“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.” – Zao Wou-Ki
The Grand Tour, a European custom popularized in the 17th – 18th century served as an educational rite of passage for upper-class elites, in search of art, history, culture and a better understanding of Western civilization. Two years after Zao Wou-Ki’s arrival in Paris in 1950, he embarked on his own European tour, travelling across France, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and more. The exposure to European art and architecture made a lasting impression on Zao, which inspired him to document a visual diary and encouraged his artistic exploration with lines and perspective. Painted in 1952, Petite Ville Hollandaise (Dutch Town) is an exemplary work inspired by his grand travels. Zao presents the viewer with a composition filled with intricate visual conflicts, which when pieced together, fabricates a story that allows one to immerse completely inside of Zao’s mindscape, and admire the artist’s interpretation of Eastern and Western philosophy and his technical virtuosity.
interconnected lines, introducing some of his most potent motifs - silhouettes and outlines of buildings, people, and boats. Boat, in particular, were a recurring motif for Zao. Blended into the glistening blue waters, he carefully juxtaposes them at the bottom part of the painting; not only clear distinguishing between land and water, but also recalling his first journey to France. It was in 1948 when Zao and his then wife Xie Jinglan boarded the Andre Lebon to Marseille, hence boats served as a symbol of hope for a new life in a foreign land that awaits them. Carefully composed, Zao once described his works from the early 1950s – “I painted a lot of scenery, buildings and aspects of nature with human and animal depicted in them. But they are not the subject of my work; they are particles that built up the whole universe, these particles and the universe are all in one.” The present work depicts a universe inspired by Zao’s chance encounter with Paul Klee in 1951 during an exhibition in Switzerland. Inspired by Klee’s work, Zao revolutionized his adaption of space, his understanding of semiotics and the use of bold colours. He eventually gravitated towards forging an artistic vocabulary between the East and West. This subsequently allowed him to move away from his early 1940s style and paved way for what is known as the Paul Klee period (1951- 1954). This is evident in the artist’s application of sinuous, fragmented lines and his calligraphic motifs which articulates a language that he had developed, also seen as an attempt to try to break free from traditional art to finding his own aesthetics of Modern Abstraction. Zao’s artistic vocabulary was inscribed on the canvas by removing paint with the brush’s wooden handle to form lines, layering and scraping coats of paint to showcase the beauty of the textured medium. With a closer look, his lines convey the impression of flowing water, with its elegant soft lines reflecting the curviness of the moon and the hull of the boats. Line and plane, form and void collide with colours to elevate the work to an extra depth and richness onto the two-dimensional surface. Zao aims to construct a web of non-closed lines that pierces the veils of space and time, henceforth creating his own universe.
In Petite Ville Hollandaise (Dutch Town) , one might associate the luminous blue tones with Dutch paintings from the Golden Age in the 17th century. During this period, artists notably favoured the use of ultramarine blue, an expensive paint pigment derived from lapis lazuli. It was considered so precious that painters usually applied it economically as a glaze over an opaque underpainting. Vermeer would incorporate natural ultramarine into his paintings to enhance the importance of a sitter or object, thence creating a level of depth and complexity seen similarly in the present lot. Here, Zao chose to blend an earthy tone with the dominating ultramarine hue as his principal palette, depicting a stark contrast between sky, land and the sea. Blue tones were highly regarded by Zao as written in his aesthetic theories. His admiration for the colour not only derived from his student days in Hangzhou, when he would spend time around West Lake observing its reflection, but he also believed in the potential of the colour in terms of its flexibility for expression. Though the subject of water is seen in many of his works from the same period, the two-tone structure of blue and earthy gold in the present work is rarely seen among his early oeuvre.
Petite Ville Hollandaise (Dutch Town) is a beautiful masterpiece emblematic of Zao Wou-Ki’s travel series and an iconic work from his Klee period. Under Zao’s brushstrokes, the dynamic and lively Dutch town comes to life.