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


ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
signed 'Zao Wou-Ki' (lower right); signed and dated 'ZAO WOU-KI 24.12.59' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
160.7 x 111.8 cm. (63 1/4 x 44 in.)
Painted in 1959
Galerie de France, Paris
Galerie Dresdnere, Montreal, Canada, in 1960s
Private Collection, Toronto, Canada
Acquired from the above by the previous owner
Anon. Sale, Christie’s London, 23 June 2005, Lot 41
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.
Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, France, 1960 (illustrated, p. 25).
J. Laude, La Connaissance, Zao Wou-Ki, Bruxelles, Belgium, 1974 (illustrated p. 43).
J. Leymarie, Hier et Demain, Zao Wou-ki, Paris, France, 1978 (illustrated, p. 282).
J. Leymarie, Rizzoli International Publications, Zao Wouki, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated, p. 282).
J. Leymarie, Cercle d'Art, Zao Wou-ki, Paris, France, 1986 (illustrated, p. 322).
Levy Gorvy Gallery, Zao Wou-Ki, Willem de Kooning, New York, USA, 2017 (illustrated, p. 98-99).
Paris, France, Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki, June-July 1960.
New York, USA, Levy Gorvy Gallery, Zao Wou-Ki, Willem de Kooning, January-March 2017.

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Shanshan Wei
Shanshan Wei

Lot Essay

Around the world, in many different creation myths, all things were shrouded in chaos and darkness until the light broke through. The book of Genesis in the Bible says, 'And God said, Let there be light.' According to ancient Chinese mythology, 'the world was in chaos, darkness with no light, then suddenly the heavens and the earth appeared.' And Chinese legends in the Annals of Emperors and Kings say that 'the leader of the Chinese tribe, Huangdi Xuanyuan, was born under the flickering lights of the aurora.' Light symbolizes the beginning of a new era, and the prospect of hope, sacredness, and glory. Sixty years ago, when Zao Wou-Ki created his large, epochmaking masterpiece, 24.12.59 , it was the day before Christmas, 1959, as the world was preparing to enter the new era of the 1960s. In it, Zao broke with all previous conventions regarding composition in painting, and like the northern lights breaking across the horizon, it opened up the heavens and the earth: A golden light tears through the darkness on either side of the painting, releasing the brilliant light of great artistic creativity.

Zao Wou-Ki's 'oracle-bone' period of the 1950s saw him slowly and meticulously carving out lines that connects the eastern and western civilisations. Then, with his hurricane period of the '60s, he took flight like a dragon, painting grandly in a new style that allowed him to move with freedom between the abstract painting languages of East and West. The leap from one style to the other is traceable to some of the major changes occurring in Zao's life and artistic experiment around 1959. His 24.12.59 can be seen as the most important work in this transition from the 1950s to the '60s, a milestone, and one of his most representative works. In 1957, at a time of difficulties in his marriage, many of his works seemed gloomy or muddled. He later traveled to the US with Pierre Soulages, where he met a number of pioneering abstract expressionist painters on the international art scene. Inspired by their work, his paintings became larger, grander, and more imposing, and his international reputation began to rise. The small and scattered light sources seen in his oracle-bone period, in 24.12.59 , have now condensed into a single, energized whole, symbolizing a new kind of power. A halo of yellow light opens up at the bottom of the painting and breaks through the darkness above until it spreads through the entire sky, like the sacred light that falls from above in Raphael's The Annunciation , heralding the unfolding of a new chapter in life.

European masters traditionally depicted landscapes in horizontal compositions, with a central axis separating sky and land. Chinese landscape painting, however, allowed greater variety and flexibility: hanging scrolls encouraged viewers to roam visually from bottom to top, while handscrolls were meant to be unfolded and viewed laterally, in private, by a small group of viewers. After 1958, Zao’s new canvases continued to expand not only in terms of their dimensions, but also in their use of original compositional layouts: he created a number of works, in both vertical and horizontal formats, organized along a single straight-line axis. His ability to work in both types of structures attests to his understanding of both Eastern and Western principles of landscape. In 24.12.59 , Zao was finally able to completely reconcile the traditional vertical and horizontal compositions of the East and he West, and in so doing, opened up an entirely new territory for the numerous landscapes that would come later in his hurricane period. The result was a new and unprecedented kind of visual presentation, in which he interpreted the interactions of various spatial regions in relation to the central axis. In another of his masterpieces, 02.11.59, which sold for HKD 94.6 million at Christie’s Hong Kong last year, Zao's most vivid brushwork remains bound closely around the central axis, and develops in a balanced and stable manner along that axis. In this work, however, which was painted only a month later, the viewer can feel Zao Wou-Ki's intense drive to develop even further an almost limitless expansion into space. In this new visual language, which seems to push at the boundaries of the picture frame, a huge energy, burning and dancing, builds up along the central axis, an echo of the light that injects life into the painting as it enters from above.

In addition to breaking through the restrictions of vertical and horizontal compositions, Zao in 24.12.59 also engaged in a number of innovative experiments with brushwork. Thin paint, applied with a broad brush, becomes a waterfall of light; pigments scraped and smeared with a small brush produce a fierce wind. This manner of constantly interweaving such varied brushwork, during the 1950s, was still unknown. Fine, precise brushstrokes, applied quickly in the region of the central vertical axis, help create the sense of a physical mass in the center, while the empty space that Zao leaves produces a sense of three-dimensional depth, giving the work its presence in all three dimensions. Light pours down from the top of the painting, creating a region of dappled light and color; semi-transparent yellow lines there run vertically over the heavy horizontal strokes of deep color in the background, further adding to the sense of a flowing, rushing fall of light. The layering of horizontal and vertical strokes creates a reserve of power that seems to blur time and space in an instantaneous burst of light.

A similar technique was explored by Gerhard Richter in the 1990s: the artist would press, squeeze, and scrape paint across the surface to form horizontal and vertical bands, which suggested out-of-focus imagery or the blur of photographic motion. In this work, however, brushstrokes, light, and shadow are completely merged into one. Where a brush tip can be seen to have swept across the surface, it represents a light briefly shining through. Above, where Zao sweeps a broad brush up and down in vertical strokes, it is as if 'the water of the Yellow River has ascended into the sky.' In the middle of the painting, with a firm and decisive hand, he brushes on pure white in quick strokes with a smaller brush. At the bottom, where only a few brushstrokes appear around the central axis, 'a hidden dragon flutters around a lonely valley' in the painting's darkest region. Throughout the painting, Zao's brush sets out light and shadow that move from top to bottom, from flowing regions to more dense ones, from broad, open areas to deep, dark spaces, and from brilliant song to silence— the work is a veritable symphony of ever-changing light. The free, bold brushwork that can be seen in any Zao Wou-Ki painting from this kuang cao period ultimately derives from the original model found here, in 24.12.59.

Viewing 24.12.59 as a whole, the brushwork along the vertical axis seems to be torn between the forces of its upward and downward motions and other forces moving in a sideways direction. The core of the painting is pulled in all directions and ripped apart, releasing a bright, burning light that at first seems hidden in its lower regions. For Zao Wou-Ki, 'colour seems almost not to exist; light and space are so much more important. Yet it is only when colour is applied to the canvas that the vibrations and echoes between light and space are revealed and given life.' This museum-grade painting can be seen as an important milestone in Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic career. It held great meaning in introducing a new kind of vocabulary into his painting, and it laid a foundation for the more mature, free, and unrestrained expression of his work in the 1960s.

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