signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’, dated ‘1957’ (lower right); signed ‘ZAO wou-ki’, titled ‘Bocage’, dated ‘1957’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
53 x 80 cm. (20 7/8 x 31 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1957
Anon. Sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 27 November 2005, Lot 237
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
This work is referenced in the archive of the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Foundation Zao Wou-Ki).

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Lot Essay

After 1958, Zao Wou-ki abandoned his previous narrative themes and began naming his works with their date of completion. Bocage (lot 23), however, along with such works as his Femme dans la forêt and Forêt verte, is among the few Zao Wou-ki paintings that does bear a title, and given that the titles of each of these works relate to trees and forests, it becomes abundantly clear how important that subject was to Zao Wou-ki.

As a boy, Zao Wou-ki often roamed along the banks of West Lake: 'I sat beside the lake, waiting for the breeze to send ripples across the still surface of the lake, and for the birch and maple leaves to flutter.' Many years later, after completing renovations to the painting studio at his house in France, he reflected, 'Around the edge of my garden I planted some trees that you commonly see in China: birches, maples, an orchid I brought back from China, and several orange trees. Every morning I take a close look at their leaves and give them water.' Whether as a young man or an elderly gentleman, in China or in France, the trees and forests that Zao Wou-ki so clearly loved were a constant presence in his life and in his art. Bocage contains no figurative images of trees or forests, yet in this artist's vocabulary, in his spaces, motifs, and lines, and in his contrasts of light and dark, the viewer can still sense the meaning that trees and forests held for him, and how leaves, branches, the shifts of light and wind, and the interplay of all things in nature awakened his special muse.


Comparing Bocage to Altelnschrift by Paul Klee, an artist Zao Wou-ki much admired, or to works from Zao's own Klee-inspired period such as Champ au Soleil, or his own slightly later 'oracle-bone' period, such as Ciel de Paris, shows how Bocage sums up the work of Zao Wou-ki's entire 1950s period, during which he struggled with motifs, lines, and the presentation of space. Unlike Champ au Soleil, there are no immediately recognizable depictions of natural objects such as tree trunks or leaves, nor is there a realistic placement of any scenic features; by contrast with Altelnschrift or Champ au Soleil, it contains no clear or independent inscriptions or ancient writing, and the focus is no longer on the kind of pictographic writing created by Zao Wou-ki himself.

In the lower right and the middle and upper portions of the canvas, Zao Wou-ki lightly brushes on a number of hazy, wispy lines in blue, their shadowy outlines suggesting his earlier oracle-bone figures, and almost emerging as the possible lines of a forest. Examined closely, they could represent either tree trunks or the shadows of leaves fluttering in the wind, and, like Zao's oracle-bone inscriptions, these long, branching lines also convey a sense of deep and ancient history. Zao's imaginative handling of these motifs releases them from any previous roles as semi-abstract scenic objects, or cryptic abstract messages in ancient inscriptions; here Zao instead explores the creation and configuration of space through his arrangement of these unique images. And while no actual representations of scenery appear, Zao's conception nevertheless conveys the feeling of dappled light dancing through branches or leaves gently blown by the wind. For Zao Wou-ki, nature and natural motifs 'were no longer just themes, but the elements from which the universe is constructed, and one with the universe itself.'

The use of pure lines, in places firm and strong and in others slender and delicate, evoking the look of trees and leaves, recalls strongly the work of Georges Braque. In that artist's La Roche-Guyon, le château (The Castle at Roche-Guyon), overlapping lines in green and black near the center suggest a stubborn, resolute band of trees, while slanting or horizontal lines near the edges, in lighter or hazier shades of grey and green, help communicate the layered depths of woodlands. In Bocage, Zao lays down a strong, energetic mass of vertical and horizontal lines; heavy, inky blacks in the center and horizontal lines laid against sweeping, coffeecoloured washes of pigment emphasize the firm, strong, upright growths of forests. The washes of grey-black and darker yellows at the two sides of the canvas mix with lines in rough black or pale baby blue, extending the composition outwards and suggesting the waning edges of the forest. The floating, shimmering light of the golden yellow and yellow-ochre background imbues this forest/tree theme with further meaning: does this golden yellow, which apears so rarely in Zao Wou-ki's paintings, represent some special time period or atmosphere in nature to which the artist responded— possibly daybreak, or sunset? The light changes quickly at these times, and scenes change from second to second, augmenting the richness of the natural rhythms of tree, branch and leaf in the midst of nature. Bocage leads the viewer into Zao Wouki's own special forest world through the limitless associations that his abstract presentation is capable of evoking.

