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

Restauration du vieux château (Restoration of the old castle)

ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
Restauration du vieux château (Restoration of the old castle)
signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’ and dated ‘52’ (lower right); signed ‘ZAO WOU-KI’, titled ‘Restauration du vieux château’, dated ‘XII. 1952.’ and inscribed ‘may’ (on the reverse); signed ‘ZAO WOU-KI’ (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
65.3 x 81.2 cm. (25 3/4 x 32 in.)
Painted in 1952
Private Collection, Europe
Private Collection, Asia
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.
J. Leymarie, Hier et Demain, Zao Wou-ki, Paris, France, 1978 (illustrated, plate. 31, p. 75).
J. Leymarie, Rizzoli International Publications, Zao Wou-ki, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated, plate. 31, p. 75).
J. Leymarie, Cercle d'Art, Zao Wou-ki, Paris, France, 1986 (illustrated, plate. 31, p. 75).
Espace Bellevue, Zao Wou-Ki, Peintures et Encres de Chine, 1948-2005, exh. cat., Biarritz, France, 2005 (illustrated, plate. 11, p. 44).
Biarritz, France, Espace Bellevue, Zao Wou-Ki, Peintures et Encres de Chine, 1948-2005, July-October 2005.

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Lot Essay

In 1951, before his Klee period, Zao Wou-Ki had already planned on honing his understanding of lines as part of traditional Eastern aesthetics, by trying to paint using Western mediums. His Linear Series of work from 1948-1951 decisively shows his reflections upon linear aesthetics even before meeting Paul Klee. As one can discern from Zao’s work in the late 1940s, subjects under his brush became increasingly slender and gaunt, as he traded realism for feeling, and used simple brushstrokes to depict the essential form of subjects and scenery. The artist applied Chinese aesthetic’s understanding and concepts about lines to Western oil paints, and used the handle of the paintbrush to scrape off excess paint, creating fine lines of varying textures, adding to the character of each line. These lines are curt and muscular, so that not only can viewers feel the spirit of Liang Kai’s “negative brushstroke method”, one also grasps Zao’s take on Han dynasty paintings’ brick-like ethos. The foreground figures and animals in Restauration du vieux château (Restoration of the old castle) (Lot 34) are seem prehistoric and unpretentious, showing how Zao had been influenced by the art on ancient Chinese pottery as well as epigraph carvings. These seemingly capricious horizontal and vertical symbols reveal careful planning by the artist to populate the space on the canvas in a purposeful and balanced way, combining with the castle in the rear to construct a more varied and contrasting rhythm.

His excursion to Europe in the early 1950s had a key effect on Zao’s artistic development in the coming decade. In 1951, thanks to Zao’s copper plate etching exhibition in Switzerland, he met and hit off with Paul Klee which broadened his views concerning space and semiotics. In 1952, he deliberatey reduced his output and travelled to Italy and Spain, absorbing the scenery and cityscapes of these countries and devouring all the masterpieces he could learn from in museums and churches. Restauration du vieux château (Restoration of the old castle) was finished in 1952 and can be seen as an extension of Zao’s reflection on his identity and artistic language upon arriving in France, and is a cumulation of his learnings from Klee’s style as well as his travels around Europe, in the processing creating Zao’s own style of the early 1950s.

Zao recalled his first encounter and shock upon encountering Klee’s works in “Zao Wou-Ki’s Self Portrait”, “I spent hours observing (Klee’s) minute retangular colour blocks, interspersed with lines and symbols, and I was in awe of the freedom and control he has over his brushstrokes as well as the poetic levity and agility all over the canvas. The small canvas is made to seem huge and expansive thanks to his composition…and a whole new multitude of worlds is born inside these tiny symbols, I’m dazzled!” compared with Klee’s works which tend to be more geometric and childlike, Restauration du vieux château (Restoration of the old castle) is far more complicated in its composition and use of space, with seal carving line work and minimalistic symbolism that extend one’s imagination towards Oriental aesthetics. This work is primarily made up of vertical and horizontal lines: they are thick and thin, long and short, light and deep, and they overlap to outline the shilouette of various objects, while also creating the spatial perspective of the humans and animals in the front and the castle at the back. Inspired by Klee, Zao not only revolutionised his use of space inside the canvas, he ambitiously sought after a high degree of integration between imagery and abstraction by progressively developing his own Eastern Abstract style, laying the foundation for his move towards pure abstraction in the 1960s. At the same time, this was a confusing and difficult transition for the artist, as he was inspired but also encased within the traditions of Eastern and Western art, and Zao fought hard to break free from these constraints to explore his own aesthetics of Modern Abstraction.

Castles, small towns, and cities are frequent motifs in Zao’s work from the early 1950s, taking forms such as the Piazza Venezia, Notre-Dame de Paris, and Catedral de Burgos. These works inspired by architectural icons tell us how Zao’s early works were inspired by cityscapes. Nevertheless, he was not content to simply transfer three-dimensional structures from reality onto a two-dimensional canvas, he drove himself to study how non-enclosed linear systems can be used to create atmosphere and capture fleeting impressions – this carries on the spirit of the great impressionist masters, and takes form as experiments on the relationship between shadows and objects. Restauration du vieux château (Restoration of the old castle) also features an overlapping and parallel placement of rough brushstrokes with fine brushes alongside thick and thin backing paint layers, which represents a use of Chinese ink wash technique to treat oil paints, resulting in a background that glows with rich colours and delicate layers, enhancing the texture and aesthetics that can be achieved with oil paint. This is also a core essence of ancient Eastern landscape paintings, relying on the artist’s observation and distillation of a scene to traverse among impressionism and abstraction.

The refined nuances in Restauration du vieux château (Restoration of the old castle) bring to mind flowing musical notes and poetic undertones, kicking the viewer’s imagination to overdrive. The indistinct figures and objects “contain the beat of life…finding its place amidst the harmonious whole, everyone can freely roam, linger, breathe, even trip on a point” – so wrote Zao after reading the poetry of Michaux. That also happens to be the perfect footnote for Zao’s work in the early 1950s, combining and reinterpreting what imagery and artistic conception means as cornerstones of Eastern aesthetics, and imbuing that Eastern spirit into the history of modern art around the world.

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