So often alone and quiet, saying nothing Jade's cool loneliness, like the moon, spreads a silver halo. The robes of the Immortals spread their soft flower colors. Beauty and virtue illuminate the ages
Vert emeraude (Lot 24) was painted in 1950, Zao Wou-ki's third year in Paris. Upon his arrival in that city, Zao was eager to escape the traditional ink-wash styles of the East, and was intent on making modernism his springboard to totally new points of view. With that in mind, he studied and retraced the art of painting, from the Renaissance and Rembrandt to the Spanish Romantic artist Goya, then on to the Impressionists, the Cubists, the Fauves, and finally the Paris School. To arrive at new creative techniques, he had deliberately abandoned his mature ink-wash techniques after his arrival in 1948, and in 1949 he experimented with printmaking. His success with that medium brought new confidence in the visual effects he could create— effects both lithe and weighty, with dash and verve but maturity as well, and combining distance with immediacy—that grew out of the collision between the thick, rich oil medium of the West and his own deeply rooted Eastern cultural sensibilities. This Vert emeraude, was created shortly afterwards in 1950, is an important milestone on his gradual evolution away from figurative painting, and is also one of the rare large-scale Zao Wou-ki works from this period. With it he began an important journey, a journey that would breathe new life into modern Chinese art in the middle decades of the 20th century through the turmoil and the creative fission of its collision with Western art. Vert emeraude also strongly presaged the 'oracle-bone' series Zao would soon produce in the mid-1950s, rooted in the feel of symbolic motifs and calligraphic inscriptions.
Prior to 1949, Zao Wou-ki had continued to work in a figurative vein. The panoramic compositions of some works illustrate the continuing influence of his academic education (Fig. 1). In 1935 he entered the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts and studied under such teachers as Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu, the first generation of Chinese artists to study in France, and they gave Zao his first introduction to Western influences. While their painting styles remained rooted in figuration, even the oldest Chinese traditions of painting and calligraphy emphasized feeling and spirit, as opposed to strict depiction of forms, and thus already possessed elements of abstraction. Wu Dayu's work in particular already exhibited a concern for expressive gestures rather than external appearances (Fig. 2). Early in 1950, Zao Wou-ki's work had begun to display this kind of Eastern, freehand abstraction, and by the time he produced Vert emeraude, he was already well-versed in Western art forms. With his strong foundation in Eastern art and cultural traditions, he led Asian art step by step toward a new era, interpreting the spirit of the East through the creative vocabularies of the West.
‘I have read poetry since I was a little boy. When I learned to write my characters, I was also learning to read poetry. I believe these two modes of expression possess the same character. Both express the 'qi' of life, as do the movements of our brushes on canvas, or our hands on paper as we write characters. Both of them reveal - rather than directly presenting - the hidden meanings of the universe.’
- Zao Wou-ki
THE PASSING SHADOWS OF MORNING AND NIGHT; PURSUING THE HARMONY OF THE UNIVERSE
Henri Michaux's special interest in printmaking helped inspire Zao Wou-ki to further examine the relationship between poetry and art in China, and to pursue art that would communicate the harmony and poetry of the universe. In Vert emeraude, Zao in particular sought to produce a captivating portrayal of space and the unfolding passage of time. With this work, he began the gradual elimination of single forms and their individual meanings as the use of suggestive symbolic motifs became his principal creative tool. It shows him beginning to explore the deep, hidden meanings of the universe, and more importantly, it foreshadows his journey into abstraction. In Vert emeraude, the objects he sees are transformed into transparent motifs, penetrating through time and space and hovering between sky and water. Zao transports us to a world in which all things in the universe coexist in harmony, a detached and dreamlike world beyond material concerns. From the top of the canvas to the bottom, and from left to right, hints of the shadowy travels of sun and moon mark out the traces of evolving time in the work. An illuminating contrast can be found in the Water Lilies of the Impressionist master Monet, and his manner of capturing fleeting, lyrical impressions of the scene (Fig. 2). The Impressionists' analytical use of color enabled them reproduce on canvas the effects of light in the open air, and any finished painting ultimately represented the distillation of one particular moment in time. Zao Wou-ki's compositional arrangement, however, simultaneously presents both daytime and night time, and his Western understanding of painting serves to communicate an Eastern character—that is, to its Eastern character he adds the sense of light and the passage of time that traditionally had always been missing from Eastern ink-wash paintings. The crescent moon hanging in the lower left of the painting finds an echo in the curtain of night that descends over the lower right, while a bird in the upper half, flying toward the right, seems to be chasing the daytime. The canvas is filled with these transparent motifs, piercing the veils of space and time, and in the figure that seems to move toward us from out of the painting's mysterious depths, Zao provides the human scale against which the time and space of the painting seem to be measured.
