(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, B. 1920)
signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right)
oil on canvas
162 x 200 cm. (63 3/4 x 78 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1960
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Private Collection, Paris, France
Galerie Patrice Trigano, Paris, France
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1984
Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, France, 1960 (illustrated, p. 39).
Musée de Montréal, La Peinture Contemporaine Fran?aise, exh. cat., Montréal, Canada, 1961 (illustrated, p. 83).
Salas de exposiciones del Ateneo, Zao Wou-Ki, Madrid, Spain, 1962 (illustrated, unpaged).
Museum Folkwang, Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., Essen, Germany, 1965 (illustrated, p. 23).
Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montréal, Canada Musée du Québec, Québec, Canada, Zao Wou-Ki, 1969 (illustrated, unpaged).
Kunstlerhaus, Zao Wou-Ki, Salzbourg, Austria, 1970 (illustrated, p. 10).
Cahier Lion Art No. 13: Zao WouKi, 1972-1973 (illustrated, p. 29).
National Art Museum of China, Beijing, China Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, China, Zao Wou-Ki, 1983 (illustrated, unpaged).
Galerie Patrice Trigano, Zao Wou-Ki - Oeuvres anciennes, Paris, France, 1984 (illustrated, unpaged).
Dominique de Villepin, Françoise Marquet, Yann Hendgen, Zao Wou-Ki - Oeuvres 1935-2008, Flammarion, Paris, France, 2009 (illustrated, p. 133).Dominique de Villepin, Françoise Marquet, Yann Hendgen, Zao Wou-Ki - Oeuvres 1935-2008, Kwai Fung Art Publishing House, 2010 (illustrated, p. 133).
Paris, France, Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki, 1960.
Montréal, Canada, Musée de Montréal, La Peinture Contemporaine Fran?aise, 1961.
Madrid, Spain, Salas de exposiciones del Ateneo, Zao Wou-Ki, 1962. Essen, Germany, Museum Folkwang, Zao Wou-Ki, 1965.
Montréal, Canada, Musée d'Art Contemporain Montréal, Canada , Musée du Québec, Zao Wou-Ki, 1969.
Salzbourg, Austria, Kunstlerhaus, Zao Wou-Ki, 1970.
Beijing, China, National Art Museum of China Hangzhou, China, Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Zao Wou-Ki, 1983.
Paris, France, Galerie Patrice Trigano, Zao Wou-Ki - Oeuvres anciennes, 1984.

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

In 1960, a month after the completion of this piece, Manessier mentioned in a letter to Zao, "I am really glad to be able to say that this person is very different. The world in his heart and that kind of past history, racial group, scenery, and light are unknown to me. However, through this person and the world that we are not familiar with, I am touched by something that I know and could recognize. You have transcended beyond anything you've ever painted before." 15.05.60 (Lot 7) is a product of Zao's new stylistic arrival after years of probing and exploring, and it embodies the solid achievement of his 1950s period. Zao transforms the bare variations of shades in black and white to a multi-layered transition of colours. Black marks a primal state of darkness and emptiness, countered by white which is associated with brightness and hope. In 15.05.60 , Zao not only rediscovers the traditional notion that the energy of life is expressed by suggesting rather than merely reproducing a subject, but also, in the light and shadow of the work, a kind of poetic dialogue between East and West ensues.

Viewing Zao's recent paintings evokes a sense of landscape scenes, vague, misty landscape scenes; or, to put it another way, Chinese landscapes. But Zao himself is not really like this. Earlier, when he was still a figurative artist, he would habitually fill his sketchbooks with drawings for later references. Nowadays, he no Longer sketches those nature scenes, and even when he is traveling he no Longer sees the scenery. The kind of nature that appears in his paintings is something deep inside of his Mind, and subconsciously, when he faces a new white canvas, he creates the landscape in his dreams.

Michel Ragon, in the Catalogue Foreword of Zao's 1962 exhibition in Madrid

In 15.05.60, Zao transforms his earlier symbolic motifs into lines that are furled, layered, and stretched across the canvas, lines which one after another find their way into a unified space in black and white. Sometimes, in areas where short, curving lines converge, we see how these lines have evolved from the works in Zao's Oracle-Bone period. Hence, spaces and lines are the most important elements in 15.05.60. In this work, Zao's lines no longer serve as calligraphic motifs or have any imbedded narrative meaning, instead, they have become expressive themes in their own term. By combining varying hues and shades, Zao gradually discovered how spatial depth was created. In the process of merging the fine and thick lines, a sense of movement and the passage of time is created as we can see in the brush movements of Chinese calligraphy. The dynamic motion of the entire picture is well balanced by the peaceful grey and white in the left quadrants. 15.05.60 is a work reminiscent of the Tang Dynasty master Li Tang, who characteristically divided his compositions with slanted lines to create an elegant and steady division of space. The sense of space "in which you can roam about," as seen in Song Dynasty paintings, is also evident in this work. The brushstrokes in the lower half of the painting, sparse yet strong, guide the viewer into a receding path beyond.

