye-opening encounter with the work of Paul Klee, with its symbolic abstraction and poetic colors, yet Klee's influence also brought confusion and perplexity, in which Zao seemed to lose touch with his own personal style. Zao therefore set out to explore the expressive potential of abstract motifs and pure color. But artistic exploration in the end is often a journey of return to one's origins, and the more deeply Zao explored western art, the more he was impelled toward a new recognition of expressive values of traditional Chinese landscapes and their expansive conceptions. Even as he understood and borrowed more extensively from Eastern art and culture, Matisse's work further helped Zao understand how intense, fervent color can convey feeling in a fresh, relaxed, and vibrant manner. But even while discovering new ideas about color, Zao could still relate them to the Chinese concept that the single tonality of black contains a variety of shades and expressions. A deeper link between western art and Chinese landscape painting was provided by Cezanne, with his departure from literal depiction and free modification of basic color tonalities. Thus as 1954 began, Zao Wou-ki was returning to traditions that were older and more native to him, reshaping his creative work with artistic concepts and a perspective of nature and universe that were all deeply rooted in Chinese culture. The oils he was now painting had none of the defined forms or narrative elements of earlier works, but instead sought to capture the abstract dynamics of leaves in the wind or ripples on the surface of water gently brushed by the breeze.
Now, when I look back over that period, I feel I was consistent from beginning to end. I was faithful to my original intent, I never tried to cover up difficulties, and I was never fooled by technique. I wanted to forget technique and create something else. After these different phases, I finally recognized and applied my knowledge of Chinese painting to express what I wanted to expressK I began to see images and lines that led me back toward the symbols and motifs I had studied as a child.
In Chinese, the word 'landscape' is created from the characters 'shan' and 'shui'-meaning mountains and water. But I prefer the word "nature," because it calls into being a much broader world: the intersection of multiple spaces in a painting can create something like a universe, in which the wind and the atmosphere can breathe and flow freely.
-Commentary by the artist
In Zao's new frame of mind, he was not trying to create mere "semblance" of nature; instead, within the multitudinous changes in nature, he began to see and express certain kinds of space, movement, life, and harmony. As a student at the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts, Zao had been known to linger by the shores of West Lake, steeping himself in the feel of nature. In the pagodas, arched bridges of the lake and, its flora and fauna, Zao apprehended the flowing river of time and the changes of the passing seasons; he saw "incredibly rich shades of blue in the reflection of just one leaf on the water." His attention was absorbed by the undulating waves, the play of light on the water, and the mists hanging above it, and as the artist has emphasized, "What I was really looking for was space: how it extends and twists, and what I was groping for in my mind was, How to paint the wind? How to express emptiness? How to convey the brilliance and purity of light?" The breadth of mind that Zao Wou-ki possessed, and his timeless philosophical outlook, is revealed in his ability to find in nature those "incredibly rich shades of blue, to sense its "brilliance and purity" and the flow of time. But in fact these ideas also represent philosophical and artistic views native to Chinese culture. In the 1956-57 period when Zao became determined to materialize a new artistic style, to explore nature and the universe, the natural means was to retrace his steps until he once again faced the artistic traditions of China.
French art critic Alain Jouffroy expressed the sentiment, in the Paris magazine Arts, that Zao Wou-ki's art represents the culmination of Chinese philosophy and aesthetic conceptions, to which art historians too have affirmed the importance of his style: "The works of Zao Wou-ki clearly reflect a Chinese view of the universe. Their distance and haziness represent a focus on the contemplative mood itself, as opposed to the thing contemplated, an approach that has come to be accepted by the young stars of our art world as well as by society at large." At their deepest levels, nature and the universe contain the energies of life, interwoven harmoniously, in their original colorless and formless states. To express these energies and their dynamics, Zao Wou-ki was forced to ponder deeply about the elements of abstraction and its modes of expression. He ultimately arrived at a skillful handling of purely artistic and abstract motifs through which he could express the harmonies of nature in the abstract. In this respect, the free, lyrical styles of traditional Chinese art provided Zao with elements that nurtured his vision of what art should be; this was especially true given his early love for the works of Mi Fu and landscape painters of the Song and Yuan dynasties. Zao's ancestry can in fact be traced to the King of Yan in the Song Dynasty, namely Zhao De-zhao, the second son of the Song's Taizu Emperor, Zhao Kuang Yin. ("Zao" is the artist's alternate spelling of his surname, "Zhao.")
