The Modern Renaissance of Chinese Art
In the great historical sweep of Chinese art and its ongoing development, Zao Wou-ki is an artist who provides a crucial link between its past and future by inheriting, extending, and renewing its traditions. Zao's work embraces the finest elements of Yuan and Sung dynasty landscape painting, finding new meanings in that aesthetic while also incorporating Western art's ability to express color, light, and shadow. The result has been an entirely new style of abstract expression through which he captures the subtle changes of space, nature, light and shade to create abstract worlds of vivid and spectacular majesty. Zao's form of artistic expression is, on the one hand, a new historical development in the Chinese tradition of landscape painting and lyrical ink-wash styles; at the same time, his work is the point where efforts to explore and fuse the styles of East and West have converged in the most ideal way. The pursuit of the ideal by two generations of the finest Chinese artists, from the time of Lin Fengmian to the present, is ultimately realized in Zao's work, and in his contribution to the modern renaissance of Chinese art.
The Era Awaits, the Era is Born
The source of Chinese painting can be traced back to antiquity, with many twists and turns along the path of its development. Painters of the Sung and Yuan eras such as Fan Kuan, Zhao Mengfu, and Mi Fu created expressive, impressionistic works and were the first to discover how to capture nature's imposing presence. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, however, nature panting tended to be merely derivative of these earlier painters, and rarely matched their efforts. Zao Wou-ki has expressed awareness of this trend:
In my view, Chinese painting lost its creativity after the 16th century or so (from the Sung and Yuan onward). After that time, painters borrowed indiscriminately from the greats of the Han and Sung periods. Chinese painting became a matter of ink and brush technique, and beauty was not seen as something separate from technique. There were specific methods guiding the movement of the hand and the turns of the brush, with no room left for change or imagination. Ever since I was young I've felt that this tradition was just a yoke to be thrown offK. and that if I couldn't, I had reached a dead end.
Zao Wou-ki staked out his entire artistic career, his process of creative exploration, from a lofty historical vantage point: not only was he intent on creating a new, modern form of expression that would unite eastern and western aesthetics, this new artistic form should succeed to Chinese artistic traditions tracing all the way back to the Sung and Yuan, and possess all of their grandeur and breadth of vision. For that reason, to deconstruct the meaning in Zao's art, to understand its harmonious energies and its origins deep in Chinese culture, one must be aware of those earlier painters' work. 25-09-69 (Lot 1003), is one of a small number of representative works capable of distinctly pointing toward Zao Wou-ki's creative origins. Zao's handling of the picture space bears remarkable similarity to the work Early Spring by the Sung dynasty painter Kuo Hsi (Fig. 1). Kuo Hsi employs slightly distorted, arcing lines of brushwork and carefully gauged variations in density of ink, out of which rocks and cliffs emerge in vivid, three-dimensional texture, and their jagged, twisting forms create added depth as they wind grandly into the distance. Zao's painting reveals a similar form of expression, but one that he has uniquely transformed. Zao's vigorous brushstrokes are modeled on the inky depth of calligraphic lines; they arc gracefully into the distance as they gradually move upwards from the bottom of the canvas, calling to mind images of dragons snaking powerfully through the mists, or the airy reach of the peaks in Kuo Hsi's work. Zao's ability to meld such calligraphic lines with the free application of color in his work displays a superb craftsmanship: the lines have an abstract expressiveness through which we can observe the artist as he manipulates the brush, following the pulse and flow of his creative imagination, the rhythms of its natural movements between calm and excitement. Zao's deep understanding of the way Chinese art transforms the brush's energy into its basic visual elements has brought the rhythmic energy of calligraphy into his work. His lines leap and fall in great sweeps of energy, or rest within the lingering appeal of graceful curves, allowing the foundational symbols and gestures of his work to acquire the dignity and grace of great calligraphy.
