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


ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese and signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed and inscribed 'ZAO WOU-KI 95 x 105', titled and dated '18.3.68' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
95 x 105 cm. (37 3/8 x 41 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1968
Frank Perls Gallery, Los Angeles, USA
Private collection, USA
Private collection, Asia
Anon. Sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 30 May 2015, lot 57
Acquired at 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).
Jean Leymarie, Hier et Demain Editions, Ediciones Poligrafa, Zao Wou-ki, Barcelona, Spain, 1978 (illustrated in colour, plate 141, p. 190).
Jean Leymarie, Rizzoli International Publications, Zao Wouki, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated in colour, plate 141, p. 190).

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡)

Lot Essay

“Know from far it is not snow, for faint fragrance gently blows”– excerpt from Wang Anshi’s Plum Blossoms

Xu Wei’s paintings of flowers are not bound by verisimilitude. He painted with techniques like layering of lines and dots in combination with brushwork like dry brushing, wet brushing, thick brushing, diluted brushing, and light brushing so that the undulation and rhythm of ink trails become expressive and descriptive. When using the splatter ink technique to paint large objects, one can truly see the lush effect of a scene with “diffusing clouds, sparking rain, dripping dews”.

Zao Wou-Ki went through the late 1940s and early '50s painting mainly landscapes and still-lifes, before transitioning to expressive abstract works in the mid-1950s and early ‘60s. By the late '60s, after exploring abstraction for more than a decade, he had mastered the style and managed to harmonise colour, brushwork, and composition in flawless works of art.

His 18.3.68, dating from 1968, displays meticulous care in the development of space and has rich layers that add to a keen sense of depth. Thanks to his planning, the soft yet succinct textures of this painting nevertheless convey the grand and imposing scale of the mountains and seas.

The freehand style of eastern ink wash paintings and calligraphy is an important foundation for Zao’s success in painting abstract works. Paired with the spatial and perspective theories he learned while travelling in the west, Zao’s brushwork and textures differ markedly from the usual thickness and heaviness of oil paintings. Instead, the contrast between dense and diluted ink defines clear separation between the rocks and the trees, creating a scene that is as blissful as it is expressive. In 18.3.68 , the sense of an approaching mountain shower is palpable from the way the haze drifts around the hills, and one can almost smell the faint fragrance of plum blossoms drifting towards you.

Brushwork is fundamental to a painting. It is not static; it suggests concentration and dispersal, rising and falling, and is an indispensable element in the composition of a work. In Zao’s works from the '60s, spatial arrangement can be said to take precedence even over colour. Aside from the circular component in the centre, viewers may also find it surprisingly difficult to identify focal points to the left, right, and central axis of the painting. Instead, this work presents us with multiple focal points so that as our eyes roam around the painting, a sense of motion is created, and that unending flow of movement breeds more energy and vitality. Western artists tend to distort or blur physical objects to visually present movement or speed, but Zao has accomplished the same effect in a nature scene that does not even have physical objects – perhaps in doing so, embodying the ideal of harmony with nature that is so prized by gentlemen and scholars in the east.

In post-war Europe, lyrical abstraction gained favour among artists and they prized the authentic expression of the artist’s sentiments, as demonstrated in impromptu and reflexive oil paintings. The serendipitous and unplanned strokes in Sumi by American painter Mark Tobey is one such example; Tobey studied Asian calligraphy out of his love for all eastern art, and his work sampled the scattered perspective from eastern calligraphy, although some argue that his flowing lines still fail to capture a sense of airy fluidity. The delicate airiness in Zao’s paintings are a result of the restraint and controlled emotions in eastern art, and from the artist's love of nature and Chinese ink-wash paintings. He once said, “In Chinese paintings, solid forms and empty spaces create a rhythm, they are constantly in motion as each pushes at the other, giving the picture a wonderful balance between lightness and weight. If my paintings differ from those by Western painters, it would probably have to do with my perspectives on space”. In 18.3.68 , the energy swirling around the scene achieves an optimal balance between motion and stillness. The painting is clearly much more than a literal sketch of a landscape, instead it presents the artist’s meditation and insight into existence and the universe. Perhaps, what truly sets Zao apart from typical western abstract paintings is not how we perceive an object or a space; Zao actually gives us a new way of viewing painting itself.

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