(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed 'Zao Wou-Ki'; dated '11.3.65' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
114 x 146 cm. (44 7/8 x 57 7/16 in.)
Painted in 1965
Collection of Mr François Mathey, Chief Curator of the Decorative Arts Museum from 1955 to 1986, Paris, France
Private Collection, Paris, France
Acquired from the above by the present owners

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Lot Essay

After a series of stylistic evolutions and important breakthroughs in the 1950s, Zao Wou-ki jumped headlong into the exploratory possibilities of expression through abstraction in the 1960s, allowing his brushwork, colouration, and imagination to roam freely in a peerless realm. His work of this period excels in its monumental, powerful composition and swift, energetic gestures, rediscovering the spirit and tone of Song dynasty landscapes and calligraphy. This body of work clearly develops along with Zao's broadening thoughts and is a direct descendant of the eastern aesthetic tradition despite the fact that he was living in France. The work displays a profound Chinese cultural heritage that breaks through the limitations and barriers of language and place. In the Parisian art scene too Zao was held in high esteem by peers of his generation like Hans Hartung and Alfred Manessier. With the establishment of such a clear and unique style, Zao Wou-ki decisively signaled his unshakable position in the history of modern art. During this era, the artist worked in oil paint to create unforced linear patterns in a natural and spontaneous way, capturing the freedom of nature without form while using brilliant shades of red, blue, and yellow as the unifying tones of the piece. Beginning in 1964, Zao manifested a clear shift in his use of background colour, turning to calm brown tones. These experiments reached a peak between 1965 and 1966, a time when the artist sought simplicity in the use of colour and focused on composition and gesture. The masterpiece 11.03.65 (Lot 5) is a representative work of precisely this period.
Explaining the importance of ink painting in the Chinese aestheticism, Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei say in, On Landscape: "In the Tao of painting, ink wash surpasses all; it begins from the essence of nature and completes the work of creation." The practice of painting using only ink originated in the Tang dynasty and proliferated in the Song when both technique and concept, the notion that "ink is colour" was buttressed by a symbolic purity that is deeply rooted in the heart of traditional Chinese aesthetics. By emphasizing therole of brushwork and of ink, this brings out the subtle transformations in ink as a colour of six shades - black, white, thick, thin, dry and wet. Using only these simple elements to create deep and distant realms of landscape, in 11.03.65, Zao Wou-Ki chooses a minimal palette with the three colours of pure black, grey, and white, spreading and contracting across the painting, moving gracefully over the warm tones of the brown earth. First, he works boldly with a brush dipped in black pigment the colour of ochre, applying it swiftly to create lines of ink, by turns thick and thin, one after another. On the left side of the painting large strokes result in thick, rich black lines full of bold movements of the arm, injecting the painting with vital energy and laying the main artery of the overall structure and visual feeling of the piece. In terms of the expression of line, Zao Wou-Ki's subtle work might here be compared to Joan Mitchell, working in Paris at the same time.
Zao Wou-ki's ever-changing brushwork ensures that even such a simple palette is never monotonous. A large amount of charred black on a dry brush is paired with the use of hollow white space akin to the proverbial eyes that finish the depiction of a dragon, resulting in a layered sense of space that surprises and delights. The dry edge of the brush dances up, down, and across the canvas, producing an intriguing rhythm that resembles the calligraphic brush stroke. Each inclination of the brush-slanting dot, horizontal stroke, vertical stroke, hook, and upward stroke, and left falling stroke- produces shifts in technique and colouration, all of which are woven into a dense visual rhythm: it smoothens, expands and condenses, turns dense and light, dries and saturates. Brushstrokes seem to ceaselessly collide in a visually tense dialogue of call and response, inspiring the appreciation of the endless circulation of primordial chaos between heaven and earth.
The start, connection, turn, and close of each brushstroke in the painting reveals the deep foundations in calligraphy Zao Wou-Ki accumulated since childhood, when his father told him that only calligraphy capable of expressing emotion can be called art. Through the experience of viewing 11.03.65, we see how the artist has intimately melded each movement of the brush with the pulse of his inner meditation, fully realizing in the variously calm and spirited undulations of the brush the concept advocated by the ancients: "Intention precedes the brush; I am one with things." Moreover, through the pure, simple, and abstract expression of line and colour, Zao Wou-ki successfully passes on the graceful Chinese tradition of ink and brush, giving it new meaning from the perspective of modern painting and bringing it to new heights.

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