Bocage illustrates just how Zao Wou-ki emerged from his Klee-inspired period, and then gradually evolved as an artist from his oracle-bone inscription work to his semi-abstract, and finally, totally abstract work. The artist's handling of his subject in Bocage, his techniques and the thinking behind them, corroborate his statement, 'What I want to see is space: space as it stretches and expands, as it twists and turns back....I don't want to express nature so much as to take images and juxtapose them, to order them.'
Zao Wou-ki's composition in Bocage vividly recalls a representative work of the Italian Byzantine period, The Crucifixion, in the kinds of confict and resolution of the spaces within it. We have Zao's own direct statement that 'I have always intensely admired Cimabue and his manner of handling space.' Each of Cimabue's subjects in The Crucifixion have their own subtle, individual characteristics, while together they form an arcing composition in three parts, tightly knit above and below but more relaxed and open in the center. This tripartite style of composition is common to both The Crucifixion and Bocage, though in the latter it is the upper and lower parts that are relaxed and the center more dense and compact; Zao's motifs and lines at the center, and his chaotic mingling of washes of colour, begin to disperse and fade as they spread above and below the horizontal center line of the painting. The spaces of Bocage emerge in the dialogue between those motifs and the shapes they produce, and then in the turbulent or peaceful spaces that emerge in their outward expansion in all directions. The artist does not compel the viewer's gaze to move toward the center, but allows it to roam where it will and follow the free flow of the brushstrokes, for a different kind of spatial experience than in Cimabue's painting.


Bocage contains a wealth of subtle, restrained contrasts of light and shadow. The viewer's eye is attracted toward different light sources as it searches for the origins of these regions of brightness and shadow. Just as in One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains by the Song Dynasty's Wang Ximeng, multiple spaces mix and blend in a layered, natural landscape, but are no longer mired in the restrictive stereotype of 'landscape scenery'. The mysterious shifts of light and shadow in the yellow ochre background react with the rest of Zao's black, blue, and coffee-brown palette, giving rise to the fascinating varieties of space and colour in this work. One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains likewise employs a tricolor mix of black, blue, and green against a yellow-brown background, by which the artist creates eccentric and winding spaces and colour effects. In Zao Wou-ki's painting, his application of colour in sweeping strokes, or rubbed-on pigments or washes of colour in areas where black lines dominate, produces its rich contrasts in light and shadow. Within these massed black lines, blue outlines occasionally appear, or brown pigments rubbed into the canvas, among which gleaming spots of brightness create swirling lights and shadows. The artist himself said, 'I've discovered that I don't have to place objects or symbols in space as I did before, and there doesn't have to be any division between colours and symbols. I've also become aware of the idea that space can appear due to the interactions of different hues. So therefore I no longer need to create such symbols. They are guideposts when learning about painting, but they are also limiting. My real inspiration is my own inner world, and now I can follow my own preferences, using a variety of colours, to express that world.' Hidden within Zao Wouki's Bocage, in the transformations of his black, blue, brown, and yellow pigments, are glimpses of emotions, from powerful to tender, and the obscure secrets of nature herself.

Bocage is an important painting from just prior to Zao Wou-ki's 1960s period of work in semi-abstract and completely abstract styles, testifying to the artist's efforts as he thought about and explored a new painting vocabulary during this phase. It is, in addition, a exceptional and valuable work as a vehicle for the themes of forests and trees that held such great meaning for this artist.

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