Compared to the other abstract painters of his time, Zao-wouki takes a further step in the development and deepening of abstract painting by tracing back the rules for Chinese conceptual ink painting, and blending them in with western oil painting. He employs ink painting techniques to treat oil paint and pigments, imitating the effects of diffusing and dying on canvas, exploiting primary colors, its purity and fluidity of motion. The synthesis of Chinese and Western traits marks Zao's irreplaceable achievement and vision in art. Taking a closer look at his transition from oil painting to stylized ink and oil painting, it unfolds a heart-gripping story of an extraordinary artist.
In early 1950, no sooner had Zao went to Paris, he abandoned ink painting in pursuit for breakthrough in painting skills and artistic creation. He was keen on exploring the techniques of Western abstract painting, hoping to catch up with the European art trend. In this period, Zao's painting bore the characteristics of Paul Klee, featured by free-style brushstrokes, and a touch of poetic lightness on flowing through the painting's surface. (Lot 917) depicts a boat drifting on the water in a silent night. The calm surface of the sea is strewn with several boats. The composition is completed and enriched with particular interests in detail. The painter create thin lines, by scrubbing away the paint with the end of the wood handle on his brush, juxtaposing them with thick acrylic paint to create a visual contrast between refinement and roughness, which enriches the texture and aesthetic capacity of brushstrokes. The still-lives depicted in Les poires vertes exemplify Zao's integration of painting with poetry, by diffusing poetic ambiance throughout the painting's surface. The pitcher and fruit in portrait appear quiet and serene, evoking a sense of poetic tranquillity not common in Western still-life paintings, but evident that it is work by Zao.
It is not until 1956 to 1957 that Zao created a new brand of art synthesizing features of ancient Chinese lithographs with his artistic depiction of the natural world. He had gradually integrated Chinese art and its cultural elements with his Western-style work. After 1960, Zao's style moved on to pure Abstractionism, with more dyes and splashes of ink and wash in his painting. The Untitled (Lot 919) best exemplifies the art style of Zao in this period of time, which can be understood as a continuation of his creative interest in 1957. His oil painting since then is neither realistic, nor narrative, but a depiction of the forwarding transience of time, the infinite changes of the seasons, 'the illusive vision of infinite blue made by the reflection of a leaf on water'. This painting reveals Zao's interest in colour, both in its pure form and its expressiveness with layering effect. The single colour blue is used as the base tone of the composition. And yet, it appears to be a fluid form undergoing subtle changes as the result of Zao's efforts on tonal variations. The profound lightness of blue connote rich layers of imageries, topping down from the showers of galaxy in the sky, the dramatic currents of the water beneath, the sparkles on its rippling surface, the flicks of light, to the haziness in between water and sky. Zao makes full use of the moist and fluid quality of ink and watercolour, allowing ink to flow randomly on the canvas surface, marking his pioneering position in the synthesis of ink and oil painting, and establishing the foundation for his later works after 70's.
From 60's to early 70's, black and brown still predominated Zao's abstract painting as the base tones. Since the 70's, Zao's painting style has proceeded to another stage. (Lot 918) shows his stylistic transformation from the profound heaviness and serene elegance in his earlier landscape painting, his oil painting in this period lightens up with the use of bright and lush colours, and a shift of focus to light and space, to present the delicate, multi-layered variations in colour tone, realizing the conception of 'one ink renders five colours' in Chinese ink painting. From mid-70's onwards, Zao reconnected with ink painting on Xuan paper (traditional rice paper for practising Chinese calligraphy and ink painting). His comprehensive training and years of immersion in Western art enabled him to feel and understand the artistic functions of Chinese ink painting. That is what he said then,
'It gives me enormous sensual pleasure to simply touch this crumpled Xuan paper. How different it is from canvas - always stiff and smooth. There are always marks on the Xuan paper resulted from casual folding, and water diffuse and permeate throughout the surface to produce surprising effects. When ink drops on paper, it takes shape in accordance with the movement of the wrist, the weight of pressure from the brush tip, and the speed of brushwork. It then creates black with infinite variations, white, grey, and grey with a thousand different layers.'
Black is the sole colour in traditional Chinese ink painting. And yet, black is manipulated to create layering effects in space, with tonal variations, and the interplay of lightness and weight, with a dry brush and a moist brush. The manipulation of colour is flexibly blended into Zao's work after 70's. An incident happened in 1985, when Zao was invited to deliver art lectures in Hangzhou, that demonstrates his deep thoughts on primary colour and its multi-layered variations in light and shade. On the topic of colour application, he mentioned to students, 'Look at the red cloth behind the models. The red is not consistent. If you look closer, every inch of it is different, because it is influenced by the colour of human skin. You have to make it look softer, duller and quieter on some areas, but activate some others area. It is because the space is constantly in motion, and you have to study the contrasts and changes in colour. Use primary colours boldly, and boldly expand the space of colouring'. From what we see in 25-03-85, Zao indeed realized his artistic ideals. The primary colours chosen for the painting include the base tones brown, earthy yellow and greyish white. The subtle change from brownish yellow to earthy yellow is done by gradient toning of each other. The brown on the top of the painting is not a static patch of solid brown paint, but a dancing brown pool oozing with gleans of earthy yellow, and pale streaks of white, as if it were a piece of velvet fluttering in sunlight, teasing up and down in a play of light and shade infused with the energy and motion of a three-dimensional space. The colours used range from brown to earthy yellow to greyish white, moving to and fro in a spectrum of rich delicate layers. The colour is at times strong and sleek, at times soft and light, dancing rhythmically in a conceptual space in motion. At the bottom of the painting, the oil paint is lighter and softer, dissolving in a fog of greyish white, recalling the landscape rhetoric of Chinese ink painting, and the ethereal, meditative state of conception in Eastern art. Zao's work in this period of time embodies the elements of light and visual angles, displaying the multi-layered changes and spatial relationship under different light and colour, bearing cultural reference to abstract conceptions, such as 'mo fen wu cai' (one ink renders five colours) and 'Qi yun sheng dong' (energy flow in motion as if it had life), in Chinese ink painting. Zao described his re-encapsulation of Chinese elements, 'I feel I have exited China, and now go back to China again.'
Action aligned with his articulate expression on coloring, Zao uses oil paint, flaunting its lighter, moister and more fluid qualities 25-03-85, which enables a more flexible and spontaneous flow of brushstrokes in one go, space formed in a flight of fantasies. Enormous strands of colours stretch across the painting's surface, in a metaphorical merge of the sky and earth, dancing between was an air of ethereality, so much like the soft touch of satin.
The monochrome painting with area bare of paint is a pictorial expression of 'void', 'essence' and 'purity' in traditional Chinese culture. In fact, monochrome is frequently found in Western abstract painting, for instance works of Mark Rothko and Klein. The monochrome composition actually accentuates the inner spirit and rhythmic flow of colour. 25-03-85 can be viewed as a complement of the above paintings in artistic performance. Zao's work in the 80's concludes his forty-year long expedition on art with a mature style towards perfection. In abstract form, all are encompassed into one. The French poet Henri Michaux has a poem on Zao's ink painting, which can be read as the poetic interpretation of Zao's work,
Elements of the abstract are expanding
Abstract because it surpasses all forms
Purified, and reduced to
And language permeates in the air
Faint is the old bird-eye view
As soft as silk
Land on the vast void of paper
Arrive there in an unspeakable
But not Western still.