Ile (Island)

Ile (Island)
signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’ (lower right); signed, titled and dated ‘ZAO WOU-KI ile, 56’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 x 71 cm. (23 5/8 x 28 in.)
Painted in 1956
Anon. Sale, Laurin, Guilloux-Buffetaud, Paris, 1974, Lot 208
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Europe
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).
Patrick-Gilles Persin, Michel Ragon & Pierre Descargues, L’envolee lyrique, Paris 1945-1956 (exh. cat), Musee du Luxembourg, Paris, France, 2006 (illustrated, plate 112, p. 253).
Paris, France, Musée du Luxembourg, L’envolée lyrique, Paris 1945-1956, 2006.

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Lot Essay

"These contained, even compressed, spaces among the landmarks of nature, Zao Wou-Ki sees them as calls to silence, quiet places of repose and meditation, in contrast with the violence of the coloured “accidents” – constant threats to the regard, which is essentially fragile. " - Daniel Marchesseau.

The mid-1950s were a crossroads in both art and life for Zao Wou-ki. He traveled frequently, lingered in museums, and made the acquaintance of many American and European artists and gallery owners, gaining a great deal of knowledge. Meanwhile, he gradually abandoned his Klee-inspired style of narrative figuration. In 1954 he created his first non-narrative work, Vent, taking a step toward his brief 'oracle-bone' period, after which he developed his pure and lyrical abstract style of the '60s. Ile (Island) (Lot 2) is a rare and valuable work, dating precisely from this transitional period that paved the way for Zao Wou-ki's further artistic development.

Scattered throughout Ile are Zao's symbolic motifs, reminiscent of ancient 'oracle-bone' inscriptions, which allow him to freely expand the pictorial space. In Zao's deft arrangement of these motifs, they float on the surface of a deep space created by his thick oil pigments, while the artist engages in multiple experiments with spatial structures. In these motifs we can see the various brushstrokes of Chinese ink-wash painting: the hooks and the horizontal strokes, the 'cracked' and the rubbing strokes, finely wrought and sharp. Some seem like the indistinct lines of waves sent up at the boundary between the blue and white, equal in their effect to the imposing scene of sails on the river set out by Zhao Fu in Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze River. Taking a close look at the angles at which Zao sets these motifs, and their own structures, shows us the same multipoint perspective and the high vantage point employed by Zhao Bo Su in Autumn Colours of the Mountains . They similarly show a fine compositional balance between openness and density, and between solid forms and empty space. But these effects also depend on Zao's ability to transform and sublimate abstraction, and his borrowing of Cubism's analysis and reshaping of space. The ability to achieve these multiple, interwoven perspectives and overlapping, juxtaposed spaces planted the seeds for the artist's complete deconstruction of space that would begin in the 1960s.

It is through his handling of space, light, and shadow, and his own 'motifs,' that Zao Wou-ki creates the hazy, romantic, and otherworldly realm depicted in Ile. These motifs are entirely of his own creation, no matter how deeply they seem connected to China's ancient oracle-bone script or belland- cauldron script; they carry a weight of history as deep as the writing on the Great Yu Tripod. And Zao's isolated island itself seems to have something metaphorical to say about symbols; groups of these symbolic motifs are scattered across it in a pleasing array, even if at first they may seem jumbled and disorderly. But the bunches of symbols on the ivorywhite blocks of color and those on the deep blue sections fall into an orderly pattern like scales on a fish, just like the 'symbols' that actually link various civilizations and cultures together. Zao's conception, filled with the humanistic spirit common to East and West, in ancient times and modern, suggests the Renaissance and the poetry of John Donne's No Man Is An Island : 'No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.'

Blue has appeared many times in Zao Wou-ki's aesthetic theories and ideas; he believed it to be a peaceful and introverted color, containing the potential for change on many levels. His admiration for blue paralleled his feelings for water. When young, he often spent the day hovering around West Lake, observing the quickly changing sky and water and the light reflected from ripples at the edge of his vision. His constant thoughts on the subject of water were projected into his art; other works from the same period as Ile include River, Swamp, and The Sound of Water , clear indications of just how much Zao favoured the theme of water and surrounding scenery in his work.

The blue tones of Ile seem to be in contention with each other, fermenting and growing; wrapped within the surrounding midnight blue, other shades of Prussian blue and sapphire blue occupy different corners of the painting. Silvery moon white and blocks of dark green-grey also appear and are embellished with a few touches of berry red. While all these blue and white tones compete to dominate the composition, Zao experiments with placement of his light source among his somewhat mottled and unusually coloured white, borrowing Western techniques for expressing light and shadow. The results is what the artist has described as 'using contrasts and the differing vibrations of a single hue to make the picture space spring and bounce, and to find a central point from which light is released.' Through these techniques Zao Wou-ki achieves visual effects paralleling those of Claude Monet in The Rocks near Pourville at Ebb Tide . The light and dark tones of blue and white bring strong contrast, while the cobalt blue of the lower left supports the blocks of grey and white; threads of azure float among the rattan yellow and eiderdown yellow tones of the mid and upper regions in constantly shimmering and changing layers. In a manner not unlike Mark Rothko in his No. 10, Zao's spaces are composed by means of colour. In this relatively early work, exploring color, light, and darkness with his already proficient technique, Zao captures the feel of natural phenomena, like clouds of mist rising along a riverbank or tides meeting the shore. This sense of floating mists, with their flickering light and shade, matches well the kind of scene created by Ma Yuan in his Studies of Water: Clouds Rising From the Green Sea , in which the radiant light itself seems to be fermenting, expanding, and becoming something new.

The wonderful balance of color, space, and line in Zao Wou-ki's Ile is a testament to the artist's life in the 1950s and the creative struggles and emotions on his artistic path. That, and the 44 years during which its current collector has held it as a treasured work, make this an unusual and outstanding Zao Wou-ki work.

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