The Exploratory Period: Still Lifes and Nature Scenes (1950-55)
Zao Wou-ki became a presence in the artistic life of Paris immediately upon his arrival in 1948. During this period his expressive manner borrowed much from Paul Klee; Zao's subjects are typically still lifes or nature scenes and exude a highly poetic and tranquil feel. In depicting them, however, Zao had already moved beyond the straightforward presentation of forms or the direct imitation of nature, deliberately eschewing detail in favour of treating subjects and building compositions exclusively through the pure elements of line and colour. 19-7-50 (Lot 1343) and Untitled (Lot 1385) are two representative works that clearly exhibit the stylistic features of this period, in which Zao employs a fairly diluted and thin application of oil pigments based on the style of lithographs that Zao himself produced around this same time. Serene blue-green tones permeate these works, with much the same visual effect as the spreading washes of ink across paper, creating compositions that are beautiful for their spareness and reserve. 19-7-50 and Untitled respectively depict a moonlight landscape of mountain and river and a human figure set in a peaceful landscape. The bright moon shines overhead while white starlight is sprinkled through the heavens, suggesting a line from a Bai Ju-yi poem, "Beneath the scattered stars of the Milky Way, daybreak approaches." Zao borrows from Chinese landscape painting its sense of simplicity and spareness, as well as its technique of distributed perspective, in which views of high elevations, the middle distance, and far distant perspectives are squeezed together. Mountain peaks and mists, silent sky, river, and bare forest are juxtaposed to create the sensation of viewing a purely mental image. La course de Chevaux (Horse Racing) (Lot 1342) is another work from this period, whose antique bronze tones imbue the work with its sense of remote cultural origins and contribute to its composed and tasteful expressiveness. Zao's accomplished handling of verdigris and antique jasper green creates subtle, gentle layering effects within those tones and brings light, graceful movement to the canvas. Like 19-7-50 and Untitled, La course de Chevaux is a scene painting, but with an extra dash of narrative interest and atmosphere, and it marks the development of new subjects in Zao Wou-ki's mid-50s work. Here his subjects becoming even more generalized and abstract, as images and motifs are simplified into the pure motion of line. The primary focus is on the rhythm of curving lines and the way they build space, and on exploring the energies of those lines, the hidden dynamics of form within them, and their emotional import. Following the rhythmic movement of the lines, the viewer senses the motion of the painter's brush, the pulse of his imagination. The strongly expressionistic and abstract elements of the work form a link to Zao Wou-ki's later abstract nature paintings.
The Creative Peak: Abstract, "Oracle-bone" Works and the Grandeur of Nature and the Universe (1955-60)
Ville Suspendue (Lot 1341), 22-10-59 (Lot 1386), and 3-1-61 (Lot 1340) all date from the mid-'50s or later, a period in which Zao achieved breakthroughs in style and expressive techniques and which represented the first summit of the artist's creative career. Zao was entering a new creative genesis, moving beyond the narrative focus of earlier works concerned with landscape or early Chinese artifacts, allowing his observation and creativity to emerge from a different point of view. He began attempting to depict the unseen: the energies of life, the feel of the wind, the sense of movement, the life within objects, and the unfolding and merging of hues and colours. He also delved into the Chinese artistic tradition found in oracle-bone inscriptions, sculpture, and calligraphy, and by taking these creative leaps, he opened up a new world of infinite artistic possibility. Ville Suspendue and 22-10-59 best typify the period, and are painted in strong, deep tonalities in a style that tends toward moodiness and reserve, with sharp shifts in their rhythms and textures. Zao's oils, too, are dense and eloquent, folding against one another in expressive motifs derived from the imagery of carved oracle bone inscriptions. Expressiveness of line especially characterizes Zao's work in this period, his roughly textured brushstrokes here creating a profusion of short, broken lines of pigment that collide, split, merge, and embrace in rhythm, giving rise to a sense of firm, resolute strength. China's oracle-bone texts were its earliest form of writing, the origin and the foundation of its written culture. They recorded the divinations, shamanic rituals, sacred offerings, and patriarchal clan activities of its early societies, and, as history physically inscribed in bone, they stand as witness to their era. They expressed the ancients' sense of respect and veneration as they sought to divine the intent of the spirits, and for us, they evoke the mystical, religious atmosphere of societies in the deep and ancient past. Once we understand the full weight of history embedded in oracle-bone texts, we can admire even more how Zao Wou-ki utilizes their symbolic implications to give Ville Suspendue and 22-10-59 their own expansive feeling of history, one that evokes vast temporal distances, reawakens long-dormant memories of ancient times, and brings them renewed life within these rhythmically unfolding lines.
3-1-61 (Lot 1340), from the 1960s, reflects deeply the emotional upheavals occurring in Zao Wou-ki's life during this period. Its composition is new and fresh, but also shows representative features that would mark his compositions from the 1960s onward. Colours and lines mass together at the center of the canvas, sometimes meeting in points of explosion or conflict, as if two of the forces of the universe have met and become entangled, filling the canvas with drama and motion. Zao's colours and brushwork are also characteristic of this period, the colours heavy and dense, applied with both brush and palette knife in layer after layer of overlapping, textured strokes. The quick, agile energy of Zao's white pigments break through into the spaces defined by the clear, mild blues, producing visual tension in the meeting of motion and stillness, and strength and softness. Zao's white tones, along with some black, erupt and flash in the midst of the blue, shaping its variations in hue, brightness, and intensity for a strong sense of penetration and glowing radiance. Morning seems to be breaking on a world freshly swept by rain, with the sun almost ready to peer through the clouds and send out shafts of light. The whites and blues set up areas of high contrast, as the vivid whites dance and shimmer across the surface of somber blues, in a demonstration of Zao Wou-ki's superb technique for managing the picture space through sheer effects of light and colour. Zao seems to shine blue light through a region of rising mists and clouds-blue tones shift and swirl as cloudy masses rise, until the painting as a whole becomes a fantastic visual experience of deep blue that seems to vibrate, expand, effervesce, and evolve into new hues and forms. Zao's work in the early 1950s rarely explored the pure, expressive effects of light and colour in quite this manner, though later in the decade he produced works with shifting and penetrating colours, where light emerges radiantly and then is absorbed and extinguished. Zao describes his work as "wanting to use the contrasts and vibrations within a single colour to bring movement to the canvas, and to find a central point from which light can radiate." This technique-of radiant light that generates change and movement within colour, until even formless space is filled with life and motion-is exceptional even among western artists, and demonstrates how successful Zao Wou-ki has been in his exploration of western art forms. Discussing art and aesthetics, Zao Wou-ki has touched many times on the reserved, inward quality of the colour blue, while also noting its possibilities for richness of hues and layering. Abstract works such as 3-1-60, centering on these kinds of blue tonalities, stand out as rare and unique within Zao's total oeuvre.