The division of space in 15.05.60 derives in part from Zao Wou-Ki's firm grasp of the relationships between form and empty space, and in part from his skilful handling of light. While his notion about form and empty space originates from the Chinese painting tradition, the use of abstract light sources is a technique inspired by Western paintings. Zao once said, "Many of my paintings seem sparse. But oil is more difficult to render a wash effect than ink, so I spend more time conveying an empty space than I do in the other parts. Chinese painting has been tremendously significant for me in this regard, because of its rhythmic created by form and empty space." In the history of Western modern art, Cézanne reduced natural forms to bare geometric arrangements. In China, Southern Song painter Liang Kai employed simple brushwork in his impressionistic depictions of nature (Fig. 1). Cézanne, who had freed himself from realistic depictions, engaged in abstraction while still offering an honest presentation of reality. In Liang Kai's paintings, the sparse brushstrokes, surrounded by large volumes of empty space, also called liu bai, evoke a sense of unbounded imaginative space. In 15.05.60, Zao juxtaposes Cézanne's sense of tightly-knit structure with Liang Kai's liu bai, removed from any concrete time and space. The result is a perfect balance between the form and space of the painting, and between movement and rest.

Zao Wou-Ki's contact with Western art encouraged him to reflect on his own cultural roots, while at the same time Western art brought him an awareness of light and shadow and their varying expressions. In the works of artists from Rembrandt in the 17th Century to Turner in the 19th (Fig. 2) and the Impressionists in a later period, the precise observation of light and the subsequent application to canvas is a huge influence to Zao's works. Looking at a Cézanne painting, one can almost see the flickering light and shadows that gleam through the leaves of the trees. The twinkling light is further mirrored on mountain rocks and the viewer's eye. In 15.05.60, we can find the same impressionistic light, which emanates from the canvas in a more subtle way. In 1959, Zao bought a garage in Paris which was converted to a painting studio by Georges Johannet. The studio does not have windows opening to the outside; instead it was built with a glass ceiling to capture the sky light, which showers down from above giving infinite inspirations to Zao. In 15.05.60, the viewer sees a beam of sunshine breaking through the dark clouds. The light is exactly the "focal point of illumination" that Zao Wou-Ki sought to create in the 1960s, and it brings meditative power to the dark space in the painting.

In the works of Zao Wou-Ki and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), an artist 20 years senior than Zao, we can see the hunger for a new, more modern style. Since the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the traditions created by the literati painters of China have gradually become overly rigid, and are not able to reflect the need for modernization in an era full of social and cultural changes. Starting in 1956, Zhang Daqian's works were influenced by Abstract Expressionism, as his eyesight began to deteriorate in 1957, he abandoned realistic subject matters and started to creating splashed-ink paintings of "landscapes in mind." Zao Wou-Ki's first abstract work, Vent, was produced in 1954. By 1960, the year in which he created 15.05.60, he had already discovered the ideal abstract style for which he had been searching over the years. Zhang Daqian became acquainted with Zao Wou-Ki when he was travelling in France. Being in close proximity to each other, Zao Wou-Ki and Zhang Daqian adopted an abstract style around the same time, and it's possible that Zhang was influenced by Zao's approach to abstraction ("Discussions on the Progressive Painting and Life Experiences of the Late Landscape works by Zhang Daqian, " National Museum of History Publications, Vol.42, Taipei, Taiwan, 2010). Using different mediums, one ink and one oil, both artists managed to find a path to find the continuity of traditional Chinese painting in their new style. When looking at the abstract landscapes Zhang Daqian painted around 1960, chunks of splashed ink and colour is adorned with the traditional contours of mountains (Fig. 3), manifesting the materiality observed by the artist. On the contrary, the abstraction in Zao's works is purged of any recognizable form of nature. It surpasses the superficial and reached the nature from within, expressing the artist's profound understanding and analysis towards the Cosmology in Chinese philosophy.
Zao Wou-Ki's works from the 1960s embody meaning expressed in Song Dynasty landscape paintings; they are in line with the philosophical outlook towards nature portrayed by China's early painters. The literati painters of the Southern Song Dynasty used Chinese landscapes as a tool to express emotions, as manifesto of mind and spirituality of the artist.

Six Dynasties painter Zong Bing, in his "Preface to the Art of Landscape Painting," wrote, "The form of the landscape leads us toward its soul." He intended to say that if a person of humanity, wisdom, and virtue is moved by a landscape, it is not because of the fa?ade of the nature, but the "sense of a soul" contained within it. In this way, when an artist is stricken by the beauty of nature and thus transforms his emotions onto the painting, the viewer will be able to resonate with the work and walk into the nature depicted in it. Zao recalls his early-60s works this way: "There weren't any more obstacles at a technical level, so I could set to work and paint, just following my feelings and painting as I wished. In the large-scale canvases I had to wrestle with space-not just to fill it up, but also to make it come to life, to throw myself completely into it." In his almost isolated studio, Zao was finally able to create his large-scale oil on canvas free from any distraction in the outside world. Only then was he able to convey completely his inner feeling for nature, transform it onto canvas, and eventually bring forth the Daoist sense of the great and omnipresent harmony that unites the universe as one.

More from Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)

View All
View All