ZAO WOU-KI(b.1921)
signed 'Wou-ki Zao' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower
right); signed 'Zao Wou-Ki' in Pinyin; dated '31.
Aug. 2001- 9. Sep. 2002.'(On the reverse)
oil on canvas
130 x 162 cm. (51 3/16 x 63 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2001-2002
Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki , Paris, France, 2003 (illustrated, p. 164.)
Paris, France, Galerie du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki , 2003.

Lot Essay

As long ago as the late 1940s, when setting off for France, Zao Wou-ki was already determined to break away from tradition and free himself from the shackles of figurative expression. This heartfelt impetus never left him as he embarked on his own personal journey of artistic exploration. He perceived the limitations of traditional Chinese painting technique, as well as noted that in the West, academic art had placed so much emphasis on technique that Western painting had become commonplace. For himself, he hoped to find a straight-forward and candid form of expression for his own painting. This is best described in his biography: "I wanted to create some kind of order. On occasion it's as easy as just doodling, while at other times it can be incomparably intricate and obscure..." The rich plenitude of expression levels in Zao Wou-ki's work not only conveys the philosophical mystery of Nature, but unaffectedly transmits a sentiment that directly touches the viewers' heart. An imagined world of Amorphous Landscapes.

Although Zao Wou-ki clearly rejected the path of using painting to re-produce the scenery his eyes beheld, he firmly embraced the Chinese philosophy of "Unity and Oneness of Man and Heaven" in his perception of nature. The traces of Nature that can be vaguely detected in his painting may be regarded as his tribute to traditional Chinese landscape. Reflecting in his biography on the development of Chinese painting, Zao Wou-ki points out that, in his view, the Chinese literati had lost their creativity by the 16th century. However, during the decades spent far from China exploring the whys and wherefores of abstraction, the spiritual essence of quiet restraint and concision found in traditional landscape painting had become increasingly evident in his work. Works by the master painter Guo Xi of the Northern
Song Dynasty, a giant among equals, can perhaps be regarded as the best footnote to Zao Wou-ki's abstract natural landscapes, which seemingly formless, contain form Calligraphic force and the light and the dark shade of colour. Former copying of images and symbols has been simplified into a more direct form. As Zao Wou-ki has said, when contours reach maximum potential, "There is no longer a need to paint objects or symbols in space. Colours and symbols no longer require differentiating boundar ies. I too discovered the problem of spatial depth while experimenting with various colour tone combinations." At this point, the artist had crossed the
boundary posed by theme and technique. His strokes and contours became truly free, uniquely proclaiming Zao's thoughts and emotions. His handling of colour and spatial depth directly stimulates viewer perception and arouses a sympathetic response.
A large paint brush was used to create a vague sense of multiple tiers of colours extending from the upper centre towards both sides of the composition. This reflects the artist's quest for spiritual understanding and the rhythm of Nature as a whole. It also creates a sense of vigour and grandeur that multiple points of view bring to traditional landscape painting. However, his extension of blue oil paint to the upper edge of the canvas sets Zao Wou-ki apart from the landscape masterpieces of the Northern Song and Five Dynasties. In the wake of his powerful strokes, the blue paint seems ready to burst forth from the composition, free itself from the limitations of frame and unleash a tension of infinite extension. By endowing his painting with the concept of a world without limits, the painter generates a connection between open and free space as a means of encompassing a vast tableau of grandeur within the limits of a moderate size painting.
In order to make maximum use of the colour blue, Zao Wou-ki depicts bright and dark, shallow and intense hues in his compositions, along with different forms of mountainous landscapes. The manner in which the painter incorporates the colour blue with simple contours and detailed delineation, is the same as that used in traditional landscape painting, which also employed the techniques of Cun, rubbing, blotching, and staining. The background of mountain mist and haze accentuates the contrast between reality and illusion, which is suitable for an accompanying image to Li Bai's verse: "The earth extends to the ocean's edge; the heavens descend into the river". This ingenious application of applying a mono blue colour to express multiple forms of subject matter reminds one of Tachism, the leading art movement of the Paris art scene in the late 1950s. By means of utilizing his signature IKB dark blue colour, Yves Klein integrated a sense of poetic and romantic rhythm to express the collision of souls as well as a far-away kingdom that existed only in his dreams (Fig. 1).
As for colour arrangement, when compared with the work, Blue and Gray (Fig. 2), by Mark Rothko, an artist of the Abstract Expressionism school who had placed a white square in the upper section of a blue and black background as a means of uti l izing colour contrast to create a suspension effect, Zao Wou-ki ' s work, 31.08.2001-09.09.2002 , displays a daring use of contrasting arrangement. By placing the intensive colour tone in the upper section, while positioning light colour tone below, the artist frees us from our habitual way of seeing things. In the simple hue of a split horizon, the entwined brush strokes indistinctly produce a state of flux. Varying densities of thin Persian Blue cover the lower edges of the painting. Not only does it compliment the dark blue in the upper part of the painting, the revolving, back and forth, flow in the composition injects the narrative of time into a spatial depiction.
Zao Wou-ki developed his grasp of abstract painting simultaneously with the advance of Abstract Expressionism in the West. However, the ultimate goal he pursued in art had its genesis in traditional Chinese literati painting, which reflected the philosophical view of early Chinese painters towards Nature. Southern Song Literati paintings provided the literati with a means to express their feelings and cultivate nature. Painting was considered a way to convey mood, and the context expressed in a painting came from the painter's soul, which in turn was a reflection of the painter's own personality. This is exactly what Zong Bing, a painter of the Six Dynasties, discussed in his work, "Preface to Landscape Painting": "Landscape is visible in form and contains spiritual fascination". He pointed out that the outward form of landscape did not attract wise men or sages; rather, it was a sense of "spiritual fascination" derived from Nature that touched the heart. When the artist is emotionally stirred by Nature and transforms this feeling into painting, viewers are able to feel empathy with the painter, and as they fix their gaze on the painting, become one with Nature.

More from Asian and Western 20th Century and Contemporary Art

View All
View All