Blank-leaving (luibai) in oil painting
02.04.63 (Lot 396) dates from 1963, a time when Zao Wou-ki had already lived in France for 20 years and was well-versed in the concepts and techniques of Western art. But long exploration of his own cultural roots also led, in 02.04.63, to a harmonious and successful melding of Eastern and Western elements.
Compositionally, the work is visually integrated by the elegant blues, gradually moving from lighter blues above into darker-toned blues at the bottom. In the middle and lower parts of the canvas, fine, almost black brushstrokes also shuttle through the pictorial space, recalling the cun bi, or "cracked" brushstrokes of Song Dynasty landscapes.
The colour of blue inspired Zao the creation of space on canvas, he once said, ‘I lingered by the lake (West Lake, Hangzhou) every day, never found it boring. Natural scenery changes along with time and season. I was fascinated by ripples, light, reflection and mist. I sat by the lake for couples of hour, waiting for the wind brushing the lake, blowing the birch and maple leaves. What I saw is not the meticulous details of water bridge and pavilion, nor the reflection of leaves, I wanted to see the space – the extension and twisting of space, and the blue beyond the reflection of leaves in lake.’ (1)
The relatively modest dimensions of 02.04.63 nevertheless convey a broad vision with a feeling of grand, surging momentum. The work seems like the extension and evolution of landscape painting in square format by Lin Fengmian who was the teacher of Zao at the Hangzhou Art School. Lin's landscape painting reinforced a brand new modern perspective through composition and form. Being brave and creative, he filtered and fused the scattered perspective of Chinese landscape painting with the fixed-position perspective of Western painting. In order to include an infinite horizon, the Chinese landscape painting, through the scattered perspective, divides vertical shaft into four sections, so that the tableau may accommodate several focal points (Fig. 1). To present three-dimensional objects, the Western fixed-position perspective sets one focus on the tableau to concentrate the scope of landscape. Lin did not use the vertical shaft, but divided the square tableau horizontally, forming four sections of composition, which included the sky, the faraway mountains, the gentle slopes, and the rivers (Fig. 2).
02.04.63 brings together the close-up, the foreground, the middle and the faraway onto the same pictorial plane. Alternating white and blue horizontal masses divides the canvas into four parts. The bottom part is in a light grey. Occupying one quarter of the canvas, it is purposefully apparent. Upon closer inspection, we can still see the blue paint underneath the final layer of white and grey. Zao started using this unique style of expression from 1962 or 1963, making this an iconic symbol for his works from the 60s, as shown in Figure 3. Such an assured and expansive gesture creates a strong contrast between positive and negative space. It also makes a separation on the canvas. Zao did not intend to fill up the canvas, but chose to leave the bottom area ‘blank’. In the same spirit as ‘liubai’ in Chinese painting, not only is the blank area a significant element in the composition, it is also where the soul of the painting lies.
The relatively modest dimensions of 02.04.63 nevertheless convey a broad vision with a feeling of grand, surging momentum. The interplay of solid lines and empty space, as in calligraphy, creates great power, and the combination of motion and stillness in the painting produces its sense of convergence, pauses, and flow. Zao's strong calligraphic lines emerge even more fully when seen up close, and it is astonishing how the artist, by means of his brushwork, could exert such control within the compact space of this painting. And despite the fact that 02.04.63 is already a completely abstract work, viewers can still sense the artist’s insight into and understanding of nature.
In the ideal juxtapositions that Zao found in his canvas, the meeting of movement and stillness, and solid forms with empty space, he transforms and sublimates his inner sense of the meaning of nature into a painting that communicates through its conception, rather than through representation. It embodies the broad, philosophical outlook of the Daoist tradition, which sees man in union with nature. From the 1960s, Zao was at the peak of his classic series of abstract works. All traces of the recognizable, superficial features of nature have disappeared, and his work has become an expression of traditional Chinese cosmology with all its implications. 02.04.63, as a work from this period of Zao career, is a consummate achievement that cannot be overlooked.
Song Dynasty artists tried to paint a landscape through their mind and their inner spirit. These artists went beyond representation and imbued their paintings with personal feeling. We can find these “inner landscape” painting qualities in Zao Wou-Ki’s works in the 1960s. The emergence of the literati painters in the Southern Song gave rise to new ideas about projecting one's own feelings and personality through art, as these scholar-painters conveyed their unique taste and refinement through their paintings. Thus, those paintings embodied the painter's own perceptions, and by extension, revealed the painter's own outlook and temperament.
The Six Dynasties painter Zong Bing, in his Preface to the Art of Landscape Painting, wrote, "The form of the landscape leads us toward its soul." He meant that what really moves persons of humanity, wisdom, or virtue when they see a painting is not the outer facade of nature, but the spirit within it. When the artist senses the pulse of nature around him and then transfers his thoughts and feelings into the work, those feelings will resonate to the viewer, who, while gazing at it, also becomes one with nature.
1 Autobiography of Zao Wou-Ki, Artist’s Publishing Co., Taipei, Taiwan, 1993, p. 15.