ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)

Marais (Marsh)

ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
Marais (Marsh)
signed in Chinese, signed and dated ‘ZAO 56’ (lower right), signed, titled, dated and inscribed ‘ZAO WOU-KI Marais 1956 92 x 86 (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
92 x 86 cm. (36 1/4 x 33 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1956
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Private Collection, Paris, France
Private Collection, Europe
Private Collection, France
Private Collection, Europe
This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki
Centro de Exposiciones y Congresos de Ibercaja, Zao Wou-Ki Retrospectiva, exh. cat., Saragossa, Spain, 1995 (illustrated, plate 3, p. 13).
Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, A Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 1996 (illustrated, p. 120).
Hong Kong Museum of Art, Urban Council of Hong Kong, Infinite Image and Space - A Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., Hong Kong, 1996 (illustrated, plate 28, p. 91).
Musée Fabre, Zao Wou-Ki. Hommages, exh. cat., Montpellier, France, 2004 (illustrated, plate 41, p. 56).
Palais Bénédictine, Zao Wou-Ki. Paysages intérieurs, 1947-2004, exh. cat., Fécamp, France, 2005 (illustrated, p. 17).
Musée de l'Hospice Saint-Roch, L'homme des deux rives. Zao Wou- Ki Collectionneur, exh. cat. Issoudun, France, 2016 (illustrated, p. 251).
F. Marquet-Zao & Y. Hendgen (ed.), Flammarion, Catalogue raisonné des peintures Zao Wou-Ki Volume 1 1935-1958, Paris, France, 2019 (illustrated, plate P-0274, p. 221 & p. 318).
Saragossa, Spain, Centro de Exposiciones y Congresos de Ibercaja, Zao Wou-Ki Retrospectiva, March-April 1995.
Kaoshiung, Taiwan, A Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki, January-April 1996.
Hong Kong, Museum of Art, Infinite Image and Space. A Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki, May-July 1996.
Montpellier, France, Musée Fabre, Zao Wou-Ki. Hommages, April-August 2004.
Fécamp, France, Palais Bénédictine, Zao Wou-Ki. Paysages intérieurs, 1947-2004, February-June 2005.
Issoudun, France, Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch, L'homme des deux rives. Zao Wou-Ki Collectionneur, June-December 2016.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

Oracle-bone characters, the earliest known form of Chinese writing, were developed from the pictograms found in the ancestral murals. Pictographic characters had undergone a series of simplification since the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasty. It gradually developed into clerical, seal, cursive, semi-cursive and regular script. Not only does such progress witness the dynasty change in Chinese history, it also passes on national, familial and personal memories from generation to generation. With a truly intuitive and simple rustic symbolic form, oracle-bone script, for humanity in its primordial state, represents the beginning of civilization, a sheer display of artistry, which emanates painting and calligraphy have their common source.

After moving Paris in 1947, Zao Wou-Ki immersed himself in an exploration of the technique of Western oil painting, while he continued on his quest to trace the tradition of Chinese art. In 1954, Zao discovered the key to unearthing the Eastern spirit-the oracle-bone script. He re-examined this ancient writing system from the perspective of aesthetic form and deconstructed it with unprecedented artistic insight, transforming it into visual symbols that flow in his paintings. Riding on the immense spiritual power of writing, his work returns to the common source of painting and calligraphy and probes into the pulse of the cosmos and nature. It marks the start of the oracle-bone period that is of immense artistic and historical significance in his career.

When Zao Wou-ki created Marais (Marsh) in 1956, he already had a firm grasp of incorporating writing into painting. This painting differs from his other works from the early oracle-bone period that emphasize hard and intense brushwork and the form of characters. In Marais (Marsh), the characters and the layered backdrop converge and accentuate one another; the textual symbols seem to fade into formlessness, as they roam the canvas in oracle-bone script like lines, which allude to the pictographic origin of the script. In a departure from his minimalist palette, Zao used different colours to render the characters in the painting. Apart from sienna-coloured lines, there are traces of oraclebone characters in ivory and light pastel. These plain, elegant and colourful characters seem to be afloat in a poetic space on the canvas, drifting between a classic vigour and an ephemeral beauty. The intricate lines morph between hints of dispersion, flow and pauses, creating a visual rhythm that is vibrant, resonant and dazzling.

During the oracle-bone period, Zao Wou-ki tended to name his works with titles that possess a narrative element, such as Traversee des Apparences, Hommage a Tou Fou, and Water Music. These poetic or thought-provoking titles embody narrative connotations, and they illuminate his attempt to turn inspiration from poetry, literature or music into forms of painting.

The inspiration for Marais (Marsh) might have come from the poem “Cranes Cry” from “Minor Odes of the Kingdom” in The Book of Poetry: “Cranes cry from the nine marshbanks and their voices are heard in the wilderness.” The nine marshbanks refer to the swarm. The swarm has been a metaphor for an infinite territory in poetry and literature since the classical era; it brings to mind boundless tidelands that traverse deep and shallow waters where birds and fish thrive. In “Cranes Cry”, the poet hears the cranes’ cries soaring from above the marshbanks and across the wilderness, which symbolizes how humans must have an expansive mind in order to discover the greater world. In Swarm, Zao Wou-Ki rendered the backdrop in layers of grey brown washes and adorned it with touches of light blue that collide with intricate textual symbols, while the composition evokes a tremendous realm. When viewed from a distance, the painting recalls the chaos of the birth of the world; upon a closer look, it encompasses all that exists in the world and its endless vitality.

Compared to his other works from the same period that centre on a narrative subject, Marais (Marsh) forsakes solemn colours and striking visual contrast for a seemingly serene space that unfolds in more delicate textures and subtle arrangements of colours. The oracle-bone symbols resemble distant and forgotten memories from the dawning of the cosmos. Employing the Western medium of oil paint, the artist gave a new interpretation to the transcendent state of emptiness that Laozi describes in Tao Te Ching: “Loud is its sound, but never word it said; A semblance great, the shadow of a shade.”

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