When the Zhao's commemorated the birthdays of their ancestors, their two treasured family heirlooms, paintings by Zhao Meng-yao and Mi Fu, were put on display; the young Zao Wou-ki especially loved the Mi Fu painting. Mi Fu had a style that was bold and free, but not undisciplined; poet Su Dong-po described Mi Fu's calligraphy by saying, "His standard, cursive, clerical, and seal scripts all had the same bold, incisive, and energetic style." Mi Fu also excelled at depicting mist-covered landscapes in the Jiangnan region with soft washes of ink, setting out rows of mountains in the background in thicker inks or in dry-ink brushwork, horizontal strokes, or clustered dots of ink that came to be known as "Mi dots." The use of these "Mi dots" in fact echoes the concept in traditional Chinese art of the "five colors within black ink," which seeks to express essential color with simplicity and imaginative abstraction.
In Vent et Poussière, Zao Wou-ki sweeps oil pigments across his large canvas in subtle, deep tones and profuse layers, giving more than a passing nod to the Chinese tradition and its way of finding inner meanings and subtle shadings even in black. Using primarily simple, pure tones, the artist conveys the natural phenomena of wind, cloud, and dust. The energy of their transformations manifests throughout the work, playing out in hues of brown, black, grey, white, and subdued red; pure tones are surrounded by the same halos seen in ink-wash painting, creating variations in depth and density and recalling the rhythmic qualities of Mi Fu's landscapes. The oils at the center of Zao's canvas are especially thick and intense, layered and scored with rows of linear motifs that suggest oracle-bone inscriptions. The lines of these motifs intersect, fracture, merge, and leap over one another, creating vitality and visual tension: the earth has awakened; life is returning and breaking through the soil. At the edges of the canvas, where the abstract figures are sparser and pigments lighter, Zao borrows Mi Fu's misty grey-whites. The results suggest scenes from Chinese ink-wash landscapes, with rolling mists set against deeper background tones, as well as the fondness of eastern artists for using empty space to suggest pure realms of meditation. Starting at the bottom of the canvas, figures reminiscent of oracle-bone and bronze vessel inscriptions march powerfully upward, curling and winding back on themselves like a dragon flying among the clouds, and evoking something of the same strength and power as they writhe and twist through the fields of color on the canvas.
If Vent et Poussière lets us glance into Zao Wou-ki's exploration of pure color and abstract expression during the 1956-57 period, then Nous Deux places the focus more squarely on his interest in line and its rhythmic effects. Here, the inscriptions etched onto oracle bones are creatively transformed into visual, almost pictorial motifs, in what some art historians, referring to works of this period, have called Zao's "oracle-bone inscription series." Nous Deux is an important work from this series, and in it we can see a number of broken lines that clearly emulate oracle-bone inscriptions. Several straight lines move vertically through the canvas while dots, falling strokes, pressure strokes and other calligraphic figures weave among them, hovering over the composition and calling forth an atmosphere of nobility and deep history that is forged from these derivations of Chinese characters. The layered, interwoven lines of the painting are firm, resolute and strongly rhythmic; the canvas has both an architectural and a musical feel, joining long and short cadences, rhythms in balance and in motion, projecting inner emotional impulses. These calligraphic shapes coil together and then disperse, like dancers whose movements create rhythms on a field of time and empty space.
China's oracle-bone texts are its earliest form of writing; they were the origin and the foundation of Chinese culture. They record the divinations, shamanic rituals, offerings to gods and patriarchal clan activities of its early societies, and they witness their era as history physically inscribed in bone. They express the ancients' sense of respect and veneration as they sought to divine the intent of the spirits, and for us, they evoke the mystical, religious atmosphere of societies in the deep and ancient past. Once we understand the full weight of history embedded in oracle-bone texts, we can futher admire Zao Wou-ki utilization of symbolic implications to give Nous Deux its own expansive feeling of history, one that evokes vast temporal distances, reawakens long-dormant memories of ancient times, and brings renewed life within these rhythmically unfolding lines.
