ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)

Cité se Réveille (Rising City)

ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
Cité se Réveille (Rising City)
signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’ and dated ‘56’ (lower right); signed ‘ZAO WOU-KI’, titled ‘Cite se Reveille’ and dated ‘1956’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
65 x 100.2 cm. (25 5/8 x 39 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1956
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Taipei, 23 April 2000, Lot 14
Private Collection, Asia
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 27 May 2007, Lot 228
Acquired from the above sale by the present 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). A certificate of authenticity can be requested for the successful buyer.

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Lot Essay

In the mid-1950s, Zao Wou-Ki started a brand new chapter in his artistic career. In the span of a few years, he had made a complete shift from figurative representation to pure abstraction. His daring exploration of stylistic expression led him to his brief and famous oracle bone period. Starting in 1954, the artist was inspired by ancient Chinese bronze inscriptions; he transformed the ancient writing system into dots and lines on the canvas, using them to cut up and combine overlapping textures in the composition. Filled with symbols, lines and brushstrokes that carry a profoundly Eastern spirit, the paintings embody the merging of Eastern and Western, traditional and modern artistic languages. From the mid-1950s onwards, Zou Wou-Ki gradually turned these epigraphic symbols into a purer lyrical abstract language, which foreshadowed the development of his art in the second half of the century—his rippling and dynamic brushstrokes augured his wild cursive style of the 1960s and 1970s; his use of bright and intense colours offered hints to his splashed-colour works from the 1980s onwards.

Cité se Réveille (Rising City) (Lot 14) is an iconic and brilliant work from this key transitional period in the artist’s career. The brushwork is delicate yet vigorous, while the oracle bone script symbols, darting like musical notes across the painting, blend into the glorious backdrop colours that evoke the sunrise. They call to mind a mysteriously imaginative space, like a city waking up in the misty morning light, as new day dawns and unfolds.

Like the rhythmic symbols in the painting, the colour combination in Rising City is one of intensity and mixture. On his use of colours during that period, the artist once said, “I do not need to look for other themes, or stick to particular colours. What illuminates my emotions is not any particular colour, but the relationship between colours—how they mingle with, stand against, love or reject one another.” In this work, there is a dramatic clash and interaction between the colours red and blue. It recalls the work of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, who used similarly large blocks of colours to express boundless emotions. Every colour in Rising City comprises many textures—upon closer look, we can see that before painting with red and blue, Zao Wou-Ki painted a layer of lead white across the canvas as the backdrop colour, followed by red and blue paints of varying thicknesses. Accentuated by the white backdrop, the two colours become richly translucent. The painting reveals a striking texture of light and shadow, in a way that is reminiscent of the natural light shining through tainted glass in Western architecture.

In Chinese tradition, the colour red has been a symbol of auspiciousness, nobleness and joy since ancient times. Blue was one of Zao Wou-Ki’s favourite colours, and it was often mentioned in his discourse on aesthetics. In the artist’s mind, blue was quiet and subdued, yet it encompassed every-changing textures. In the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki frequently used either colour as the main tone of his paintings, though the two-tone structure of red and blue is rarely seen among his works. This colour combination often features in ancient Chinese porcelain painting, and the “blue and white and copper red” decorative style was popular since the Yuan Dynasty court. The addition of copper red in the blue and white porcelain accentuates the elegance of the blue, and adds to the grandeur of the copper red. Since their production required complicated firing techniques, blue and white and copper red porcelain wares are considered treasures among ancient ceramics. They portray motifs associated with nobleness, good fortune and prosperity, such as the flying dragon, the auspicious floating clouds, and blessings for fortune and longevity. If we look at the composition of colours in Rising City , we can see subtle echoes of the classic porcelain painting style.

The year 1956 was a turning point in Zao Wou-Ki’s life. Thriving in his 30s, he published his first catalogue and met Pierre Loeb, whose gallery would represent his work in the near future. While the artist reached the first zenith of his career, he experienced a tremendous change in his personal life—in 1956, he parted ways with his first wife Lalan after 16 years together. Deeply affected by the split, Zao Wou-Ki left Paris for a time and travelled extensively. Over a year and a half, he visited the US, Japan and Hong Kong, where he spent time at museums and connected with artists from Europe and the US to alleviate his gloom.

In moments of inner conflicts and melancholy, he turned to painting as his emotional release and a way to move forward. As he said, “When you are in difficult circumstances, you need to solve the problems if you do not want to suffocate.” He continued with the abstract exploration of his oracle bone style and enriched the use of colours in his paintings, as he let his feelings run free on the canvas. The changes in his emotions can be seen the titles of his works. In the years, he liked to depict natural scenery as the subject of his paintings. Over this year and a half, he created a number of abstract works whose titles refer to “city scenes”. These works mark a sharp departure from the calm colours in his natural scenery paintings, and from the composition of traditional landscape painting—most of the works named for “city” series employ bright colours, intense visual conflicts, and compositions that feel intricate and loud.

Rising City is a representative work from the "city" series, and it feels like a beautiful finale to the series: against the grey and black backdrop, large blocks of dark red come bursting through, while the cobalt blue is slowly retreating. The composition resounds with restraint and conflict. At the centre of the painting, a singular ray of light shines through the dark red, like the first light that has pierced through the dark to dawn on the world. It is a perfect illumination of Zao Wou-Ki’s spiritual energy. After the ups and downs in his personal life, the artist instilled his hopes for the future into his paintings with daring and vibrant colours, and abstract brushwork that blends Eastern and Western sensibilities. In his memoir, Zao Wou-Ki mentions having created a painting titled Engulfed City during the same period, which was intended to commemorate the end of his relationship with Lalan and to bury his sorrow. The artist created several paintings titled Engulfed City ; most of them feature an indigo or dark blue backdrop with scattered touches of magenta, willow green and apricot, and black oracle bone symbols running through the entire field. It evokes the city at night with flickering lights and pedestrians rushing down the streets, while the loved one has faded into the melancholy fog. Rising City and Engulfed City from 1956 feature the same composition ratio and structure; they echo each other perfectly in the use of colours and theme, as if the former was the epilogue to the story of “the engulfed city”—after grieving over the dissolve of love, the light breaks through the darkness of disintegration. It also marked the moment of Zao Wou-Ki turning a new page in his artistic life.

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