(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed and dated 'ZAO WOU-Ki 14.3.60' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
81 x 116 cm. (32 x 45 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1960
Private Collection, Paris, France
Romain Gary & Jean Seberg Collection, Paris, France
Galerie Jean Pollak, Paris, France
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated, plate 81, p. 132).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-ki, Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris, France and Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1986 (illustrated in , plate 81, p. 132).

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Lot Essay

Zao Wou-ki's abstract paintings from the 1960s gave new life to the classical stylistic form, and such renewal reminds us of Yuan dynasty painter Zhao Mengfu when he reinterpreted the Northern Song monumental landscapes by artists Li Tang and Guo Xi, with brushworks borrowed from the calligraphic 'cursive script' and the 'flying-white strokes'. However, Zao adopted a completely different approach with 15.6.59-26.12.70 (Lot 2), which was painted throughout the entire decade of the 1960s. In addition to the theme of the monumental Northern Song landscapes, Zao also extracted a section from those grand-scale works and used it as the subject of his subsequent work, which was transformed naturally as a corner in the landscape or a view in a peripheral vision. As art historian James Cahill noted: 'These depict a remote corner of the world, installed in front of us. The artist leads our imagination beyond the painted imagery, all the way to the entire world beyond the work.' The composition of 15.6.59-26.12.70 produces a sense of microscopic spatiality, which is also seen in the unique composition of traditional Chinese landscape paintings. However, the depiction of a singular side with the sloping rocks in the foreground differs from the monumental landscapes and reflects a different kind of harmonious feeling sought after by the early literati painters of China.
Moreover, the arrangement of the empty space evokes a feeling of an endless river valley extending into the distance. Zao's oil brushstrokes produce textures with dense layers and create a deep contrast with the surrounding empty space. The blues and greens scattered throughout the painting provide a luscious mountainous quality, with the piece echoing with the splash ink and splash colour landscape works by Zhang Daqian from the same period.
Zao disliked people using the term 'landscape' to talk about his paintings, because he felt that it would create confinement to his artworks. He preferred the use of 'nature' because it allows for a world of wider meaning and scope: 'The crossings of multiple realms create the cosmic layer, with the breaths of air and wind moving freely in it.' Line and space are the two key components for 15.6.59-26.12.70. Lines are no longer used as a tool for narrative or symbolic writing, but rather as an expressive core subject. From the combinations of different colour schemes, Zao gradually realises the issue with spatial depth. The process of fusing and gathering of different lines hints at the sense of time-relevance and dynamic motion produced during the execution of Chinese calligraphy, and it further leads to the motions with the planes in the painting, with a sense of balance achieved from the still spaces created at the top and bottom.
Green and blue were added to 15.6.59-26.12.70, and Zao noted: 'Since the 15th century, colours have been lost in Chinese paintings, with only a sense of ambiance remaining.' The statement directly points at the gradual elimination of colour in traditional Chinese paintings, with emphasis placed on the variations and layers created with the brush and ink and the goal of achieving an artistic conception with ink-brush works. With the vibrant use of green and blue in 15.6.59-26.12.70, the viewer is able to feel the direct way earlier Chinese literati painters understood the material world, with the visual impression transformed into a coherent form to reveal the warm and harmonious sense of order omnipresent in nature.
The sense of space produced in 15.6.59-26.12.70 is partly derived from Zao's control of the connection between the intangible and the tangible. It is also partly due to his approach to light and shadow. The connection between the intangible and tangible originates from traditional Chinese paintings, with the abstract source of light inspired by Western paintings. Zao said: 'My paintings appear quite empty, but the wash technique is not as easily applicable to oil paintings as with ink-brush works; therefore, I've placed more effort with the empty blanks than the tangible parts. The rhythm created by the intangible and the tangible in Chinese paintings has inspired me profoundly in this regard.'
In Western modern art history, Cezanne reduced nature to combinations of geometric shapes. In China, Southern Song painter Liang Kai used reduced strokes to depict nature. Their approaches are similar in that they are not confined to realism; however, Cezanne's experiments with nature, although close to being abstractions, are still constructions of reality. On the other hand, Liang's paintings of minimal brushstrokes and large empty blanks give the viewer scope for boundless imagination. 15.6.59-26.12.70 seems to have juxtaposed the tight composition found in Cezanne's paintings with the detached sense of time and empty spatiality observed in Liang's works, with the piece achieving a perfect balance between movement and stillness and between states of tangibility and intangibility.

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