Oracle bone texts, carved with knives into bones or tortoise shells by the ancient Chinese, were unique both as a form of writing and for the sheer artistry displayed in their lines. As pictographs, imitations, or paintings of what they represented, they were strongly pictorial and equally abstract. To formulate written characters, the early Chinese observed forms, images and attitudes of things of the external world and extracted its essential features. This process of converting the concrete into abstraction required both philosophical thought and artistic refinement; resulting images were lively and sensitive abstractions. This was the initial level at which oracle-bone inscriptions were a display of artistry. These early pictorial symbols were then further simplified with cleaner, more rhythmic lines, along with a concern for the balance between straight and curved lines, or between verticals and horizontals, and a clear feeling for structural poise and the apt positioning of each character relative to others. This was the second level in the artistic development of oracle-bone characters. Whereas the first level might correspond to the arts of sculpture and painting, the second corresponds more closely to calligraphy, music, and the dance. In a word, these ancient inscriptions in bone, shell, or bronze partook of the artistic character we find in sculpture, painting, calligraphy, music, and dance. In his art, Zao Wou-ki returns to the origins of these inscriptions and integrates them with his own artistic processes. They contribute greatly to the value and meaning of his work, lending it some of the character and beauty we find in works of sculpture or architecture or the well-proportioned utilization of space. Zhong Baihua, a specialist in Chinese culture, has written that in the art of the written word we gaze upon the beauty of the universe. It is this aesthetics of the written word that Zao Wou-ki rediscovered and drew upon in his oils, a beauty that provides a vision into the source and the great Tao of the universe.
Zao Wou-ki also had a fondness for calligraphy that helped develop his sensitivity to line and symbol and his capacity for imagination. These were qualities he found in the works of artists such as Rembrandt, "who let you see their brush in motion". As a boy, Zao was taught Chinese characters by his father, who drew the early pictograms for him, and he spent hours cutting out pictures and examples of complicated Chinese characters, even ones he couldn't read, because he sensed the beauty in their symbols and the movement of their lines. Zao's original concept was to combine the graceful and rhythmic calligraphic lines with the free expression of colour allowed by oils, allowing him to convey a finely balanced composition of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions. The powerful and incisive lines of Zao's paintings demarcate regions of space or engage the viewer with their pleasing, undulating movement, while the forms and motifs that emerge from his brush ring display the stateliness and harmony of great calligraphy. These traits emerge with clarity and power in the twisting, calligraphic motifs in Nous Deux.
The composition of Nous Deux largely obviates any considerations of flat or three-dimensional space; Zao deliberately manages his composition as its own independent domain, a rich and complex space without limit or boundary. This, however, is not the fragmented space created by the Cubists through their analytical deconstruction and reassembly of forms, but resembles more closely the evenly distributed yet shifting perspectives of early Chinese landscape paintings. Zao's creation of this multidimensional space and imaginative world provides a natural realm through which viewers may roam at their leisure.
The various abstract symbols that Zao Wou-ki refined from color, line, calligraphy, and oracle-bone inscriptions during this period were natural counterparts to his exploration of the natural universe, the passage of time, and the energies of life. For Zao, abstract symbols, in particular those in the Chinese arts of poetry, painting, and calligraphy, "all expressed the 'qi' of life, whether through the flick of the brush over the painting or the motions of the hand as the characters take shape on the paper. These originate with us and cannot be reproduced; they reflect our hidden impulses and the hidden meanings of the universe." The natural universe is built up from the energies of life, without color or defined form, woven together harmoniously and flowing throughout our world, and over the millennia, they have given birth to everything in nature. As Zao considered these energies and worked to express them, his imagination roamed across the vastness of the universe and the infinite diversity around him. His works reflect a great breadth of mind and a transcendent view of the great sweep of history, and reflect the same closeness to nature expressed in the work of China's ancient literati painters of subjective imagery and its ambience. Calling forth the sense of grand, imposing vistas of mountains and rivers, the mysterious lines and symbols that emerge from Zao's canvases, traceable to origins in dim reaches of history, contain a vital energy that seems to spring from great rivers of time and the depths of the earth itself. They impart to Zao's works their broad, philosophical outlook, connecting with our deepest feelings about the universe, history, and existence, forming an important part of the artist's style during this period.
