ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1921-2013)
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1921-2013)
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ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1921-2013)

Fleurs (Flowers)

ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1921-2013)
Fleurs (Flowers)
signed in Chinese, signed and dated ‘ZAO 55’ (lower right); signed, titled and dated 'ZAO WOU-Ki Fleurs 1955' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
55 x 46 cm. (21 5⁄8 x 18 1⁄8 in.)
Painted in 1955
Galerie Pierre Loeb, Paris
Private collection, Switzerland
Galerie Herve, New York
Private collection
Sotheby’s London, 21 October 1999, lot 71
Private collection, Asia

This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki on 5 September 2016.
This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki.
P. Daix (ed.), Ides et Calendes, Zao Wou-ki, Paris, France, 1994 (illustrated, p.85).
F. Marquet-Zao & Y. Hendgen (ed.), Flammarion, Catalogue raisonne des peintures Zao Wou-Ki Volume 1 1935-1958, Paris, France, 2019 (illustrated, plate P-0422, p. 198 & p. 312).
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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“My painting became illegible. Still lives and flowers did not exist anymore. I aim to create an imaginary and indecipherable writing.” Zao Wou-Ki

The years 1954-1955 constitute the breakthrough of his artistic career when Zao finds the way to merge Eastern and Western cultures into abstraction in what he describes as “imaginary and indecipherable writing ,” a universal language, beyond the boundaries of civilisations. He starts to consciously insert core elements of Chinese culture into his works, while bringing into play his own knowledge of Chinese painting. The oracle bone series shows Zao’s first direct integration of calligraphy into his paintings with symbols evocative of the earliest known form of Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty called oracle bones script on ox bones and turtle plastrons. This old practice of engraving characters on the animal material had the religious purpose to ask deities questions relating to the weather and fortune. Therefore, Zao takes up the spiritual component in relation to natural elements, which was already embedded in this tradition, while returning to the origins of scripture. Although Zao has deconstructed the Chinese characters into disorderly lines, they retain the essential nature and form of calligraphy. His strong knowledge of Chinese calligraphy, which he learned with his grandfather when he was a child, nurtures the artist’s reflection on abstraction, at a time when, similarly, major Western artists aim for alternative expressions to fuel their abstract practice by investigating Eastern calligraphy.

Alain Jouffroy writes in 1955, the year Fleurs was completed: “Zao Wou-Ki’s painting demonstrates how the Chinese vision of the Universe, where the blurry and distance express the spirit of contemplation rather than the contemplated object, became a universal modern vision. Painters so different as Paul Klee, Mark Tobey or Henri Michaux relate to the same vision. “ As Jouffroy had identified, a group of Western artists, both in New York (Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline) and in Paris (Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu) also explored the concept of Chinese calligraphy to incorporate in their art, as well as the splashing of ink and paint to create variations of light and space. With a strong interest in abstract beauty, ambiguity, and mystery in calligraphy and abstract pictographs, they merged the Eastern spirit, as they viewed it, with the dynamics of abstract expressionism and the spontaneity of free handwriting, reconciling into abstraction the gestural movement and the artist’s interiority inherent to calligraphy.

With halos of blues and purple emanating from the central calligraphic block, Fleurs beautifully highlights the calligraphy’s spirituality and expresses the intangibility of a landscape into a universal language. The international movement which aims to reconcile writing and painting is one of the most important developments of the 20th Century which brings together artists in America, Europe and Asia. Zao Wou-Ki holding strong ties with the three continents, has a privileged position in this movement.

Many of Zao’s works from this period illustrate his ambition to utilize abstract forms to grasp the power of Nature. This is evident in the painting’s titles referencing to natural phenomenon with an attention towards the ephemeral creation and the expression of energy. “I wanted to paint what cannot be seen, the breath of life, the wind, the movement, the life of forms, the colours’ outbreak and their fusion.” Vent (Wind), painted in 1954, one year before Fleurs, in the collection of Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris, is considered to be the very first abstract painting by Zao Wou-Ki and is considered to be a milestone in the history of abstraction, as the artist sets the notion of rendering the invisible visible in a highly subjective and sensory manner.

While the title, Fleurs (Flowers), evokes a much more concrete concept of nature, the composition still masterfully delivers a deep powerful feeling provided by the contemplation of nature. One can feel the breath of the wind sweeping through the surface as well as the weightless and fragility of petals and leaves gently moving within an poetic space. Whereas previous paintings show abstract signs painted over a monochromic background, Fleurs is a unique example where Zao Wou-Ki masterfully incorporates the oracle-bone-script-inspired signs into a highly-modulated background with hues of blue, purple, black and white rendering a rare depth into a silent and solemn elegance. Fleurs is one of five paintings referring to floral elements, and is undeniably a masterpiece from the period. As Zao expresses: “There was no boundaries between the sign and colour, and revealed to me the problem of depth by the conjunction of various shades.”

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