Nu couché (Reclining Nude)

Nu couché (Reclining Nude)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘ZAO’ (lower right); signed, titled and dated ‘ZAO WOU-KI nu couché Août 1952’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
54 x 81.4 cm (21 1/4 x 32 in.)
Painted in 1952
Galerie Pierre Loeb, Paris, France
Florence and S. Brooks Barron, Detroit, USA
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 26 May 2012, lot 2005
Acquired from the above sale by the current owner

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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Lot Essay

“What’s revealed is concealed; what’s about to break continues to flow. The lines run with complete spontaneity, and trace the pulsations of imagination.” - Henri Michaux on Zao Wou-Ki

In 1948, Zao Wou-Ki moved to Paris, which marked the beginning of the evolution of his artistic style. He travelled extensively around Europe, visiting countless museums and galleries in countries such as France, Italy and Spain, where he saw firsthand the works of Modernist masters including Picasso, Matisse and Paul Klee. Profoundly inspired by the exposure, Zao broke away from the Expressionist style that he had devoted himself to during his years at the Hangzhou Academy of Arts (today known as the China Academy of Art), and shifted towards exploring solid and void spaces and the interplay of colour in his work. It was a quest that would shape his unique language of abstract art over time.

Nu couché (Reclining Nude) is a portrait from the period when Zao Wou-Ki had just begun to establish his style. The human figure is a subject that Zao rarely touched upon in his later work, and it is only present in his paintings from the early 1950s. In Zao’s paintings from that period, the human figure usually appears as one of the elements of the composition, and it is rendered in a few sparse brushstrokes. Among those works, there are only a handful of paintings like Nu couché (Reclining Nude) in which the human figure is the main subject. Created in 1952, the painting is the only known work of by Zao that features a female nude figure reclining on the side, which makes it a work of historical significance in the study of Zao’s stylistic transition.

The female nude is a perennial theme throughout the history of Western art. After the Renaissance, the theme took on new artistic manifestations as influenced by Humanism; female nude was no longer simply a portrayal of the subject, but it represented an ode to and the desire for human beauty. A notable example is Sleeping Venus by the 16th century Renaissance master Giorgione; it depicts Venus, the Roman goddess of love, laying nude in a slumber. With her voluptuous figure and serene expression, the Venus in this painting encapsulates the longing for and the ideal of beauty during the classical era. After this shift in the artistic conception of the theme, a multitude of famous artworks featuring the female nude followed. The female nude drawing also became a foundational element of figure study in Western painting, and an essential subject of representation in the training in Western painting for most artists.

During the first half of the 20th century, Western artistic influences began to take hold in the East. Meanwhile, Chinese artists living in Europe took up training in nude drawing, which for them was a bold new attempt. Traditional Chinese painting had always revolved around the idea of “Tao follows the law of nature”. Apart from portraits, the human figure rarely featured as the main subject in traditional paintings. The female nude only appeared in the most popular and vulgar erotic paintings, and it had no place in what was considered fine art. The shift elicited different responses from Chinese painters of the time: some approached the female nude as an exercise in painting techniques, while others introduced it as a subject of representation in their work and sought to portray it with their own language of painting. Lin Fengmian, who was a mentor of Zao Wou-Ki, employed the colour and ink of traditional Chinese painting to depict the female nude. Illuminated against layered washes of heavy colours, the female nude figure in his painting appears alluringly languid and intimate without any hints of tawdriness.

In his early days in France, Zao Wou-Ki also received guidance from the French painter Othon Friesz on his nude paintings. It marked a step further in Zao’s stylistic transition, as he had developed an incredible command of Western painting techniques during his time in China. While the artist had yet to establish his personal style, his studies from this period already embody the traditional essence of Western art. In his 1949 work, Nu sous l’arbre (Nude under the Tree), a voluptuous woman reclines in a blue sofa at the bottom left corner, leaning against an evergreen tree behind her back. On the left of the composition is a section of a red drape. Be it the image of the subject, the combination of colours or the spatial relationship, the painting reveals a strict adherence to and an impeccable grasp of the traditional rules of Western painting.

Yet it was only three years later when Zao Wou-Ki created Nu couché (Reclining Nude) and presented a distinctly new interpretation of the traditional theme of the female nude. In the painting, a nude woman lies in an abstract space with her arms wrapped around her head, relaxing her outstretched body. With her legs slightly open, her genitals are exposed at the centre of the composition. In contrast to other female nude paintings, Nu couché (Reclining Nude) is devoid of sexual overtones of the traditional female nude. The female body with a curvaceous figure and delicate skin in earlier paintings is transformed through Zao’s brushstrokes; the details of the human body have been rendered abstract, and turned into a symbol of metaphoric meaning. The human form resounds with touches of crudeness as if it longed to return to the primeval. Against large blocks of bright yellow, the nude woman is bathed in a sacred light that envelops her in a serene and gentle aura. Her breasts and belly, which are illuminated in the lightest spots of the composition, and her plump genitals seem to hint at a philosophical metaphor. It brings to mind the worship of the “Mysterious Mother” in Tao Te Ching by Laozi: “The mystery of all mysteries, the gate to all marvels”, a kind of mother worship that is steeped in mysticism.

Two years before this work was created, Zao Wou-Ki made his first foray into the study of printmaking technique. Deeply inspired by the artistic expression, he transferred the texture of lines and strokes on etchings onto the canvas, and discarded the “flat wash” technique with the brush for “etching” with the base of the brush. It is precisely this brushwork that instils the primeval and crude touches into the female nude figure in this painting. With the blurry contour lines, the muscle and skin of the human figure merge with the heavy and bright yellow backdrop. This places the human figure in the alternation between the “void form” and the “solid colour”. Besides the metaphor embodied in the human subject, one can see in the work hints of “the mutual arising between void and solid” and “the great form has no shape”, which are key concepts that Zao embraced and instilled in his paintings throughout his life.

Born into a family of royal descendants from the Song dynasty and prominent collectors, Zao Wou-Ki was deeply influenced by the perspectives of Chinese literati aesthetics from a young age. In Nu couché (Reclining Nude), however, we see Zao’s use of an innovative artistic language to defy the notion of “excluding the mundane from the painting” in the choice of theme in the literati tradition. In a daring move, he introduced the “female nude”—a purely Western theme that is often imbued with an erotic aesthetics—into a Chinese literati-style composition by encapsulating it in a pure experience of colour and brush. In subverting the Chinese literati aesthetics, the work also opens up new possibilities for the theme of the “female nude” on a more profound level. As an extremely rare work of portrait the artist created before his shift towards pure abstraction, Nu couché (Reclining Nude) perfectly captures Zao’s effort in breaking down the confines of traditional painting, and it is powerful testimony to his artistic exploration at that point in time.

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