signed in Chinese, signed and dated 'ZAO 57' (lower right); signed and dated 'ZAO WOU-KI 1957' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
45.5 x 55 cm. (17 7/8 x 21 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1957
Private Collection, Europe
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki, dated 27 March 2017.
This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou- Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonne prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki).

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

Over the second half of the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki transitioned entirely into abstraction, building upon Chinese pictorial references while also bringing into play his more recently acquired exposure to Western art history. In creating his new visual language which he would continue to develop over the following decades, Zao Wou-Ki has become a major figure of post-war art movements in Europe. Unlike other Asian diaspora artists living in Paris at the time, Zao has successfully managed to grow beyond his Chinese identity and gain recognition from both Eastern and Western collectors as an artist with a unique aesthetic synthesis.

1957 marks a key transition in Zao Wou-Ki’s career. He was about to embark on a trip that would bring him to the United States, before returning to France, where he would gain exposure to American abstract expressionist painters and would return to large canvases with stretched energetic motions of the brush reminiscent of expressive and personal calligraphy. Untitled (Lot 1) however is a beautiful and precious early example of the artist’s first full leap into abstraction. Short and quick brushstrokes dynamically aggregate across the canvas against a modulated background of coloured layers of green, blue and red transitioning forward and backward between one another, ultimately providing a vision of a floating mountain range captured at a fleeting moment in time.

In his shift to abstraction, starting in the mid-1950s, Zao Wou-Ki refers back to his Chinese roots for the first time since his arrival in France in 1948. Having already abandoned a sense of perspective and placement of elements relative to space, he goes one step further in replacing the depiction of “things” with imaginary symbols, strongly evocative of the earliest known form of Chinese calligraphy and system of writing found in Shang dynasty oracle bones. This written language takes its roots in religious rituals as a form of communicating with deities, and in parallel, Zao’s paintings incorporating such symbols take on a spiritual dimension as a way of connecting with natural elements through calligraphy, a process already strongly embedded in Chinese pictorial tradition.

In Untitled, symbols have dissolved into fully deconstructed strokes, however still reminiscent of calligraphic lines. Zao had a strong knowledge of calligraphy, acquired from long hours of training with his grandfather, and such ability allows him to control the pulse of the brushwork throughout the composition. The effects of thick strong lines shaping an outline contrasted with evading quick undulated strokes can only be achieved by the energy of the arm in full harmony with the mind and the heart.

Chinese painting history has a longstanding tradition of incorporating calligraphy in the form of poetry with the portrayal of a landscape as representation of the artist’s mind. Shanshui painting would therefore have two components balancing one another on a scroll as it unrolls throughout its reading. In Untitled, imaginary text takes on the form of a landscape itself, converging into a new style of visual representation of nature.

During that same period, Zao Wou-Ki also painted similar works such as Bocage and Traversée des apparences. As in Untitled, the central compositional thread composed of an aggregation of calligraphic strokes, deriving from signs, dissolves into an empty background suggesting the movement of undefined matter through space.

The Impressionist movement represents a milestone in the history of art by reconsidering the importance of the artist’s vision and emotion of what he sees. Artists like Monet and Cézanne redefined the relationship between elements in space according to their own vision by the use of colour and brushstroke; cubist artists like Braque and avant-garde artists went further in their approach by breaking down the representation of space from its traditional one-point perspective. Dimension becomes entirely subject to personal interpretation.

Chinese landscape painting deconstructed the notion of space much earlier than Western 20th Century artists. From very early on, the artist’s inner vision prevails over realistic representation of space. Artists found in nature a source of inspiration, mountains amid mist and fog became the perfect backdrop for allowing the mind to roam through space. The subtleties of the mind are evoked by emptiness in their paintings, and this notion takes its importance in their mastery of negative space. Untitled is a beautiful example of Zao’s ability to combine effects from both Eastern and Western philosophy, adapting the Chinese approach to visual representation of space by using a fundamentally western medium, oil on canvas, to create subtle contrasts in colour within negative space.

Untitled is a beautiful example of Zao’s ability to combine effects from both Eastern and Western philosophy, adapting the Chinese approach to visual representation of space by using a fundamentally western medium, oil on canvas, to create subtle contrasts in colour within negative space.

Zao’s focus was not only on his redefinition of the notion of space, but also on capturing the human sensory experience in relation to nature though the act of painting and depicting: "I wanted to paint what cannot be seen, the breath of life, the wind, the movement, the life of forms, the colours’ outbreak and their fusion."

His choice of soft green, vibrant blue and earthly red does not come as a surprise considering their consistent use in Chinese landscape paintings from the Song dynasty onward. Where blue and green outline the shape of mountains in landscape paintings, the colour green also takes on a spiritual dimension in jade mountainshaped censers. In Untitled, Zao Wou-Ki assigns these three contrasted colours to the empty space around floating mountains as a symbol of his inner mind.

Untitled is a true masterpiece emblematic of Zao Wou- Ki’s transition to abstraction, at the crossroads of Eastern pictorial traditional and Western Avant-Garde redefinition of art.

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