Zao spreads yellow-brown and grayish white pigments across the canvas of 25-09-69, bringing their sweeping strokes together in a coloristic space that weaves and folds back in upon itself. Colors of the same basic tone nevertheless produce visual layers of varying richness and density, suggesting the dynamics of Kuo Hsi's jutting scarps and cliffs, where mists float and wander among rocks and crags. It seems as if the two artists had both been reaching for the same sense of rising vapors and shadows shifting among the mountains, and the same feeling of lofty, imposing space. Zao borrows aptly from the Sung and Yuan traditions, learning from their manner of expressing nature's flowing energies, the dimensionality of objects, and the folding of space. His breakthrough has been to reinterpret these aesthetic elements, employing the forms and textures of the oil medium with startling imagination and potential for variety. He has avoided the direct presentation of forms, figurative elements, or imitations of nature in his work, giving voice instead to the underlying, abstract feeling of the spaces, their internal movements, and the life force and harmonious energy within the natural landscape. This energy of movement was latent within the textures of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, but Zao Wou-ki abstracted it, making it the central creative focus of his work. Nature and the universe, the great energies of life, and the flow and shift of time became his subjects; his paintings build up spaces that are highly abstracted and contain deep philosophical implications.
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 creates something like a universe, in which the wind and the atmosphere breathe and flow freely.
The Brilliance and Purity of Light
As a student at the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts, Zao often lingered around the shores of West Lake, steeping himself in nature. From the pagodas and arched bridges of the lake, in its flora and fauna, he observed the flowing river of time and the gradual passing of the seasons, and found "incredibly rich shades of blue in the reflection of just one leaf on the water." He was fascinated by the undulating waves, the play of light on the water, and the mists hanging above it. He says emphatically, "What I was really looking for was space, how it develops and folds, and I was groping for an idea in my mind, which was, How to paint the wind? How to express emptiness? How to convey the brilliance and purity of light?" Zao Wou-ki's breadth of mind and his timeless philosophical outlook is revealed in his ability to find those "incredibly rich shades of blue" in nature, to feel its "brilliance and purity," and to sense the flow of time. These, though, are at the heart of what art, in Chinese culture, has always sought. In the process of refining his style of abstract nature painting, Zao Wou-ki has also shown us the forms and the inner secrets of Chinese aesthetics, and has given us a philosophical experience, an experience of beauty related to the Chinese manner of responding to their universe.
Zao Wou-ki's abstract nature art has enriched all of abstract art, giving it added dimensions with its Eastern overtones and calligraphic forms, and has provided a "window" through which those involved in Western art can appreciate the Eastern philosophical outlook and aesthetic sense. The noted French abstract artist Alfred Manessier said of Zao Wou-ki, "The world of his mind, the past he possesses, that ethnicity, that scenic world, and that light-I know all of those, and yet through this person unknown to us, this world unknown to us, something already known to me, something already identifiable to me, has taken hold of me and given me a moving experience. " French art critic Alain Jouffroy expressed the view, in the Paris magazine Arts, that Zao Wou-ki's art represents the summit of Chinese philosophy and aesthetic conceptions, and 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. " Zao Wou-ki's work represents the juncture where Eastern and Western art meet and where they gain new vitality from each other. His work embodies much that the Chinese artists of the previous two generations, from the time of Lin Fengmian to the present, have been seeking as they explore old and new, Eastern and the Western, and his work is a major contribution to the new Chinese artistic renaissance.
