(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed and titled 'ZAO Wou-Ki 4.2.68' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
65 x 54 cm. (26 5/8 x 21 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1968
Private Collection, USA

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Lot Essay

Song Dynasty artists tried to paint a landscape through their mind and their inner spirit. These artists went beyond representation and imbued their paintings with personal feeling. We can find these "inner landscape" painting qualities in Zao Wou-Ki's works in the 1960s. The emergence of the literati painters in the Southern Song gave rise to new ideas about projecting one's own feelings and personality through art, as these scholar-painters conveyed their unique taste and refinement through their paintings. Thus, those paintings embodied the painter's own perceptions, and by extension, revealed the painter's own outlook and temperament.
The 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 meant that what really moves persons of humanity, wisdom, or virtue when they see a painting is not the outer facade of nature, but the spirit within it. When the artist senses the pulse of nature around him and transforms his thoughts and feelings into a painted work, those feelings will resonate with the viewer, who, while gazing at it, also becomes one with nature.
Zao's 4.02.68 (Lot 4) dates from 1968, a time when Zao Wou-Ki had already lived in France for 20 years and was well-versed in the concepts and techniques of Western art. But long exploration of his own cultural roots also led, in 4.02.68, to a harmonious and successful melding of Eastern and Western elements. Compositionally, the work is visually integrated by the elegant blues that predominate, gradually moving from lighter blues above into darker-toned blues at the bottom. In the middle and lower parts of the canvas, fine, almost black brushstrokes also shuttle through the pictorial space, recalling the cun bi, or "cracked" brushstrokes of Song Dynasty landscapes, which Zao adeptly used to build up the dense and elaborate textures of his oils in 4.02.68.
Perhaps most surprising is the way Zao introduced, in the lower right of the painting, a group of fei bai brustrokes ("flying white" brushstrokes, streaked with open centers). In this area we can see the artist attempting a further extension of the awareness and expression of light and shadow in Western painting. Clearly, the observation and interpretation of light by Western painters, from Rembrandt in the 17th century to J.M.W. Turner in the 19th, and afterwards, the Impressionists, influenced the way in which Zao Wou-Ki introduced abstract sources of light into his paintings. In 4.02.68, the flow of diffuse light cast throughout the painting stimulates the viewer's imagination, and it seems as if we can see the glow of shifting cloud masses among mountain peaks, or the motion of turbulent waves on the ocean.
But, if we read what Zao did in 4.02.68 from another angle, we can see how, in part, the sense of space derives from his use of light, while in part it derives from his grasp of the relationship between solid forms and empty space. If it was Western painting that inspired his use of an abstract light source, the relationship between forms and empty space could only have come from the Chinese painting and calligraphy that he studied deeply and knew so well, since even as a child, the beauty of Chinese calligraphy, with its graceful vertical and horizontal curves, had already impressed him deeply.
The relatively modest dimensions of 4.02.68 nevertheless convey a broad vision with a feeling of grand, surging momentum. The interplay of solid lines and empty space, as in calligraphy, creates great power, and the combination of motion and rest in the painting produces its sense of convergence, pauses, and flow. Zao's strongly calligraphic lines emerge even more fully when seen in a close-up viewing, and it is astonishing how the artist, by means of his brushwork, could exert such control within the compact space of this painting. And despite the fact that 4.02.68 is already a completely abstract work, viewers can still sense the artist's insight into and understanding of nature.
In the ideal juxtapositions that Zao found in his canvas, the meeting of movement and rest, and solid forms with empty space, he transforms and sublimates his inner sense of the meaning of nature into a painting that communicates through its conception, rather than through direct images or scene-painting. It embodies the broad, philosophical outlook of the Daoist tradition, which sees man in union with nature, yet at the same time, it possesses the deep spirituality often projected by the post-war Colour Field painter Mark Rothko. The two in fact make an interesting comparison. By the 1960s and afterwards, Zao Wou-Ki was at the peak of his classic series of abstract works. All traces of the recognizable, superficial features of nature have disappeared, and his work has become an expression of traditional Chinese cosmology with all its implications. 4.02.68, as a work from this period of Zao Wou-Ki's career, is a consummate achievement that cannot be overlooked.

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