BLENDING PAINTED IMAGES WITH CALLIGRAPHIC SYMBOLS
Beyond the flowing lights and shadows that range throughout the painting, its spaces are also occupied by linear motifs that float and change along with its changing light, becoming either more concrete more vague, or lighter or darker, or clear-cut or merely implied. The aesthetic beauty of these motifs emerges from Zao Wou-ki's unique mixture of elements. They originate from the aesthetics of line in Eastern ink-wash painting but incorporate the Western abstract creative impulse. Though Zao Wou-ki's father was a banker, he loved the traditions of calligraphy and painting, and their home contained numerous paintings. Those undoubtedly exerted a steady influence on Zao as a part of his surroundings. Practicing calligraphy with his grandfather, writing symbols and painting characters, also helped nurture the ability from which would grow his later accomplishments as painter. We can note how, for example, Zao gives attention throughout Vert emeraude to its harmonious proportioning, mediating different regions by alternating the solid forms and empty spaces he creates with line and color. The understanding that informs this approach surely relates to his youthful experiences with calligraphy, in which care must be taken not just with written characters but with pleasing apportionment of the spaces between them (Fig. 3). The natural beauty of this painting, tinged with Eastern poetic feeling, was the instinctive product of such influences. Also appearing in the upper left and the center of the painting are other interacting motifs, suggestive of birds and four-legged creatures, whose forms have been simplified in a manner once again suggesting early Chinese depictions. The Chinese since ancient times had writing in the form of symbolic images (Fig. 4), and if symbols could become written words, then written word could just as naturally become a part of painting. Ultimately such symbolic motifs become compact and precise forms ideally suited for painting. Works such as Mountains and Pines in Spring by Mi Fu of the Northern Song express this concept of simplification (Fig. 5), and Autumn Colours on the Que and Hua Mountains by another Northern Song painter, Zhao Mengfu, also exhibits a simplifying tendency. The beauty of Chinese painting, which had been impressed upon Zao Wou-ki since childhood, was such an inspiration that even though he presents Vert emeraude in oil, its influence still shows in the introspective character of the work. A comparison with a painting by the surrealist painter Joan Miro, The Birth of the World (Fig. 6), at New York's Museum of Modern Art, shows the importance given to linear depiction in Western painting, and the ordering and arrangement of objects within the painting. In Zao Wou-ki's own linear figures, however, his deeply rooted expertise in wielding ink and brush is innately expressed in their variations of lightness and heaviness and in the tension and relaxation of the presentation. Amid the deep blue-green swells of Vert emeraude and its allusions to antiquity, viewers arrive in a vast imaginative space. The rhythm of the work derives from the echoes between its corresponding pairs of objects and the harmony of its solid forms and empty spaces, built on Zao's handling of color. Its light seems to spread from the upper left toward the lower right, and in his transparent, floating motifs Zao employs vaguely defined brushstrokes that enhances the effect of vast, swelling waves. This, in contrast with the feel of the clear, solid lines of trees at the left, helps create the painting's ancient and meditative atmosphere. Zao further enhances the sense of a non-physical or non-material space by de-emphasizing strong color contrasts in the background of the work. This provides yet another indication of the way he transcends realistic depiction of space to return to traditional styles of painting, signalling at the same time his departure toward the realm of pure abstraction.
