(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, B. 1920)
signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right); signed 'ZAO Wou-Ki' in Pinyin; dated '25.11.98'; inscribed '162 x 130 cm' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
162 x130 cm. (63 3/4 x 51 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1998
Galerie Thessa Hérold, Paris, France
Acquired from the above in 2000, and thence by descent to the present owner

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Lot Essay

Most people are beholden to one kind of tradition. I am beholden to two. - Zao Wou-Ki

In the 1980s, after over 20 years of exploring abstract paintings, Zao Wou-Ki who's in his sixties managed to free himself from the more controlled style in the past. 25.11.98 (Lot 6) dates from 1998 when Zao reached his 80s. Just as Zhang Daqian, who used malachite green to convey an idealization of the utopian paradise in his splashed-colour landscapes, Zao Wou-Ki, in 25.11.98, summons the details of nature with hues from cadmium yellow to tangerine ochre, and interweaves the brushstrokes and shades of colour into one another. The darker tones in the centre unify the more bright coloured brushwork that spreads across the canvas. Meanwhile the artist, calling upon both his deeper psychological state and innate rhythms, produces order from the chaos of this universe. Zao's brushwork flows naturally throughout the pictorial plane, hailing from his experiments with ink-wash techniques back in 1971. Over time, the forceful brushstrokes seem to have been diluted and appear as the distant traces of the artist's personal, bare existential condition. In this way, Zao's strokes become the imprint of his inner self rather than pure formal calligraphic lines.

Zao Wou-Ki once said, "We gave up color after the 15th century, and all that was left was atmosphere," referring to the tendency in traditional Chinese painting to leave out colours altogether. Awakened by the infinite possibilities of colour and light in Western painting, Zao embraces these possibilities in his later works and presents on his canvas an eternal order in nature and the universe. Symbolism in the late 19th century strived to evoke immediate responses from their viewers through form and colour, it continued into the 20th century as the foundation of abstract movements. Symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler said, "I refer to any kind of repetition as parallel. What that I think is most fascinating in nature is often those that possess a sense of unity." The repetition of colour brings forth a unified continuity to the pictorial space. Zao Wou-Ki uses the same concept of repetition in yellow tones throughout the canvas of 25.11.98, hence develops a sense of an indispensable orderly force beneath the surface of nature. During the years between 1957 and 1965, Zao often visited the US and was heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionism, the ongoing movement at that time. 25.11.98 shows Zao Wou-Ki's masterful skills in pure abstraction, embarking a renaissance in the use of colour, light and shadow. From 1986 to 1993, Zao Wou-Ki painted two works as homage to Henri Matisse (Fig. 1). He said, "After seeing Porte-fenetre à Collioures by Matisse, I tried to combine man and nature in one. A metaphorical window opens a path from pure colour to infinity."

Though inspired by the Western use of colours, Zao Wou-Ki never forgot the lessons passed onto him by ancient Chinese painters. Western painting brought him to the abstract forms, while Chinese traditions urged him to study more deeply the meaning of his existence in a broader cultural context. In an interview, "At the Louvre with Zao Wou-Ki," Zao pointed out, "Most people are beholden to one kind of tradition. I am beholden to two." Chinese Yi Ching, or Book of Changes, says, "The Heaven above is black, the Earth yellow," which uses black to represent the sky and yellow to represent the earth where human beings live and thrive. Combining black and yellow, as Zao did in 25.11.98, alludes to the ideal, harmonious unity of man and heaven (or nature). The work fully embraces the symbolic meanings of colours in Chinese traditions. Contrary to the swift motion and vertical movements of brushstrokes in Zao's 23.05.61 (Lot 3), 25.11.98 presents an inclination to converge all the movements toward the centre, creating a crystalized moment of time. In accord with the traditional significance of yellow in China and its complementary color relationships, yellow here conveys no directional feeling but instead is a pure, central color. Viewers can sense, in the flow of chrome yellow pouring across the canvas, how China's ancient painters intuitively grasped the physical world around them and converted their visual impressions into flowing, connected forms, communicating their sense of an omnipresent, benevolent, and harmonious order underlying the natural world.

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