Zao's creative outpourings during this period also, however, reflect a personal mood of solitude and uncertainty, documenting the troubling events occurring in his personal life around 1957. This is particularly true in Nous Deux, which, albeit in a distant and complex manner, reflects Zao's marriage to his first wife and its eventual breakup, since Zao's first wife, Jing-lan, had left him the year before was produced. The two were married when Zao was only 17, and she 16; in their 16-year marriage they traveled together from China to France, suffered through some of the most turbulent periods of recent Chinese history and the difficulties of life abroad, not to mention the ups and downs of a creative artist's existence. Once a close couple, they had somehow become distant and uncommunicative and finally unable to live together. The end of their marriage hurt Zao deeply; he thereafter set out on a tour of Europe and the US in a kind of self-imposed journey of exile. Almost as depressing to him were the creative obstructions he was facing; yet constantly in search of landscapes and subjects, the images he produced were less and less substantial and frequently evolved into motifs that even he could not identify with. But loneliness and obstruction often repel us into serious reflection on life and our existence within it to ultimately lead to our personal growth and enterprises. Such was the case with Zao Wou-ki; his difficulties helped bring about "the beginning of a new phase from which there would be no looking back" and his important new works of 1957. As Zao later reflected on this period, he could not deny that his 1956-57 works did reflect personal tribulations, and he said, "After my anger or my agitation subsided, there was a return to peace. My paintings became an indicator of my emotional life, as I never tried to avoid revealing in them my feelings or my state of mind (quoting the artist, from A Portrait of Zao Wou-ki)".
Though the title We Two reflects its subject, it may be difficult to interpret clear hints of either sorrow or joy in this work, though its relatively pure, monochromatic palette and the historical ambiance of oracle-bone inscriptions do provide indirect revelations of the artist's injured feelings and bleak outlook. The artist seems to be telling us, one brushstroke at a time, about wistful memories of past intimacy and emotional closeness, in a work whose structure seems built from repeated motifs of peace and agitation. Zao's sixteen years with his wife could not be forgotten, and like the oracle bones of the ancients, he carved out the symbols and motifs of his painting as a record of personal history, a document of feelings to be retained and preserved. Yet there are few works in the career of Zao Wou-ki of this type that clearly depict the personal thoughts or troubled feelings of the artist. One is his 10-9-72: In memory of May, a tribute to his second wife Chan May Kan, who passed away due to illness; this painting is now held in the Pompidou Center in Paris. Nous Deux is another, earlier work of this type, even if in it the artist's emotions are more concealed, and his lingering feelings of emptiness expressed more delicately and indirectly.
Compared with his works of the early '50s, Zao's painting after 1957 took advantage of larger canvases and displayed a more expansive feeling of space, sense of majestic energies and grand, timeless vistas. These elements may be bound up with the artist's experience during the period on a two-year journey through Europe, the US, and Asia. The experience of travel inevitably expands one's personal outlook and vision, and once Zao set out across the broad oceans, a new courage and desire for a new start began to make themselves known. Arriving in New York, Zao became acquainted with several artists of the abstract school whose friendship strengthened his intent to continue the creative work of abstraction from nature. In 1957 he received the support of the very well known Kootz Gallery, signing a contract for regular gallery shows that would help promote his work. At this point, Zao had weathered the worst of his calamities, and was beginning to rebuild himself for a new start in new circumstances; this mood is reflected in Nous Deux and Vent et Poussière. Both are imposing, large-scale works with a new coloristic brilliance in which the artist experiments, in confident, flowing and beautiful brushwork, with colors that are largely new to his palette. They have vitality and bold vision, energy and nobility, and are infused with a courageous spirit that reflects the artist's outlook during the period of their creation.
Zao Wu-ki's creative work during and around 1957 thus demonstrates his emergence following difficult years of soul searching. The new works he created that year ushered in a brilliant new stage of his career and are testaments to a great turning point in his creative direction. The question Zao had been trying to answer during preceding years was how to fuse the abstract symbols and expressive methods of East and West in a way that would express the 'qi' or energy of the universe and the harmony of nature that is so admired in Chinese culture. His style is thus defined by an exploration for the lyrical Chinese tradition in art and his melding of that tradition with the methods of western abstract expressionism. He forged a pioneering style and achieved an expressive depth that stands in marked contrast to many other abstract artists of his time. By capturing in the abstract "the harmonious movements of 'qi'" the source of life and the universe, he gave voice to a deeply personal emotion. Likewise, the broad, expansive vistas he painted also seem to capture the great sweep of historical time, from ancient society to the present. Just as his gaze penetrated beyond the mountains and rivers physically present in the landscape, his painting too seemed to encompass both earth and sky and visions of the epic expanse of time. Viewing his art, we too seem to gaze directly into the deepest realms of the universe and become part of equally expansive visions. Perhaps it is fitting as a final note to consider the Chinese meaning of Zao's name, "Wou-ki"-meaning "without end or limit"-and how closely it mirrors the boundless depths we see and feel in his work.