The emerald green that Zao Wou-ki takes as his principal tonal palette in Vert emeraude exudes the gentle luster of blue-green jade, tempered with hints of yellow-brown. As an observer of nature, these combinations of tones suggest Zao's attempt to capture the ambience of water and sky, of glittering waves and rippling light, and to convey the transparent depths in the shrouds of temperature and humidity. Zhang Daqian, also a master painter from the tradition of Eastern colored-ink painting, employs flowing inks to develop the "mental imagery" of his splashed-ink landscape (Fig. 7) and its rain-soaked atmosphere. The Zhang Daqian work is an extension of traditional Chinese landscape themes, and an attempt to present them anew through abstraction. Zao Wou-ki attempted in his painting to explore the universe itself and its essential nature, and in Vert emeraude finds in nature the misty ambience of air and atmosphere. The stances of these two master painters from the East, and their stylistic evolution, suggest they saw that a return to Eastern art could override the possibilities of Western art. Regardless of whether they continued to work in the original mediums of the East or those of the West, the essential and original meaning of art for them was found in Chinese landscape paintings, in the way the artist was called on to realize the harmony between man and nature, and therefore to respond to nature and to reciprocate in feeling. In the East, people have always valued the simple and unsophisticated luster of jade, comparing it to the qualities of gentlemanly modesty and virtue. In Vert emeraude, one of his very few works in a jade-green palette, Zao Wou-ki seems in search of a contemplative and ancient mood, a return to that ancient time when the attributes of jade described the manner and temperament of the gentleman. A close look at the detail of Vert emeraude shows how Zao Wou-ki adds almost imperceptible touches of red to his jade green, which appear only in the eyes of his bird-like figures and in several of the shadowy shapes of his abstract motifs. He had clearly developed new interpretations in color after arriving in Pairs, augmented by his sense of the poetic atmosphere in nature. In highlighting his green through subtle touches of red, we can see Zao's great creative ability, the ability to note and make use of such details in managing the work as a whole, and it provides one further indication of this artist's upcoming entrance into the avant-garde and the beginning of his great artistic success.
Vert emeraude dates from 1950, a time at which Zao Wou-ki had not yet seen the work of Paul Klee. In it, through the special poetry of Chinese art, the Eastern way of painting with words, and the Chinese philosophy of probing the depths of nature, Zao Wou-ki gradually made his way back to his own roots in Chinese painting. It was only in 1951, traveling to Switzerland to arrange an exhibition of his prints, that Zao saw Paul Klee's work for the first time. He describes the experience in his book Self-Portrait, noting his excitement at seeing Paul Klee at work and how clear it was that Klee loved and understood Chinese painting. But it is certain, based on this work, that even before he met Paul Klee, Zao had already embarked on his path of return to the symbolicmotif style of Chinese painting-which ultimately launched a new phase of his career and made him one of the great Asian masters of painting. Vert emeraude was an early preface, just after the end of World War II that signalled the opening of a bridge for artistic communication between the East and West; it was also a major, large-scale Zao Wou-ki would carry his Eastern thought and outlook into the regions of the West. In terms of technique, it represents breakthroughs on a number of frontsin Zao's oil brushwork, which depicts space as gracefully as the combination of wet and dry brush techniques in ink painting, and in the low-intensity colors that create lights and shadows where transparent bodies float in space. The way these planes of color meet and weave together generate the painting's feelings of peacefulness, emptiness, warmth, and hidden, mysterious depths. In all these ways he foreshadows the great abstract works to come, such as North Wind (Fig. 8) and Hommage a Tou-Fou, with their union of Eastern and Western sensibilities. The well-known Chinese-French literary figure Francois Cheng, in a preface written for Zao Wou-ki's 1981 exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, wrote, "Zao Wou-ki's artistic destiny was not merely personal, but was closely tied up with the evolution of Chinese painting over thousands of years. As we see in his work, this fundamental fact did not weaken the value of his individual exploration, but only increased its power to move us. In fact, thanks to his work, that long period of a century or more during which Chinese painting seemed to have stagnated now seems at an end. This mutually supportive relationship between China and the West, which should have arrived earlier, has appeared here for the first time. When critics look back on that decisive moment in the middle of the century, when Zao Wou-ki travelled from his distant home country to live in Paris, we will appropriately refer to it as a miracle. Miraculously, he found himself immediately, and gave himself fully to his work. The depths which he has plumbed and which he has expressed even today still astonish us."