(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed and dated 'ZAO 59' (lower right)
oil on canvas
63 x 90.5 cm. (24 3/4 x 35 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1959
Private Collection, Europe
Anon sale; Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2009, Lot 1309
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

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Lot Essay

Throughout the 1950s Zao Wou-Ki's figurative painting style would experience a decisive shift towards abstraction, first with the stripping down of the figurative to elemental, skeletal forms as seen in Petite Ville Hollandaise (Lot 5) painted in 1953. He later abandoned figuration for the informal language of signs, wherein Zao began to more explicitly draw from his ancestral culture, appropriating the forms of oracle bones and bronze carvings in his paintings. In 1957 Zao would travel to New York to visit his brother and learn about Pop Art, and later Hong Kong where he would experience a re-immersion in Chinese culture and a return to his source. He returned to Paris with a deep conviction that a cycle in his painting had ended, and that it was the beginning of a new "irreversible stage" in which he wanted to "paint what cannot be seen, the breath of life, the wind, the life of forms, the birth of colours and their merging." It was at this point that Zao emptied his work of the ancient signs that had once appeared like carvings on his canvases, and the weight of mass and colour. What was left was the metaphorical blank slate, the gracefully transparent, a floating void. Signaling his entry into full abstraction, in 1959, Zao began titling his works with their date of completion, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life.
Motivated by the desire to express the primacy of artistic feeling, the founder of the Suprematist movement, Kazimir Malevich, similarly freed his work of figuration and signs and entered into abstraction. In Suprematist Composition: White on White Malevich reached a similar conclusion to Zao, wherein the canvas was reduced to an atmosphere of white floating upon white. Malevich wrote: "...a blissful sense of liberating non-objectivity drew me forth into a 'desert', where nothing is real except feeling..."This idea of the 'desert' wherein all that remains is artistic feeling can also be seen in 27.05.59 (Lot 12). Letting go of his previous influences and conceptions into a melting pot of creative consciousness, Zao released himself from the past to pursue a pure language of personal expression.

In 27.05.59, a haze of white sweeps across the horizontal axis of the canvas, seemingly colourless yet simultaneously iridescent as if by some trick of the eye. It bears the wonderful quality of a mother of pearl, which appears to change colours when viewed from different angles. As a result, the white has a depth to it like a light-filled void. Suspended at the center of this space is an accumulation of linear vibration, sparse lines in brown, black and grey twist outwards from the core, and a cloud of textured yellow-white disperses from the center of the commotion. A dash of yellow at the centre ignites the space into centripetal action, like the brewing of a new world of expression. In accordance with the Chinese Theory of the Five Elements, each colour has its own qi (breath), and yellow represents the centre and freedom from worldly concerns, while white represents purity and fulfillment. As José Frèches poetically described, "The artist knows how to draw the sparks of the formation of chaos established by the Yellow Emperor perched in the clouds of heaven. He retrieves the imprint of the original big bang, so close to the Yin and the Yang, before the first dawns of the world, and he stretches it over the canvasK The colours echo, they answer each other, summoning their energy and letting loose their vibrations."

The sinuous lines in 27.05.59 articulate the beginnings of Zao's process of discovering his own personal language of self-expression. Faced with the decision of how to make his own mark in the world, it is notable and perhaps inevitable that Zao's reaction was to recourse to the dancing lines of Chinese calligraphy, breaking down the Chinese character taking only the essential cursive line. As with calligraphy, the power of Zao's lines in 27.05.59 lies not only in their movement and composition but also in their activation of the blank space around them. Though there are only a few distinctly articulated floating lines, they play the role of creating energy and shaping space. As a child, Zao was trained in the classical Chinese art forms and had found a sense of freedom in calligraphy, which was unbounded by the formulas that governed Chinese Painting. In Chinese, biji (trace of brush) expresses the idea that the calligraphic line bears the physical presence of its maker and is intended to elicit a spiritual response in the viewer. Thus for Zao, calligraphy was not only the most foundational mode of self-expression, but was also closely tied in with the concept of articulating the spirit in art. Later in 1961, Zao would famously state: "KI have gradually rediscovered China as my artistic personality developed, and this is intrinsically expressed in my most recent canvases. Paradoxically, it is to Paris that I am indebted for this return to my most profound origins." Works that contain gestural traces of the artist's hand as in 27.05.59 are rare in the oil paintings of Zao's oeuvre, and are almost exclusively isolated to a few canvases painted during this period of time. Therefore these fluid lines are precious imprints of Zao's first utterances into the abstract void, articulating the beginnings of the invisible dream space that he would endeavor to paint for the rest of his life.

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