Zao Wou-ki's significance to Western abstract art and his creative status were already recognized by the late 1950s and early '60s. At that time, as a young thirty-something artist, he was viewed as part of the post-war abstract school. As one of the artists represented by the Galerie de France, his name stood alongside those of other well-known abstract artists, such as Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, and Alfred Manessier. He built a reputation in North America as well, receiving the support of New York's Kootz Gallery, with which he signed contracts for regular showings and promotion of his work. This period, as the artist recalls it, "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 began to undergo this new creative genesis, Zao moved beyond the narrative focus of earlier works concerned with landscape or early Chinese artifacts and began to see the world, and to create art, in a different way. He attempted to depict things unseen: the energies of life, the wind, movement, the life within objects, and colors that unfold and merge into different hues. In so doing, he created a new world with infinite artistic possibility. This was a richly creative period for Zao, in terms of both the quantity of his output and its sheer artistry. Many valuable pieces in the permanent collections of well-known museums that so well represent Zao's art derive from this period, such as the series from 1955 and 1956 that includes Hommage à Chu-Yun and Hommage a Tou-Fou, another series of works from 1956 and 1957 featuring the natural themes of wind, light, mist, and cloud, or works from 1957 and later in which Zao employs motifs recalling ancient oracle-bone texts. Some of these were retained in the permanent collection of the artist himself; others were immediately purchased by major museums and institutions for their permanent collections, a strong indication of their rarity and value. Lot 1002, 12-04-60, 19-11-59 (Lot 1004), are both products of this period. Both represent the direction of Zao's abstract work during this period, though each is distinctive: one hot, one cool, one in motion and one at relative peace.
Discussing art and aesthetics, Zao Wou-ki has touched many times on the reserved, inward quality of the color blue, while also noting its possibilities for richness of hues and layering. Abstract paintings in blue by Zao Wou-ki, however, are few in number and form an unusual part of his output.
I love looking at the placid surface of a lake, the sense of mystery it brings and the variety of colors it produces.
What I was really looking for was space: how it develops and foldsKand the incredibly rich shades of blue in the reflection of just one leaf on the water.
Blue is broad, profound, everlasting: its deep azure tones fill the vast expanses of the sea and sky. The picture space of 19-11-59 is built up from various shades of navy, indigo, and Prussian blue, resulting first of all in space with a sense of breadth and lofty distance. The central area of the composition acts as a source of radiant light, while areas of black and white generate regions of lighter or deeper darkness that ripple and permeate into the surrounding deep blue tones. These blacks and whites erupt and flash everywhere in the midst of the blue, shaping its variations in hue, brightness, and intensity for a powerful sense of penetration and glowing radiance. Morning seems to be breaking on a world freshly swept by rain, with the sun almost ready to peer through the clouds and send out shafts of light. The whites and blues set up areas of high contrast as the vivid whites dance and shimmer across the surface of somber blues, in a demonstration of Zao Wou-ki's superb technique for managing the picture space through sheer effects of light and color. Zao seems to be shining a blue light into a region of rising mists and clouds-blue tones shift and swirl as cloudy masses rise, until the painting as a whole becomes a fantastic visual experience of deep blue that seems to vibrate, expand, effervesce, and evolve into new hues and forms. Zao's work in the early 1950s rarely explored the pure, expressive effects of light and color in quite this manner, though later in the decade he produced works with shifting and penetrating colors, where light flashes with radiance, then is absorbed and extinguished. Zao describes his work as "wanting to use the contrasts and vibrations within a single color bring movement to the canvas, and to find a central point from which light can radiate." This technique-of radiant light that generates change and movement within color, until even formless space is filled with life and motion-is exceptional even among western artists, and demonstrates how successful Zao Wou-ki has been in his exploration of western art forms.
The 1950s: Radiation and Movement of Colour
Zao manages the compositional space of 19-11-59 with a sense of subtle, implied movement throughout, a sense of subtle, hidden undercurrents of movement agitating heavy layers of mist floating on an ocean surface. The blue's cool, deep calm and the thinner, sparser layers of oils in the center of the composition combine for an effect of mists and clouds in constant transformation, and a pervasive, meditative feeling of secluded, empty spaces. Each of these links to the associations of quiet thought, inwardness, and emotion connected with the color blue. In 19-11-59, color, visual expression, and artistic conception meet and complement each other in an atmosphere of poetic and imaginative thought that emphasize the uniqueness of Zao Wou-ki's style in the world of Western abstract art.
