(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed, titled and inscribed 'ZAO WOU-Ki 23.6.66 ne vernis pas' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
81 x 65 cm. (31 7/8 x 25 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1966
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Private Collection, Paris, France
Private Collection, Asia
Paris, France, Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki oeuvres récentes, 1967.

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Lot Essay

Throughout 1960 the physical and psychological state of Zao Wou-Ki's second wife, May, gradually deteriorated until by the end of the year, helpless, watching his wife sink deeper into suffering, Zao himself was cast down into the gloom of loneliness and despair. When looking back on that period of sadness and confusion, he likens his feelings of uncertainty to "the hopelessness of being buffeted by a raging storm", whereby "the studio became his only harbor of calm waters." His work, 23.06.66 (Lot 8), created in 1966, displays a continuation of his classic vertical composition dating back to the 1960s. However, in contrast to his other work from this same period; where he tended to favor more brilliant colours, the colours in this work are indeed more unique and rarely seen. The incomparably soft hues pose a contrast to the wild brush strokes, creating a sense of infinite conflict and paradox as they alternate in the clash between "lightness" and "weightiness". This also seems to reflect the artist's unsettled frame of mind during this period of his life.

The dynamic visual effect created by 23.06.66 is very different from most of Zao's works executed during the 1960s. It neither derives from the intensity of colour scheme, nor the texture created by thick tiers of oil paints. Nevertheless, it transmits a lasting poetic mood and inspires viewer imagination. The artist once commented that his paintings reflect everything he has experienced, and can serve as a "guide to his emotions". Close scrutiny of one of his finished works reveals the artist's mood at the time of creation, be it one of anger, serenity, or even the gradual onset of quietude following an emotional peak. All is laid bare before the eye of the viewer. Nothing is concealed. Zao has a profound grasp of colour. He has deliberately abandoned the use of colour as a means of expressing various moods, in favour of emphasising the "relationship between colours". His understanding of "how to blend colour" enables him to create "contrast, intimacy, or discordance". Zao has found, in the infinite and limitless freedom of colour combination, a faultless and precise means of expression.

In this vertical composition, 23.06.66, the gentle light-blue colour in the upper section was arranged in order to convey a lively visual effect. This elegant blue extends without interruption down to the lower section. In the middle section the artist has unexpectedly added a light khaki colour. The clear horizon is suddenly darkened by a disturbing brownish gray, in the manner of a sandstorm engulfing a barren desert; or as if surrounded by thick smoke, casting viewers into a realm of confusion and uncertainty. As our visual focus turns to the center of the painting, it becomes apparent that Zao applied brown paint and half-dry brush strokes to spin contours that sometimes run slowly, at other times accelerating, creating an effect of broken lines. This technique reminds one of Mi Fu's work, Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River. In this work, Mi Fu used a half-dry brush to write in running script, leaving a wide space between each character. This manner of writing haphazardly distorts the characters in a slanting fashion. Like fallen leaves swirling in an autumn gust, a sense of confidence and ease reveals the calligrapher's liberation from inhibition. Some brush strokes in the composition though obscure, convey a sense of firmness; some though precisely formed, transmit a feeling of elusiveness. Again, in the shifting of lightness and weightiness, a graceful but unmistakably vigorous life force has emerged, affecting the visual rhythm of the eye.

The composition of 23.06.66 is clean and simple. In just a few brush strokes, an amazing visual emotion and strength is created, reflecting Zao's subtle and masterful control over the interaction between colour and vibrant contours. The composition sometimes conveys a sense of calmness, like that of Hut by the Sea by Jan Lievens The Elder, at other times generating a feeling of a terrifying sea storm, like that of Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth by Joseph Mallord William Turner. The artist's desire to transport himself into the painting as a means of finding peace of mind; all the while being consumed by a feeling of ceaseless agony, such strong conflicting and complicated mood swings are totally uninhibited and permeate the entire painting. Through the colours and contours created by his paint brush, and the application of a near philosophical and paradoxical technique, Zao incorporates the two seemingly extreme elements, "lightness" and "weightiness", into a small space, that speaks softly of "weightlessness" and the "gravity" of love, life, and death. In retrospect, the weighty feelings experienced at certain points in life are, in fact, as light and insignificant as a feather, giving rise to a transcendental hope that exceeds despair.

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