During the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki sought the artistic breakthroughs that would help him develop an individual style, and in 1954 he created Vent, his first non-narrative oil (Fig. 1). He then entered his brief 'oracle-bone' period, an important transitional phase in his evolution toward total abstraction.
Abandoning the Figurative for 'Oracle-Bone' Motifs
Vielle Ville (Lot 25), dating from 1955, is a classic and rarely seen large-scale work from the period of Zao Wou-Ki's 'oracle-bone' style. As early as 1953, Zao had already produced a lithograph print on the same subject (Fig. 2), in which the presence of figurative elements is clear. Its composition features mountains, trees, a cathedral, cottages, as well as human and animal figures, and we can see the early influence of Paul Klee on Zao’s early work.
By 1954-55, Zao had abandoned figuration and embarked upon his earliest exploration of abstraction. In Vielle Ville, semi-transparent grays form the background, into which Zao mixes small areas of turquoise green, Prussian blue, rattan yellow, brilliant orange, and zinc-titanium white, along with short, bending lines reminiscent of the symbolic inscriptions on archaic bronzes Shang and Zhou dynasty (Fig. 3). Zao dexterously spreads these motifs, like dancing musical notes, through the deep painterly space, and by searching carefully among them, we find vague traces of what might be an old city. Layered areas of oils create spatial depth and a powerful visual pull, while some among these oracle-bone motifs, perfectly spaced across the canvas, rise to the surface. As they advance and recede, expand and contract, these motifs help produce strong visual tension, similar to the way in which Picasso and Braque, during their analytical Cubist phase, introduced written words and alphabets in order to emphasize the flat, two-dimensional surfaces of their paintings.
These ancient inscribed symbols evoke the great vicissitudes of history which China has undergone. Like an ancient city which no longer exists, their spirit remains despite an eroded exterior, and they absorb us with their rich connections and enduring meanings. In an interview, Zao Wou-Ki once described this critical juncture in his career, ''It became more and more difficult to recognize anything in my paintings. Still lifes and flowers no longer existed, and I was tending toward a kind of totally imaginary, indecipherable writing.'' This change in Zao's painting derived from his breakthrough explorations in which he fused traditional Chinese aesthetic ideas with Western abstraction. At the same time, the expansion of his usual set of painting implements brought change as well—in 1953, in addition to his usual full-bodied, sharp-tipped brushes, Zao added broad, flat-tipped brushes convenient for producing quick, flowing strokes while retaining a thick, weighty quality in his brushwork.
The Word Joins Painting: From Dry Brush to Wet; Calligraphy Matures with the Artist
Viewed from a historical perspective, Zao Wou-Ki's innovations rested on a focus on the great achievements of Chinese painting, which he further extended and developed. In China, there was a tradition of combining painting and calligraphy, and that tradition came about through creative leaps. One such leap was made by the famous Northern Song calligrapher Huang Tingjian, who in his handscroll Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru, employed much simplification, and even primitive or crude distortions, in his written characters. Through uninhibited brushwork, and his arrangements of written characters according to painting conventions, he abolished the barrier between written characters and freehand painting styles. He wilfully made calligraphy a vehicle for the expression of his thoughts and feelings in multidimensional, spatial and temporal creations. From another perspective, the perspective of form, Zao's Vielle Ville seems to sum up the entire wave of avant-garde Western abstract art and intellectual thought during the first half of the 20th century. Yet at its most essential, it inherits the distinctive concept in Chinese painting of ''a painting in the poem, and a poem in the painting,'' and elevates that concept to the highest possible level. François Cheng, a Chinese-born member of the Académie française, put it succinctly in his appraisal of Zao Wou-ki, ''[He] has distilled what is great in Western art...and has discovered the marvels of Eastern culture.''
Examples abound, in contemporary Western art, in which written text has been introduced into paintings with the vocabulary of abstract expressionism. Among them are the black and white paintings of Franz Kline during the '50s and '60s, influenced by Japanese calligraphy and with added drama brought by the use of industrial materials and tools. The work of Brice Marden, a lifelong devotee of minimalism, was influenced early on by the simple, clean outlines of Ming Dynasty furniture, and in the late '80s and early '90s, by his fascination with Eastern calligraphy and symbolic glyphs (Fig. 4). Cy Twombly, between 1966 to 1971, created his 'blackboard' series of works, repeated patterns of circular lines written on a gray-black background; they allow viewers to enter a free stream of consciousness, a process of controlled loss of control, and highlight a kind of strong, resounding modernism. Also during this period, the poet Ezra Pound, a leader of the imagist movement, experimented with the use of Eastern ideograms, and explored language's unstable aspects through experimental page layouts and font designs. The content of such verse, the thoughts of the poet, virtually leapt from the page when its visual elements were highlighted in such a manner.
