The 1950s was an important decade in Zao Wou-ki's career: within that short span of time he advanced through two major stylistic transitions. One of those new developments is found in paintings from around 1957, on themes of nature and oracle-bone inscriptions, while another, earlier phase is represented by his still lifes and other poetic works of the early '50s.
In the early 1950s Zao Wou-ki explored variations in still life forms and the internal relationships within the picture space, injecting into his works the spatial proportioning and the partial abstraction of forms he had learned from Chinese painting and calligraphy. Zao has noted how during the early 1950s, in his early years in Paris, he made daily trips to museums and galleries, where he paid special attention to the handling of space in western oil painting:
I so admired the Florentine painter Cimabue and his handling of space and the Fauves were a big surprise! They produced spatial effects completely by means of color-pure color applied rudely and intensely. The Cubists stunned me with their analysis of movement, their partitioning of the surface and deconstruction of space. I never knew space had such richness or that painting could convey multiple dimensions like that. It was unbelievable.
-Artist's commentary, from Portrait of Zao Wou-ki
Bateaux au claire de la lune ("Boats in the Moonlight") (Lot 530), painted in 1952, is an important Zao Wou-ki work of the early '50s; larger in dimension than other works from the same period, it provides a genuine sense of the artist's style at the time. Coal black, palm greens, and muted reds provide the central palette of the work, though they undergo blending and tonal shifts of differing degrees. These subtle alterations create rich depth and layering that adds to the colors a distinct luster and texture; through the artist's simplicity of means, these effects achieve an end similar to effects sought in Chinese painting, where subtle shadings appear within the simplicity of black and the painting captures a sense of harmonious energies. Zao Wou-ki's exploration of space during this period is clearly evident in Bateaux au claire de la lune, along with his easy grasp of elements of Cubism and Fauvism, which he mastered and refined in a way that reflected his own style, cultural origins, and poetic sense of atmosphere. Zao creates space out of a fluid, multilayered application of color that makes this painting into a world of its own. This facet of the work can still be attributed to western oil painting's treatment of space, though Zao avoids fully adopting the severe formalism of the Cubists and their style of breaking forms into multiple blocks and planes. His presentation of space relies instead on color, a sense of harmonious energy, and the atmosphere created by halos of color spreading across the canvas, an elegant effect borrowed from Chinese ink-wash painting. In a description by Zao Wou-ki of his work with lithographs, he recounts how in the early 1950s he embraced a number of Chinese elements:"After I did about eight lithographs, it was like painting with Chinese ink-wash; I added a lot of water to the pigments Desjobert is an outstanding printer, but he didn't approve of my method I tried it anyway, and he was really excited by the results I got."The colors of Bateaux au claire de la lune are flowing and beautiful; its simple colors coalesce or disperse on the surface with the charm of Chinese ink-wash painting. These effects are shown in the foreground in particular, where color spreads like a wash of ink among broad textural strokes and splashes of pigment interspersed with muted red and green-black tones. Areas of largely monochromatic color contain layered variations in tone that mimic the varied effects of ink on paper-its spreading and expansion, density or lightness, and dryness or saturation-and help create the half-real, half-dreamlike world of this painting. Vertically and horizontally interlaced streaks of coal black help produce the painting's rich layering and compositional appeal, reminiscent of Chinese landscapes with floating mists and shadows that hover among the limbs of cypress and pine. The use of coal black in the foreground balances areas of blue-white tints in the deeper distance, its contrasts highlighting the tranquility of a nighttime scene that seems to be bathed everywhere in the soft touch of the moonlight.
Zao Wou-ki's paintings from this period also often possess a strong allegorical or narrative sense. The title of Bateaux au claire de la lune pulls together the imagery of the painting, the boats resting peacefully at berth under the moonlight, while several more still float on the quiet sea. Even the small red flags on their masts can be distinguished; the scene as a whole is fully developed and complete, containing a wealth of detail, implications, and subtle charm that is highly representative of Zao Wou-ki's work during this special phase of his career. The painting is also enriched by a pleasing feeling of the brush and materials as Zao uses the wooden handle of his brush to scrape out fine lines in the pigments, a technique that adds extra texture in combination with the more rugged brushstrokes in either thick or diluted pigments. By contrast with later periods when he focused on abstract evocations of nature, the universe, and ancient and modern scenes, during this period Zao had a keen interest in the things of everyday life, still lifes, and scenes with a narrative element; in his still lifes and scenic settings he worked to impart a feeling of poetry or song and to create a peaceful and evocative ambience. It is that sense of paintings permeated with poetry and imagination that was Zao Wou-ki's hallmark and that marked his greatest successes; these traits he shared with another artist, Paul Klee, who also brought together elements of East and West, and poetry and painting, in his work. Zao Wou-ki believed that poetry and painting echoed each other and derived from the same source:
Ever since 1950, I've always been willing to let publishers or poets include my work in books of poetry. What I like most in poetry is the feeling of freedom when every word finds its own place and becomes part of an ordered whole; we rove freely within the poem, then we stop, step back, and take a breath. When we pause in our reading at some point that captures our attention, that moment is a moment of peace and beauty, just like the suggestive empty spaces in a painting.
Bateaux au claire de la lune possesses this poetic appeal in abundance; the scene exudes a gentle, graceful, poetic air. Its layered colors create a breadth of space that belies the size of the actual picture surface, and its colors appeal above all with their quiet restraint. They are serene and simple, floating in the midst of a dreamlike scene. If Bateaux au claire de la lune were a poem, it would be poised, graceful, and refined, with a quiet, understated elegance.
By the 1960s, Zao Wou-ki's abstract style had matured, and the second work presented here, 09-02-60 (Lot 531), is an excellent representative of this shift to a mature abstract style. Here the artist has moved beyond the earlier style of the '50s and in a sense returns to tradition, attempting to reshape his creative approach with concepts and a view of nature that are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. During this phase his oils were neither representational nor narrative in style, but attempted to express the abstract dynamics of a leaf fluttering in the wind or ripples on the surface of water brushed by a breeze. Looking closely at 09-02-60, we can see it retains the marks of roughly textured strokes made with the side of the brush, displaying a robust temperament in the thickly textured shaping of the pigments. These effects communicate a sense of natural movement and a formless but harmonious energy, with the same rugged strength we might find in a composition of mountains and rivers. The application of pigments is especially thick and urgent toward the center of the composition, where they build up into lines and shapes suggestive of oracle bone carvings. The lines of pigment sometimes collide in their meanderings, then split or merge together, or fold over one another with tensile strength and energetic life and movement. This work can be seen as an extension of a series Zao began after 1956, in which his brushwork reflects the lines of inscriptions carved onto oracle bones and bronzes.