Property from the Barron Family Collection

(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, B. 1920)
Nu couché (Reclining Nude)
signed 'Wou-ki ZAO' in Pinyin and Chinese (lower right); signed 'ZAO WOU-KI' in Pinyin; titled and dated 'nu couché août 1952' in French (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
54 x 81.4 cm (21 1/4 x 32 in.)
Painted in 1952
Galerie Pierre Loeb, Paris, France
Florence and S. Brooks Barron, Detroit, USA
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1982

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

Lot Essay

Artistic creation is a psychological process, an interaction between subjective sense perception and rational awareness, in which humans use their visual vocabulary to give expression and form to all that they can see or feel. For ages, artists employed the fundamental elements of points, lines, and planes to depict physical forms, work that was drawn from, inspired by, and in imitation of the natural world. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century, with the rise of abstract art, that those basic elements received new consideration as independent elements possessing their own motion and structural implications-though in another form they had already appeared long ago, hidden within the Chinese art of calligraphy. From the age of 6, Chinese painter Zao Wou-ki was reciting poetry and Chinese classics-and studying calligraphy-under the tutelage of his grandfather. In the early 1950s, while the work of Paul Klee was an influence, calligraphic line and brushwork were also exerting an invisible pull. Their rhythms, cadences, and structures guided Zao toward abstract work and helped shape his unique awareness of the fundamental elements of points, lines, planes, and colors. Zao has said, "As for what I got from France, I cannot say how deeply it affected me. And this is not to try to compare that with what I received from ChinaK.but I also felt a very deep relationship with the ancient traditions of my fatherland. I just had this awareness that there was this tradition alive within me. But what released it, what made it creative, was France." Zao Wou-ki's Klee-influenced period was, crucially, the period in which he began to move from figurative work toward abstract work and to establish his mature, personal style.

Nu couché (Reclining Nude) - Reinterpreting Objective Physical Form

The Zao Wou-ki oil Nu couché (Reclining Nude) (Lot 2005) presented in this spring's evening sale derives from the Barron family collection. Florence Barron was an avid collector during the 1960s, acquiring works by Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin, and Cy Twombly, among others; the passage of time that has given these works their rightful place in art history has also confirmed the rightness of her unique, avant-garde sensiblity. Among those works, Nu couché (Reclining Nude) possesses special qualities, deriving from its theme and period of creation, that make it a very distinctive representative work from this artist. The female nude was a theme that Zao Wou-ki, in his nearly 60-year artistic career, touched upon only rarely. The few nudes he did produce largely derive from the period around the 1950s, after which the artist turned his attention more exclusively to still lifes and landscapes. This was the period that saw the beginning of his "oracle-bone" series in 1954, and then, after 1958, a greater focus on abstract works which would bear only the dates of their creation as titles. Given these dates, Nu couché (Reclining Nude) , created in the period between 1952 and 1961, reflects the most important decade of development in Zao's career, and its interweaving of figurative and abstract elements make it invaluable for our study of the artist's stylistic transitions during this period.

Zao eschews realistic depiction of detail in Nu couché (Reclining Nude) , simplifying the female figure into a structure of geometric forms; at the same time, however, his use of light-colored pigments, highlighting the lustre of her skin, breaks through the tendency toward flattened geometric forms, and conveys both the fullness of her curves and the physical dimensionality and weight of the human form. Despite the stillness of her pose as she lies facing upward, a sense of motion develops from her placement just below the center of the canvas, with limbs extended and a slight downward tilt to her head, gradations of color within the monochromatic background create an undefined but extended space. Though the female nude is a subject to which Western artists have frequently returned since the time of the ancient Greeks, in China, it was still a relatively new subject, and even the inclusion of live models in academic painting classes would be the cause of considerable scandal and controversy just one generation earlier. The first half of the 20th century in the West was also a great period of innovation and experimentation, and the radical deconstruction of the nude figure in the works of artists like Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet were equally not without controversy . With Nu couché (Reclining Nude) , Zao Wou-ki inserts himself into this historic moment, displaying his synthesis and inspiration from Western art forms, but also the emergence of a highly personal, poetic and conceptual consideration of his Chinese roots. Because his points, lines, and planes are used with such freedom, they become more than just vehicles for shaping his forms. His lines do more than outline his subject and his colors function so as to break through mere depiction of his image. The formal elements of the picture space therefore exist not just to portray and define his subject: Zao separates his points, lines, planes, and colors from those conventional functions, and instead brings them together to find new expressive potential within his canvas. By breaking down the objective, outer image of his subject, he is able to newly reinterpret its essential inner qualities.

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