Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed and dated 'ZAO 81' (lower right)
watercolour on paper
55.3 x 73.7 cm. (21 3/4 x 29 in.)
Painted in 1981
Anon. Sale; Christie's Hong Kong, 29 April 2005, Lot 288.
The work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist on 15 February 2007.

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Lot Essay

Zao Wou-ki's watercolour works developed hand-in-hand with his oils. In the late 1940s and early '50s, he focused on natural scenery and still lifes, but by the mid-50s, nature scenes and cityscapes with linear presentations also appeared (fig. 1). In his watercolours he also embraced his later Chinese-character motifs, and some even display the completely abstract style of his work in the 1960s.

This Untitled from 1981 (Lot 58) is a representative Zao Wou-ki watercolour, expressing the artist's deeper level of experience with water-based pigments and paper following his re-assimilation, during the '70s, of Chinese ink painting and brush techniques. The result is a watercolour with clear rhythms and harmony between lightness and weight, brightness and shadow.
Zao Wou-ki once noted the influence that Chinese ink-wash paintings had on his own creative outlook: 'In Chinese painting, solid forms and empty spaces have a rhythm, constantly in motion as each pushes at the other, giving the pictorial space a wonderful balance between lightness and weight. This was an area where I really gained insights from our Chinese tradition. If you say my painting is different from most Western painters, it probably has to do with my concepts of handling space.' In addition to studying works by famous ink-wash painters, Zao also used his experience in painting with watercolours and India ink to study how those pigments permeated the watercolour paper and what kinds of unexpected effects might occur. Also worth noting is the mutual influence between Zao's watercolours and the lithograph prints he began to produce just after arriving in Paris in 1949, the backgrounds of which contain unique dilution and ink-wash style effects. Based on these facts we can deduce that a kind of complementary relationship existed in the development of Zao Wou-ki's prints, watercolours, and oils. As an example, inspiration flowed between his 1951 Egyptian Figure in ink and watercolour (fig. 2), his lithographed Nude (fig. 3), also from 1951, and his Untitled, a portrait in oil (fig. 4) from the same year. Further, a 1987 watercolour, Untitled (fig. 5), appears to have been a precursor to his oil work of the same year, Avril-Septembre 87 (fig. 6). That, however, is not to indicate any kind of direct relationship in which watercolours always served as drafts for oils: as Zao himself said, 'When I paint I don't produce any sketch on canvas.' Each watercolour is an independent work, yet it cannot be denied that the process of producing a watercolour would sometimes foreshadow a later oil painting.

Viewers will be able to discover similarities, in terms of colour and composition, between a later oil work, 10.3.83 (fig. 7) and Zao's 1981 watercolour Untitled. It was in the 1980s that Zao especially hoped to create new kinds of flowing, permeating, scattering, and spreading effects, and in this context, watercolour and Chinese ink-wash painting exerted a deep influence on his oils. Zao's Untitled is divided into three horizontal bands. In the middle ground and beyond, he sweeps a large brush laterally from left to right; taking full advantage of the multiple layering effects of inks. He first produces a light grey tone with a dilute ink mixture, then adds Prussian blue and lacmus, or litmus blue, deliberately avoiding the upper left, then finally adds a dark inky black. This 'broken ink' technique, applying dark inks immediately over lighter ones, produces a background with pleasingly varied light and dark tones in a light, fluid style. The foreground employs washes of ink and accumulated layers, applied with either light ink first and then dark, or the reverse. Layers of wash are applied, or drier strokes are followed by wash effects, each technique applied multiple times. This creates strong layering effects that enhance texture and detail, for an overall textural feeling different from the jun fa, or 'chapped' texture strokes of classical ink painting.

The kind of spreading ink-wash effects Zao Wou-ki achieved in his watercolour Untitled were ones that could be successfully transferred to the oil medium. He fully understood the difficulties in trying to obtain that same feeling of graceful movement in oils;. He once observed that 'a lot of areas in my paintings may look empty, but oils are not like ink-wash--they don't spread that easily, so I actually spend much more time on these seemingly empty spaces than on the solid forms of my paintings.' He began from the mixing of his pigments, the techniques used for their application, and colour relationships, and his innovative new approaches to treating the thicker, more viscous colours of oil, allowing him to open up new creative vistas.

March 10, 1972 was a difficult date for Zao Wou-ki to forget; it was the day of his first wife's passing. That March date, and all its implications about the artist's feelings, are included in the titles of many of his works: 10.3.73, 10.3.74, 10.3.76, 10.3.78, 10.3.82 (fig. 8), 10.3.83, 10.3.85, and 10.3.92. In 1981, Zao's Untitled not only prefigured his later 10.3.83; it can also be said to have begun his entire series of oil works in the 1980s that featured ink-style layering in the primary tones of lacmus blue and blue-violet (figs. 7-9). Beyond that, it is also a rare and outstanding watercolour work, one which embodies the special feelings that only Zao Wou-ki could convey .

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