In another work similarly managed through the use of pure color, 12-04-60, Zao focuses on cadmium red, a radical departure from the earlier cool blues, while still filling the canvas with movement and natural energy and displaying his control over a broad range of colors and expressive effects. Cadmium red glows with buoyant, lively energy, and is one of the warmest among the warm colors of the spectrum. It carries associations of golden autumn days and ripened fruit, and represents happiness, sufficiency, and good fortune. The cadmium red here gradually steals into areas of black and white that give it a steadier, more reserved quality, but with its original warmth and energy intact; the eye can hardly take in its full range of its brilliance and variety.
Around 1960, Zao Wou-ki was also at the height of his "oracle-bone" series of works. 12-04-60 shows Zao again using elements of oracle-bone writing and stone and bronze inscriptions for expressive visual effects. Pigments build up densely and thickly in the middle and lower part of the canvas, which are covered with linear motifs suggesting these ancient inscriptions and criss-crossed by the falling strokes, pressures strokes, and dotting strokes of calligraphy. These linear motifs seem as if they have been forged out of the primeval chaos and are calling to us across the great spans of history. The lines of pigment collide, split, merge, and fold rhythmically to create visual tension, as if impatient life forces hidden within are beginning to emerge and break through the earth. Both of these paintings present space with imposing energy and vigor; 12-04-60 in an urgent, forceful manner, and 19-11-59 with inwardness and reserve.
Zao Wou-ki faced a number of difficulties that made 1960 a turbulent time: his wife relapsed into illness that tested them both, and Zao's only emotional outlet was once again his work. Works from this period have a fiery intensity not often seen elsewhere in Zao's output, and 12-04-60, named after its date of completion, records and reflects some sense of the emotional agitation Zao faced during the events of this time.
The 1970s: Expressive and Ink Wash
Zao Wou-ki's work after 1970 deals with themes of the universe, space, and motion just as it did in earlier periods, but in a distinctly different style. Zao returns to the principles of Chinese ink-wash styles, their freedom and lyricism, but within the western medium of oil. His handling of oil pigments reflects the ink tradition; they become more liquid and tend to mimic on canvas the manner in which ink washes over or splashes across paper. His colors now bloom like dense, hazy patches of smoke and mist that curl and enshroud the canvas. As Zao described it during that period:
It was a real joy to touch that wrinkled xuan paper-so different from canvas, permanently stretched and smoothed out. The accidental marks in the paper's surface and the flow of watery inks always create effects you're not expecting. As soon as it contacts the paper, the ink spreads with the motions of your forearm and the pressure or speed with which you apply it, and on the white paper it forms amazing varieties of blacks, whites, and grays, all kinds of grays with tremendous layered effects.
Chinese ink-wash paintings have only one basic tonality: black. But the degree to which the ink is diluted, or the wetness or dryness of its application, along with the nature of brush and ink themselves, result in a strongly layered space. Zao deftly applied ideas and techniques from ink painting in his own oil paintings during and after the 1970s. Zao's 05-03-76 (Lot 1005), is a large-scale work from this period. Unlike the dense, weighty paintings of earlier periods, this canvas exudes a quiet elegance reminiscent of landscape paintings, and in place of forceful, calligraphic lines, large areas of color meet and flow into one another. A large plane of strong, unbroken yellow is dominant, its strong presence seeming to sweep across heaven and earth and float gracefully across the landscape, lending it a soft, silk-like texture. The yellow tone, from marigold to chrome yellow, sweeps inward from the right side, its shifting hues playing off each other for a sense of rhythm and movement. The brown at the far right undergoes similar shifts, hinting at yellow ochre, lightly tinted whites, and cadmium red. It glistens like rich velvet in the sun, shading from dark to bright, reflecting internal depths, and adding its own sense of flowing energy and movement to the work. The top of the canvas is suffused with transparent color, light yellow tones and touches of bright white, through which light seems to pass; these misty and hazy lighter tones once again suggest Chinese ink landscapes with their floating mists and contrasts of light and shadow, as well as possessing the spare and meditative quality that has always characterized Chinese art. Here the artist presents viewers with another aspect of Chinese art and aesthetics in a marked contrast with the bold energy of some of his work from the 1950s and '60s.