"Issues of technique no longer exist, I just follow my mood. Large-scale paintings require me to wrestle with space. Not only do I need to fill it, I must give it life, and throw myself, immerse myself in the canvas. I want to display dynamism: maybe it's mercurial sentimentality, or maybe it's a flash of intensity. I want to use the many registers of vibration that occur between colour contrasts and varying tones of the same colour to incite the canvas to move and leap; I want to find the centre point for the light to glow."
- ZAO WOU-KI
To completely accept the past and tradition was something that Zao Wou-Ki had always avoided, because he refused to be labelled as a “Chinese painter”. Prior to his trainings in Paris, Zao was already exceptionally well versed in Chinese ink painting and calligraphy techniques; however, he felt that his art would become repetitive and stagnant if he continued in that direction. Bearing this in mind, he referenced Western modern art masters such as Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne in the early stage of his career and was profoundly influenced by Paul Klee’s linear painting approach. He then transitioned to incorporate abstract symbols resembling oracle bone and bronzeware scripts, showcasing his attempt to fuse together Western painting elements and traditional Chinese aesthetics, seeking to develop a distinctive art style that differs from traditional Chinese ink painting. Starting in the 1970s, Zao began re-examining Chinese impressionistic ink techniques and incorporated them in his Western oil paintings. Oils were applied with ink techniques by mixing in more turpentine thinner to create on canvas the wash and splash effects of ink paintings, with broader and more free-flowing impressionistic brushwork. The piece 24.04.98 (Lot 7) is a prime example of the perfect fusion of Western art medium with traditional Chinese expressions from this period in Zao’s career.
ELUSION NEXT TO REALITY——CONSTRUCTING THE SPACE
Zao extended his previous creative preferences in 24.04.98 , using a monochromatic palette to construct the space and to create visual effects with colours that seem to flicker, resulting in a mysteriously stunning and ever-changing space that evokes associations of the endlessly evolving universe and the pulsing energy of life. Compositionally, a romantic and mysterious purple palette was chosen by Zao, with dark, blackish purples slowly inching from the top and bottom toward the centre and transitioned into hues of violet, indigo, and lavender. The viewer is transported to a vivid and enigmatic realm, with imaginative thoughts and associations sparked by the painting’s multiple layers of changing colours.
USING WHITE AS BLACK—— ETHEREAL AND INWARD POETIC STATE
A large translucent white space is positioned in the centre of 24.04.98 , with delicate variations created in this white space with white oil, highlighting the colour’s expressive power, visual aesthetic, and ability to give shape to a space. Because of the artist’s agile adaption of ink brushwork, the white oil applied by Zao appears very ethereal, airy, and translucent. Hazy and subtle colors are used to mimic the style of Chinese landscape ink paintings with rolling misty clouds and ephemeral sceneries, perfectly portraying Asian art’s ethereal, meditative qualities with a marvelous energy lingering in the mountains and on the cliffs. The Chinese aesthetic showcased in this artwork is different from Zao’s bold creations from the 50s and 60s. Zao once said, “I love the way Mi Fu arranges his space, and Ni Yun-Lin’s handling of the relaxed, empty spaces of his paintings. This is where Chinese landscape painting differs from Western oils. A lot of areas in my paintings may look empty, but oils are not like ink-wash because they do not spread that easily, so I actually spend a lot more time on these seemingly empty spaces than on the solid forms on my paintings. The solid forms and empty spaces in Chinese paintings have a rhythm, which is constantly in motion as one pushes at the other, giving the pictorial space a wonderful balance between lightness and weight. This was an area in which I really gained an insight from tradition. The way I approach space is probably what differentiates my paintings from paintings by Western artists. ” Using meticulous impressionistic wash effects to portray different notable features found in natural landscapes has long been a tradition in Chinese paintings, as seen in Mountains and Pines in Spring (Fig.1) by renowned Northern Song dynasty painter Mi Fu, who used a large area of empty space to express the ever-changing misty sceneries found in southern Yangtze River. Modern Chinese ink-wash master Zhang Daqian’s Living in the Mountains painted in 1969 (Fig.2) shows a similar approach with an empty space positioned in the middle of the painting, with wash effects used to convey the natural phenomenon with lingering clouds and fog.
MIND BEYOND FORM —— CREATING TRANSLUCENCY WITH COLOURS
Zao travelled to New York in 1957, where he met art agent Samuel Kootz and several New York-based abstract painters, including Franz Kline, Conrad Marca-Relli, G. Philipp, Adolph Gottlieb, and William Baziotes. He later recalled how he was deeply moved by American abstract art: “I was elated to learn about their paintings, which are natural, invigorating, bold and vibrant. I particularly enjoyed how they flung paint on the canvas, unbound by the past and tradition.” Inspired by this new style of art, Zao shifted away from his former figurative, descriptive and plot-based approach to art, and began creating space, light and shadow through brushwork and colour coordination. Compared with his previous preference for using rich, bold colours in the foreground, Zao began forming a sense of depth of field with clear and powerful lines and horizontal brushwork in the background with wash effects. The colour translucency in 24.04.98 subverts conventional understanding and habits associated with space, with the advancement or retrieval of layers not completely dictated by changes in colour. Although the planes are in correspondence with each other and are defined by distinctive borders, subtle transitions and turns are suggested by the interconnected layers of colours, hinting at the vastness of this unknown space and the potential of reformation. With continuously extending and expanding possibilities, the viewer’s imagination is taken beyond the canvas.
Overall, a spectacular visual experience is presented with colours that seem to be vibrating, dispersing, incubating, and developing. Coincidentally, Chu Teh-Chun also began using oils to create translucent ink-wash effects in the 70s and 80s, and in Le coeur du silence, no. 3 (Fig.3), the translucent quality created with strong colours is expanded to the edge of the painting, forming a mystic realm that seem to be filled with deep, unfathomable clouds.
The seemingly light, casual brushwork in Water Lilies (Fig.4), from the iconic series by impressionism master Claude Monet created later in his career, is actually derived from careful observations of the lighting and environmental changes found in the morning and at dusk, on cloudy and sunny days, and also throughout the changing seasons. Colour blocks are used to portray the water lilies’ dainty, graceful, and gentle qualities. On the other hand, Zao’s 24.04.98 is filled with multiple layers of colour, light and heavy textures, and swift and steady brushwork, forming a vast universe with glistening stars, a three-dimensional space with boundless vitality, and an organic system that is endlessly unfolding and extending.