Our Day Sale this year presents six oil-on-canvas works of Zao Wou-ki, featuring specifically his still life series in the early 1950s, oracle-bone inscription series in the mid '50s and stylized ink and oil painting after the 1970s. Of diversified styles, each of these works epitomizes the chronicle of the artist's creative expedition in integrating Chinese and Western aesthetics.
Aube VI (Lot 1308) and Untitled (Lot 1307) belong to the still-life landscape series of the early 1950s. During that period, while seeking inspiration from still life and surrounding landscape, Zao deliberately detached his depictions from details and real forms through the use of pure artistic elements like lines and colors, liberating his expression from mere "similarity in form" or "semblance of nature". In Aube VI the canvas is coated with brownish red pigment, the content of which comprises a relatively high portion of turpentine that smoothens, moistens and attenuates the layer. It visualizes a delicate transformation of color layers, from diaphanous to compact as from lissome to seamless. Intermingled with the brownish red are such bright and dark colors as orange, black, blue and green; seemingly translucent, they flicker off and on, exhibiting a coloring effect of remarkable appeal. The artist sets out the picture with hues, and then creates thin lines by scrubbing away the paints with the end of the wooden brush handle. Such technique, which resembles that of linear drawing in traditional style, arrays the lofty architecture in silhouette. The near transparent and blank outline seems to be floating on the nihility of colors, exuding a surrealistic ambience while emanating the artistic qualities of Chinese stone inscription and lithography. The most fascinating of all, Zao's use of linear drawing, blank depiction and transformation of color layers transcends the minimal dimensions of the canvas by conjuring up an image where colossal buildings stand dignifiedly within an extensive space. Mimicking Chinese traditional painting, the artist makes use of blank space to foster spatial extension and infinite association, suffusing the work with an aesthetic sense of ethereality.
Untitled, on the other hand, reveals Zao's manipulation of playfulness over abstraction. The innumerable variations of one single color are again maneuvered to communicate emotion and ambience. With a scatter of indistinct reds submerged under the primary brownish green, this work calls to mind the color and texture of Chinese ancient bronzes, overflowing with an archaistic atmosphere that entails the immense weight of history and the perennial flow of time. Figures and forms, represented by lines, recount an interesting narrative: the enlivened effigy on the left, carrying tillage implements, seems to be heading for the farmland and the cottage nearby. But the portrayal of figures and forms is further generalized, tending towards abstraction; pictorial symbols are simplified to pure linear movement, availing itself of the rhythm of curled and straight lines and the space thus constructed to explore the formal gesture, emotional impulse and powerful impetus that lines themselves could emanate. Following their rhythm, viewers are invited to conceive of the motion of brushing and the vitality of imagination. We will notice the connection between such expressive abstraction and Zao's later abstract and natural creation. In mid 1950s, he began to thematize universe, nature and the energies of life, by which he produced a series of works featuring the five elements - wood, fire, earth, metal, water - to investigate the laws and variations of nature in an abstract, artistic way.
Feu (Fire) (Lot 1306) is one of Zao's creations during this period. It clearly reflects the Chinese conception of the five elements, the Chinese views of the cosmos and that of the multitudinous changes of nature. Feu (Fire), as its style and ways of representation suggest, belong to the oracle-bone inscription series of the mid-1950s. Here the rhythm and expressiveness of lines are further scrutinized; the inscriptions of oracle-bones, tangibly etched, are transformed into visual and pictorial symbols. These calligraphic shapes at times amass, at times disperse, leave off, merge, cling and shift, advancing themselves like dancers whose agile movements create rhythms over a field of time and blankness. Lines and turns of brushstrokes propel unobtrusively the expansions and twists of space. Formal narration and perspective are virtually absent, but the whole spatial representation is, all the same, fully dynamic, tensely packed with three-dimensionality and layering effects. Red - the primary color of this work - signifies Chinese tradition and festive gaiety, rendering the painting a unique sense of eastern beauty and ethnicity. The vivid, almost passionate colors remind us of Matisse and Fauvism; the hue exudes freshness, lightness and even tremor, marking the breakthrough in Zao's creative productions in this period of time.
