Painted in Paris in 1953, and held in the same private collection for the almost seven decades since, Fleurs is a luminous early work by Zao Wou-Ki. A profusion of angular yellow daffodils burst joyfully out of a large bowl, sparkling like crystals amid a warm, hazy ground of deep blue and crimson. The blooms—limned with the spare, glyphic power of essential forms—display the poetic influence of Paul Klee on Zao’s figurative work, as well as his interest in the Shang-dynasty oracle bone script of China, where he was born and lived until his late twenties. The work’s shimmering backdrop, meanwhile, seems prophetic of Zao’s later shift towards abstraction, which would see him dissolving form into sumptuous, vaporous color-fields that echoed French Impressionism as much as the Abstract Expressionism of New York.
Zao was never beholden to one cultural identity, and evolved a rich, fluid way of painting over his career, blending interior energies with reflections on the external world. Poised and spacious, works like Fleurs seem to exist in several dimensions at once. “Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist,” he once said, “I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China … Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris that I owe this return to my deepest origins” (Zao Wou-Ki, quoted in Panorama chrétien, no. 49, Paris, April 1961, p. 45).
Fleurs’ provenance tells part of the remarkable international story that is so central to Zao’s work. It was acquired shortly after it was made by Henry Reuss, a leading Democratic US representative from Wisconsin, who served as a deputy general counsel for the Marshall Plan in Paris after the Second World War. Reuss purchased the work from Galerie Pierre: a crucible of creativity at a time when the city was the world’s leading center of modern art. Pierre Loeb had founded the gallery in 1924. After major success with two early exhibitions of Surrealist work, he moved to the location at 2, rue des Beaux-Arts, where—aside from a wartime period of exile in Cuba—he directed Galerie Pierre until his death in 1964.
Having been a keen-eyed early promoter of artists such as Picasso, Léger and Miró before the war, on his return from Cuba, Loeb shifted focus to the thriving scene of younger artists who were flocking to Paris from around the world during the late 1940s. Among them was Zao Wou-Ki, who moved there from China in 1948; he joined the Portuguese painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, who had arrived via Rio da Janeiro in 1947, as well as the Montreal-born Jean-Paul Riopelle, who had relocated to Paris that same year. Nurtured by Loeb and inspired by one another, these international artists forged approaches to painting that brought together elements of the École de Paris with unique and diverse visions of their own. Today, their works capture the zeitgeist of the blossoming postwar capital. With its bold synthesis of artistic languages, Fleurs stands as a radiant testament to that time, and to Zao’s distinctive and powerful voice within it.