"Beneath my brush, a space comes into being. As my mind rushes ahead, it begins to take shape, flying and spreading gracefully—and all this from the lightness of the brushstrokes, the lightness of the colours, and the lightness of time's passing." – Zao Wou-Ki
On February 26, 1948, Zao Wou-Ki stepped on board the ocean liner Andre Lebon with his wife and left Shanghai, bound for a period of study abroad in Paris, France. Before departure, he mentioned to his teacher Lin Fengmian that he intended to remain in France if he could support himself by painting. Lin advised him to give up such fantasies and not to stay in Paris: life would be difficult there, and no Chinese artist had ever succeeded at what he had in mind. Lin Fengmian, however, never imagined that not only would Zao remain in Paris, but that his achievements would make him the most illustrious Chinese artist on the world stage.
An overview of Zao Wou-Ki's career shows how, during each period, he threw himself into exploring a unique path of his own. Never content with any success he achieved, he continually sought to surpass himself and make new breakthroughs. As he continued moving beyond the framework of his already-established successes, his artistic vocabulary grew and evolved, in a series of connected leaps, over his nearly 70-year career. His work in the '40s, as his career began, was largely figurative, but began to shift toward abstraction after his arrival in Paris.
During the '50s, a Paul Klee-influenced period gave way to a later 'oracle-bone inscription' phase, and by 1959, he was no longer naming his paintings but was inscribing them with their date of completion. For Zao, this process gradually removed any trace of figurative images from his work. And in developing his abstract painting style in the decades that followed, it also represented a spiritual journey, from his roots in the East to his position as an established artist in the West—followed by a new return to his Eastern origins. Zao Wou-Ki's achievement was partly based on the ability to create his own unique style, one that reflected Eastern aesthetics, as he developed his abstract work. Beyond that, however, he also re-interpreted through his work the deep insights and creativity of Chinese philosophy. Zao's arduous path of exploration, in fusing Eastern and Western aesthetics, did not just produce one of the most exciting chapters of world art history; for the artist himself it was also a fulfilling journey, through which he transcended time and space on a return to his own inner origins.
After a long, 24-year separation from his homeland, Zao Wou-Ki returned to Shanghai in March 1972 to visit his mother. He was then already a noted, successful artist who had seen plenty of life's ups and downs. Returning to Paris, he brought back brushes and inks from China and began reacquainting himself with the ink medium. At first, practicing with traditional brushes was just a diversion, but gradually Zao discovered a creative fascination for the spreading haloes of color, the drips of ink, and the variety of shadings ink produces, depending on how dense or light, or wet or dry it is. These shifting patterns of varied tones, their countless layers, and the sense of forms hidden in seemingly amorphous patterns, seemed to inject new creative impetus into his work. In 1979, architect I.M. Pei invited Zao to produce two large-scale ink works for his newly designed Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, and in 1983, the National Museum of China in Beijing and the National Museum of History in Taiwan both mounted large-scale showings of his works. In May of 1984, Zao was invited to return to his alma mater, the China Academy of Art, to share his theories and ideas with students. Then, during the 1988-99 period, a 'Zao Wou-Ki 60-Year Retrospective Exhibition' was shown at the Shanghai Museum, the National Art Museum of China, and the Guangdong Museum of Art. Zao Wou-Ki once said, 'In just this way, history pushed me toward far-off France, where I settled down; then it pulled me back to China, where the deepest needs of my heart finally found their answer.' This period, during which contacts with his homeland grew closer and he explored traditional ink-wash painting, helped Zao Wou-Ki enter a new and transformative period of abstract work.
In December 2002, Zao was elected to membership in the French Academy of Fine Arts. Already well past 70, he now followed his instincts freely and unerringly, handling large-scale canvases with ease and confidently facing new challenges: as he put it, becoming 'bolder and freer' than ever before. Completed on Christmas Eve, the 24th of December, this 24.12.2002 – Diptyque is one of the finest testaments to Zao Wou-Ki's abilities during this period. Standing in front of this grand diptych, as its subtle layers of color produce rich visual effects, one senses the presence of a gentle and rhythmical power. Streaks of turquoise blue above and light fuchsia below combine with larger areas of warm brown to form the background, in a manner far different from early works where he built up thick impastos of pigment in strong brushstrokes. Here, the focus is on the exploration of color and light and Zao Wou-Ki's own masterly handling of the oil medium. 24.12.2002 exudes a light, airy feeling, as a gentle halo of light seems to spread outward from the canvas. It was in these kinds of airy, abstract spaces, allied with his bold use of color, that Zao Wou-Ki found a point of harmony in his later works. He once said, “In my mind I often wonder, How can I paint the wind? How can I express the brightness and purity of light? What I want is not to depict nature, but to juxtapose and arrange images, letting people feel the rippling of air against the serene surface of the water. I want to create new colors, new spaces, a new kind of lightness. I want people to feel those fresh, light, shimmering sensations.”