Growing in full maturity Zao's creative works reached their summit since mid-1950s, a period the artist himself described as "marking the end of one creative period, or more accurately, the beginning of an irreversible new phase." It was a time when Zao reverted to tradition and reshaped his works with the cosmic views and artistic ideology deep-rooted in Chinese culture. As he underwent this new creative genesis, Zao moved beyond the narrative focus of landscape and artifacts his earlier works stage, and set about to look at the world in different prescriptive. He started to depict winds, feelings of movement, lives within objects, the ways colors disperse and merge, and the "qi" of lives - the unseen but vital energies that lives release, and created a new world with infinite artistic possibilities. 27-05-59 (Lot 1309) is a representation of this period. Colors are used in the purest and simplest way. Composed of subdued grey, black and while, the work echoes with the Chinese artistic taste of "Mo Fen Wu Cai", literally "tonal variations", which points to the pure quality of hues by ways of eliciting the veiled expressiveness of single color. The indistinct touch of ash gray insinuates the rolling clouds and wreathing mists of Chinese ink landscapes. The pigments are concentrated towards the center of the composition, where lines and symbols reminiscent of calligraphy, carving and oracle-bone inscriptions overlap; the intertwining pigments and lines evoke the imagery of small waves flowing in the breeze, while the agile, smooth strokes intimate the natural flowing movement of the brush. A single hue, cool white, is used as the primary tone, and by picturing the brimming ripples and the glimmering light with minimal hues, the artist, with such consummate skills, brings forth a near Taoist realm of purity, emptiness and meditation.
Universe, space and motion remain to be the themes of the artist's works after 1970s, but there comes a perceptible change in style, as shown in 11-10-78 (Lot 1311) and 03-12-86 (Lot 1310). Retracing to the rules of Chinese ink painting, an even higher volume of turpentine is blended with pigments. The artist, by sweeping them on the canvas in a near ink-wash way, renders the picture in washes and splashes of color, which translate the hues into an allusion to wreathing mist. The varying tones of a single color, at times thick and thin, at times weighty and light, is inextricably linked; the very unison of which furnishes the monochromic 11-10-78 with a reminiscent of the textual brushstrokes of ancient landscape painting, evoking the imagery of lumps of jagged and rugged rocks over the mountain and the stream. Settled on the most common compositional design of the period, the work, segregated horizontally, forms a binary spatial division in which we are ready to observe a concentration of vibrant, dynamic colors on the upper part and an extent of sparse "empty space" at the bottom. The resulting motif, an embodiment of spatial motions and shifts on the top, thus resembles that of the Chinese ink painting, with mountainous landscape far and away blended in harmony with the shadowy streams on the foreground. Such use of monochrome and empty space encapsulate thoroughly the Chinese realms of "emptiness", "essence" and "purity".
Unlike the spectacular breadth his works in the 1950s and 1960s evinced, 03-12-86 represents another facet of the Chinese aesthetics through the embodiment of even richer fluidic, rhythmic qualities and color effects. The artist focuses more squarely on the integration of sizable color blocks in replacement of vigor strokes of calligraphic lines. The uninterrupted strand of blue creates an imposing field, reminiscent of a huge, majestic sky, exuding a sense of ethereality. The blues commingle with the whites near the middle of the canvas where the spreading and splashing effects of ink painting are reproduced. An intangible ambience at once overwhelms us; that could be a watery, hazy atmosphere, perhaps with brimming wavelets, glimmering lights, or mists wreathing between the water and the sky. The stark contrast between dull blue and bright white seem to have rendered the blue a lithe radiance, demonstrating Zao's mastery of skills in fabricating scene and ambience by means of vibrant colors and lights. Abstract work in blue is rare, almost unique among Zao's series - this is especially true for the use of azure, which assumes more manipulation only after the 1970s and 1980s. The use of monochrome is an inheritance of the Chinese aesthetic of "Mo Fen Wu Cai". By spreading washes of hues and applying graduations, the single-colored ink wash brings forth a splendid visual world and boundless association. After the 1970s, Zao produced numerous ink and wash paintings and, in applying such artistic forms to oils, he closely integrated the forms and mediums of Chinese and Western art. While Zao's monochromic creations could be deemed as a continuation of Western monochromic art, notably established by Mark Rothko and Yves Klein, his works represent a metamorphosis of this tradition, improving on it through his supple, flowing color variations and pizzazz brushstrokes, which emanate, with the ambience of wreathing billows and brimming ripples unique in Chinese landscape paintings, a distinct oriental aroma.