(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, B. 1920)
signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right); signed and dated 'ZAO WOU-KI 23.5.61' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
116 x 89 cm. (45 3/4 x 35 in.)
Painted in 1961
Private Collection, France
Christie's Paris, May 28, 2008, Lot 10
Acquired from the above by present owner
Dominique de Villepin, Francoise Marquet, Yann Hendgen, Zao Wou-Ki - Oeuvres 1935-2008, Kwai Fung Art Publishing House, 2010 (illustrated, p. 145).

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Lot Essay

In the training I received as an artist, the influence from Paris is so apparent. However, as my deeper artistic personality gradually took shape, I rediscovered China little by little. In my recent paintings, my Chinese cultural background has been expressed as an innate part of myself.

Zao Wou-Ki in 1961
Looking back to the progressive development of Chinese paintings, one can see that the abstract work produced by Zao Wou-ki in the 1960s retains the style of traditional landscape painting that was so highly valued by Chinese artists over the centuries. Beginning in the 1960s Zao Wou-ki, with his close contact with and understanding of Western art in the 1950s, began to re-examine Chinese paintings and its view of nature, projecting the wilds of the Chinese landscape through his own emotions rather than a simplistic representation. Thus the presence of early Chinese landscape painting styles is strongly felt in Zao Wou-ki's abstract paintings from this period. The composition in Zao's 23.05.61 (Lot 3) can be compared with Wintry Groves and Layered Banks (Fig. 1) by the Five Dynasties painter Dong Yuan. Dong used the river to divide his wetlands scene into foreground, middle ground, and background. In 23.05.61, we also see two parallel spaces in the same way, dividing the pictorial plane into two main parts. The lower area is dominated by sparse flying brushwork, while the upper area is a more contained space constructed by converging, interlocking strokes. The hazy mix of black and red at the very top of 23.05.61 recalls the upper part of Dong Yuan's work, where the flat land extends to endless horizon. Both works project a deep sense of remoteness and distance. Together the brushwork and colour in the centre of the canvas form a transitional area that leads the viewer's eye downward. As the eye moves down from the fluid red and black, more clearly defined strokes in the centre emerge and weave like the rhythms of a grand symphony. Swirling from up above, the black strokes turn into a roaring waterfall roaming into the sweeping red beneath. Reminiscent of the "wild cursive" style in calligraphy, Zao's all-encompassing brushwork brings forth the dramatic sense of momentum, as well as a dynamic swing from restfulness to endless motion.
Dating from 1961, 23.05.61, is created in the same stylistic period as 15.05.60 (Lot 7). It represents a transitional stage that Zao experienced as he left the 1950s behind, with works such as these symbolizing the end of one phase and the beginning of a new irreversible one. Both works equally demonstrate Zao's complete command over the artful skills with flexibility and ease. The mood in his works can be either calm and reserved, or unbounded and enthusiastic. However, compared to 15.05.60, in the present lot Zao employs more calligraphic brushstrokes. Under his control, lines converge, halt, and rush with great motion, bringing out the artist's observation and awareness towards nature in its complete abstract form. In the colour theories of Western abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky thinks that, compared with other primal colours such as yellow and blue, red possesses a formidable power; and different from black and white, red is imbued with boiling tension. For Chinese artists however, colour theory is closely associated with Yin and Yang and the five elements. In 23.05.61, red serves as a fundamental colour, bearing the weight of black while blended in it. The juxtaposition of red and black is symbolic of Yin and Yang, a metaphor of opposing yet complementary qualities in traditional Eastern aesthetics. The sacred significance attached to the colour red since ancient times can also be seen in the oracle bone inscriptions from Yin and Shang periods. These oracular objects were given to gods and ancestors during sacrificial rituals in exchange for good fortune. Also, in the Chinese tradition, the combination of red and black is always a symbol of prosperity and the Chinese colour system further associates red with fire in the south. Thus, the wintry scenery of southern China in Dong Yuans painting is transformed into an exuberant imaginary landscape in Zao Wou-ki's hands.

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