If today little novelty seems left in the introduction of written text into painting that was one of the innovations of post-war contemporary painting and literary circles, the fact that Zao Wou-Ki, during or even way before this period, blazed this trail for American and European artists demonstrates the advanced state of his thinking and the high reach of his creativity. Zao's 'oracle-bone' series predates the aforementioned Twombly blackboard series by a decade, and Marden's late-period 'glyphs' series by three decades; while roughly contemporaneous with Kline, Kline remained dedicated to a single creative direction. Zao, however, progressed after the '60s to an entirely new level of lyrical abstraction and continued his tireless innovation throughout his career.
At root, great Western artists who introduced written text into paintings were engaged in a formal pursuit, compatible with the then-current trends of philosophical thought, and part of the main current of Western art which continued to challenge to figurative work and to attempt to redefine and distinguish art from non-art. By contrast, Zao positioned between the great peaks of Eastern and Western cultures, brought his understanding of these different cultures to bear on his painting. In particular, he passed on the Chinese tradition which views painting and calligraphy as deriving from a single source, and imbued nativism with a global character. The unique position and significance of Zao Wou-Ki, in both Eastern and Western art history, rests on the fact that there was no pure abstraction in Eastern art, only abstraction within one's awareness, in spirit. Zao Wou-Ki was able to give shape to and concretely embody this metaphysical abstraction, allowing abstraction to express the grand vistas of his inner vision.
Poetry, Painting, and Calligraphy: a Single Source
The overall composition of Vielle Ville features layered tones in varying shades of gray and black, among which more variegated, brighter tones break through in scattered points of light. Symbolic inscriptions suggest the skeletal remains of an old city. Zao adopts a multi-point perspective borrowed from traditional Chinese landscapes (Fig. 5), while finding an ideal balance between light and dark tones, and between forms and empty space. At the same time, he borrows the ability to express sudden shifts in light and shadow from Western painting (Fig. 6). To a certain extent, Vielle Ville marks Zao Wou-Ki's farewell to a period of hesitant searching in the early '50s, and a new advance toward his very own style of abstraction. Clear traces of figurative, physical subjects are submerged to allow the artist to break free and ascend to new realms of creativity. The breadth of Zao's composition, its solemn, somewhat tragic air, cast a beautifully poetic aura, evoking something like the realm described in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many...
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing...
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting...
Vielle Ville fully develops the concept that poetry, painting, and calligraphy derive from the same source by imbuing elements of poetry and calligraphy with powerful visual expression on canvas. Ming Dynasty poet and painter Xu Wei (Fig. 7), discussing how calligraphy became part of freehand style paintings, wrote, ''During Jin Dynasty, Gu Kaizhi and Lu Tanwei were fine calligraphers, with full-bodied, strong clean lines in gu zhuan (ancient seal script), which still reflecting a pictographic element. Later, there were Zhang Sengyou and Yan Liben, and finally, with Wu Daozi and Li Baishi came a small change. It was only when the cursive style became popular that another change took place, which was the development of freehand style painting.'' Xu Wei's observation explains clearly that the development of painting since ancient times had been influenced by calligraphy; it was the spread of cao shu, or cursive-style calligraphy, that resulted in the popularity of freehand-style painting. The still extant works of Xu Wei illustrate this mutually reinforcing relationship between cursive style calligraphy and freehand painting. This was the highest aspect of the art of Chinese painting, revered since ancient times, and Zao Wou-Ki made it contemporary again, re-creating it in the spirit of his own times.
During the rather brief but crucial ''oracle-bone'' phase of his career, the small number of paintings created by Zao Wou-Ki are now virtually mostly held in museum collections. Those include his 1954 Vent, the 1955 Nous Deux (Fig. 8), the 1957 monumental work Mistral (Fig. 9), and Nous Deux from the same year (Fig. 10). These slightly later works in the ''oracle-bone'' style, by comparison with this Vielle Ville from two years earlier, had developed a more rugged and unconstrained style of abstract brushwork, with larger areas of brighter and more transparent colour. Vielle Ville was a work that laid a substantial foundation for Zao Wou-Ki's later creative production, and as such, is a rare and important work from early in this transitional phase of the mid-1950s.