Though Zao Wou-Ki had clearly abandoned direct depictions of nature, his thinking was still influenced at a deep level by the Chinese concept of man's unity with nature. In Chinese philosophy, nature and the universe form the macrocosmic world, and man the microcosmic world; because man and nature are fundamentally interrelated, all human affairs should follow the laws of nature in order to maintain harmony between them. Laozi said, 'Man follows the way of the Earth; Earth follows the way of Heaven; Heaven follows the way of the Tao; the Tao follows the way of nature.' Here, the Tao appears as an image of formlessness, an abstract realm that embraces both the infinite and the infinitesimal. Zao Wou-Ki's art is a meditation, conveying a grand comprehension of the changes in the vastness of the universe. As the noted Swiss writer Jacques Chessex put it, "In an amazing fashion, a kind of meditation on the sublimity of things appears here, in the spaces of his canvas which are a spectacle of sweetness and delight. While no human figures appear, a powerful strength is concentrated here, evoking traces of humanity and the memories of the artist — the memories of all of his experiences, from the ordinary to the extraordinary.'
19th-century Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and JMW Turner strove to use color and light in an abstract manner, to express their understanding of and fascination with the grandeur of nature. In Turner's late-period work Rain, Steam and Speed, the artist avoids rendering his subjects in precise detail; instead he employs dusky earth tones, dark greys, and transparent blues in the distance, along with a vaguely distinguishable steam engine, to capture the feeling a locomotive outracing a rainstorm. Similarly, in 24.12.2002 – Diptyque, faint black traces wander through the canvas, converging in its center, to help suggest a three-dimensional space. Those firm yet gauzy lines leap upward like splashes of ink thrown on the canvas, infusing the entire composition with their vitality. In applying his colors, Zao used generous amounts of solvent to help spread them as evenly as possible and hide his brushstrokes, creating a continuous flow of color that seeps and flows across the canvas. Like drops of color falling into clear water, they mix and form new tones with complete naturalness and no sense of effort or artificiality, producing the kaleidoscopic changes of light and color in the painting. Jonathan Hay, a professor in Chinese art history at New York University, has described Zao Wou-Ki's late-period works this way: “a quality of gesture that is stripped of all hurriedness and creates a more powerful ‘bone structure,’ a luminosity extending from infinite softness to enveloping darkness, a topography of form that opens itself to stillness and silence.” The works of this period are no longer concerned with dynamism and motion, but instead exhibit Zao's awareness of rhythmic interplay in the contrasts between darkness and light.
An echo of the painterly vocabulary of the earliest true abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky, can also be found in Zao Wou-Ki's work. Both artists worked in abstract modes, yet in the works of both, subtle features can be distinguished that represent their individual views of nature. In his Landscape, with geometric lines and colors that seem to embody movement, Kandinsky defines a natural landscape in abstract terms. In Zao Wou-Ki's 24.12.2002 – Diptyque, the floating, drifting lines and gentle, limpid hues reflect the artist's search for inner landscapes and spiritual peace, transcending any realistic representation of natural scenes. Kandinsky hoped to arouse the human spirit through color; Zao Wou-Ki attempts to recreate a kind of harmonious state, in which he returns to his deepest cultural roots.
These cultural roots undoubted derive from his ancestry, and from his position as successor to the grand spirit of the Chinese painting tradition. The delicate lightness with which Zao applies his pigments in 24.12.2002 – Diptyque recalls the 'five colors within black' said to be found in Chinese painting. Zao's colors, in their changing density and depth, convey the same beautiful visual aesthetics found in works of ink on paper, where the inks spread, mingle, and seep to create shaded areas. The richness of Zao's color, too, frees his expressive power, transforming the pictorial space into a vision of openness and transparent depth. These aspects likewise evoke the work of the Song Dynasty painter Guo Xi. In Old Trees, Level Distance, Guo Xi conveys both the vigor and the majesty of his subject, but without insisting on pointing out all the details of the full scene. Instead he focuses on a pleasing balance of rhythms between the weighty forms and open spaces. Guo Xi simplifies his forms with spare, light brushstrokes: dim mountains above the river are depicted in a vague and sparse manner; the empty, hazy distances and mists on the waters imbue the work with the sense of vast, open distance. A tiny, hazy figure is seen crossing a bridge, while light boats float like leaves in the water. Zao's 24.12.2002 – Diptyque likewise invites the viewer to roam in the midst of its endless soft and hazy spaces. In its grand dimensions, in its bighearted, harmonious, and leisurely depth, we come to understand the nature of Zao Wou-Ki's Eastern meditation. It is his presentation of nature and the universe and their all-embracing order.
Art critic Francois Jacob once described Zao's late-period works this way: 'Before my eyes I see the chaos that existed before the formation of the world; it is a road, a road that leads not to an endpoint but back to a beginning, somewhere between form and formlessness. This is where Zao Wou-Ki's paintings lead us, to a world still in formation, in suspension, hesitating in its last moment of free-soaring flight before the emergence of order. Zao Wou-Ki's paintings are ageless in their questioning of the universe, in their efforts at re-creation....they present for us the birth of light, the origins of water, and beyond these turbulent upheavals of matter, a distant sense of the life energy coming into being in their midst.'