(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, B. 1920)
signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese and Pinyin; dated '56' (lower right)
watercolour and ink on paper
15.1 x 29.8 cm. (6 x 11 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1956
Property from an Important Private California Collection
Kleeman Gallery, New York, USA
Private Collection, California, USA
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

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Lot Essay

Zao's modes of expression in oil in the early 1950s often reference effects from the watercolor and lithograph print mediums. That is, he sometimes handled oils like watercolors, and an appreciation of his watercolor s from this period can of ten deepen our understanding of how his creative methods were developing. Zao's 1954 Sky in Paris (Lot 1236) and his 1957 Untitled (Lot 1235) both portray cityscapes, a subject often seen in his work at this time. Both make ingenious use of the light, easy way watercolors react when contacting the surface of the paper to create compositions with a quiet, subtle poetry. Objects are outlined with transparent, empty lines that seem to emerge and then recede as they float in a misty void, an effect that gives the paintings a surrealistic sense of fantasy.

In addition to the night scenes he produced in this period, Zao also enjoyed painting birds, a subject seen in his 1953 composition Untitled (Lot 1229) as well as another Untitled (Lot 1230) from the same year, and yet a third Untitled from 1954 (Lot 1234). Zao's bird-themed works can be seen as connecting his scenic paintings with the soon-to-come oracle-bone inscription style, and they attain meaning as transitional, connecting works by showing the artist engaging with new aesthetic problems. The early Chinese character for "bird" retained an intensely pictographic quality (Fig. 1); this character, at the oracle-bone stage, is still a direct conversion of the physical form into a graphic image. It is both a conceptual abstraction and an ideographic, pictographic symbol, graphic imagery combined with calligraphic lines. For Zao Wou-ki, in depicting the actual form of a bird, the simplified, transitional character of such graphic motifs helped produce a kind of pure linear rhythm and motion. In these works, the artist began to discover the creative principles of his next phase, in which he used curved and straight lines and their rhythms and spatial effects to create captivating works of real power and energy.

Two more watercolors from an Important Californian Private Collection, Festival (Lot 1232)and Spirits (Lot 1233), both from 1956, provide a glimpse of the continuing stylistic progression in Zao's work following his "bird" series. Chinese characters in oracle bone or bronze inscription styles are the basic creative elements. Here, the artist deliberately bends, folds, and deconstructs these characters into their original structural components. The resulting linear motifs divide the picture space and give it both an architectonic and a musical quality. The lines of these works, like dancers on a stage, cluster together then disperse, merging, clinging, and shifting in harmonious rhythms. Their overlapping and interweaving forms combine shorter and longer patterns, in balance or harmonious motion, while behind it all is the harmonious rhythm of feeling.

Festival, in an abrupt change from the previous period, uses red, a color with strong symbolic significance in traditional Chinese culture that is a constant presence in their lives and celebrations. The wild, vivid reds give Festival a uniquely Eastern kind of beauty and a special Chinese flavor, and are reminiscent too of Matisse or the Fauves. Their fresh, graceful, vibrant energy certainly does evoke a happy, festive mood. This Festival and this Untitled, and even the 1954 Untitled, share the lines and colors of Zao's oils of the same period, which he did not use for objective reproduction of forms. They reflect instead the artist's view that "There's no need to draw a line between colors and motifs. I've discovered how the problem of spatial depth can be dealt with by different combinations of hues." Thus Zao at this point was moving completely beyond objective scenic depiction and into the sphere of abstraction and implicit meaning.

Untitled (Lot 1231), is a hand-made tapestry produced under personal supervision by Zao Wou-ki, based on a 1953 oil work on the theme of "two birds." After its completion, the tapestry was purchased by the American collector Ms. Patti Birch, and was only acquired for another private collection after a span of nearly 50 years. Documentary information indicates that Zao Wou-ki produced only two tapestries, the other being a 1977 tapestry held in the collection of a national agency in France (Fig. 2). This Untitled is exquisitely made, particularly with respect to the simple clarity of the lines that outline the birds and the variations in their shading, which help project a three-dimensional feel in their forms. These aspects of the tapestry faithfully reflect the way that Zao Wou-ki, in his early oil works, used the tip of the brush handle to scrape pigments off the canvas to form fine lines that outline subjects within the paintings. The mostly brown background of the tapestry also shows variations in shading, in imitation of visual effects of spreading blocks of color in Zao's oils. As an artist, Zao Wou-ki continually explored the possibilities of various forms and combinations of media, such as his transformation of the calligraphy forms of Chinese characters into visual motifs, or the way that he built up pigments on the canvas with his palette knife to create strong sculptured effects during one period in the 1960s. In the woven textile of Untitled, changes in the color of the thread in different sections of the skein recreate the layered shading of oil pigments, in yet another example of the artist combining the effects of different media for artistic purposes.

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