Stylistically, Zao Wou-ki's work in the 1950s fell into two separate series: his "oracle-bone" and abstract landscape series, and his still-life and scenic painting series. The "oracle-bone" series displays impressive energy and vision, while the still life painting are more tranquil, secluded, poetic scenes. Equally appealing, they depict their subjects in lines that suggest rubbings of ancient stone carvings and free washes of color with spreading halo effects, producing poetic, peaceful works whose elements are always tastefully deployed. The series exemplifies the way in which Zao Wou-ki, exploring the union of Eastern and Western styles, has always been able to successfully meld diverse elements in an original style.
15-02-50 (Lot 1001), is one of the works of this period. It poetically treats everyday scenes and objects and a peaceful nighttime vista in a way that hints at a story and narrative elements. Moonlight falls on a landscape with a river and mountain forests, and mountain peaks emerge faintly in the distance, while the river in the foreground reflects the forest's bare trees and branches. The moon and scattered stars fill the sky, their whiteness lighting up the heavens with suggestions of a line from a Bai Ju-yi poem, "Stars are scattered through the Milky Way, dawn about to break." Zao borrows the simplicity and the distributed perspective of Chinese landscape painting, with the high points, middle distance, and far distant perspective views closely juxtaposed, creating the sensation of viewing a mental image. Mountain peaks and mists, silent sky, river, bare forest; the images strewn across the canvas come together in a scene typical of a Chinese poem, one that the reader can linger over and intone to appreciate its beauty. The image of a bright moon and scattered stars has always inspired a deep response in Chinese poetry, suggesting the thoughts of separated lovers or scenes of quiet, intense reflection.
The bright moon rises above the sea,
The moment shared by all under heaven.
Lovers regret their separation in the night,
And suddenly their thoughts reach out to each other.
I put out the candle and enjoy the spreading moonlight,
But put on my robe as I feel the dewy dampness.
I cannot reach out my hands to send you the moon,
I can only sleep again and dream of when we'll be together.
Far Away Thoughts while Looking at the Moon
-- Zhang Jiuling, Tang dynasty
Many of Zao's paintings in the early '50s deal with themes often encountered in Chinese poetry. The paintings reflect the poetry in harmonious and poetically evocative scenes that share the same sense of composure and quiet, tasteful expression with the best of Chinese poetry. From Zao Wou-ki's perspective, poetry and painting arise from the same source and are reflections of each other.
Zao Wou-ki excelled at the use of color, light, and shadow in expressing the sense of movement within a canvas; in 15-02-50, he uses relatively dilute oil pigments, possibly a reflection of the lithography with which he was involved during the same period. Zao has commented on that experience: "After I did about eight lithographs, it was like painting with Chinese inks; I started adding a lot of water to the pigments. Desjobert is outstanding in this field, but he didn't approve of my method. I tried it anyway, and he was really excited by the results I got." Zao's thin, diluted pigments in 15-02-50 create interpenetrating colors that sometimes spread and thin to create halo effects as with inks, ideal for a feeling of slowly creeping mists to express the quiet night atmosphere, as in the center of the canvas, where azure pigments seem to billow like waves on water, the quick play of light, or mists floating above the water, adding to the vague, dreamy beauty of the painting. Poetic contrast results from the inky blacks set off against the bluish-white in the distance, highlighting the nighttime feeling as moonlight softly seeps into the scene below in Zao's highly poetic conception.
15-02-50 is a further example of the artist's superb skill with lines and outline sketching. Like other works from his still life series during this period, Zao here attends closely to the details of objects he portrays and gives them subtle, individual appeal, creating fine lines scraped out with the wooden handle of the brush that set out the mountain peaks, woods and branches in outline. Gently curving lines lead viewers' eyes as objects in the picture space emerge but remain half hidden, with transparency and empty space as if floating in an empty vault of sky, and adding strongly surreal and dreamlike ambience to the work along with a flavor of Chinese lithographs. The eye moves between the solid reality and empty spaces of form, color, and outline in this work, which is presented with a subtle grace and a Zen-like philosophical touch. The depth and ingenuity of Zao's artistry is stunning and displays his unique ability to use the simplest elements of line to create scenes and build atmosphere.