In the early 1950s, Zao Wou-ki was already familiar with Paris and traveled to Europe. As he traveled, he reflected his impressions of various scenes on canvas, creating classic works with his rendering of famous structures such as Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, Burgos Cathedral in Spain, and the Piazza of Venice. Sans Titre (Cathedrale) (Lot 24), dating from 1951-52, was originally owned by a philanthropist and collector Patti Birch, and belongs to the same period in the artist's work with Arrezo (Fig. 1), Piazza of Venice (Fig. 2), and Golden City (Fig. 3) in 1950. The four works display strong stylistic similarities in their focus on European architecture and in Zao’s exploration with techniques of flat perspective. In Cathedrale, Zao presents human figures with long, thin bodies that resemble sculptures of Giacometti, while also echoing the tall, thin spires of the nearby Gothic architecture. Forms and empty space are expressed in collisions of color that bring to the work an extra depth and richness of variety. The apparently casual placement of the very fine, fragmented lines on the right of the painting and in its lower section belies the sense of order and the extra pulse of energy they add to the work. In the same way that Monet willingly sacrificed detail while striving to capture momentary shifts in light (Fig. 4), Zao Wou-ki attempts to develop a system of non-closed lines that will create an atmosphere and express the impressions of a particular instant of time.
In his paintings in the late 1940s, Zao Wou-ki was already moving toward a more simplified depiction of objects, and beyond that, an emphasis on creating scenes with a dreamlike quality. Attending an exhibition of his own copper-plate etchings in Switzerland in 1951, Zao had his first contact with the poetic and buoyant works of expressionist master Paul Klee (Fig. 5). Klee’s works inspired him to use bolder color, while also encouraging a shift toward human’s inner world in his themes and subjects. But in contrast with Klee's emphasis on geometric shapes and the childlike feelings in his paintings, the structure of Zao's Cathedrale exhibits a higher degree of complexity, and its calligraphic lines and the motifs also hint at the aesthetics behind written Chinese characters.
Zao Wou-ki's encounter with the works of Paul Klee was a stunning experience. Zao not only discovered anew the possibilities of Chinese painting but also was able to discover a path that would return him to his cultural origins. The techniques that allowed Klee to produce a sense of depth even when working on a two- dimensional flat plane, and his transformation of images into the language of linear motifs, were both areas in which Zao already excelled with the further inspiration provided by Klee, he even more boldly sought “appropriateness and compatibility of imagery,” while taking steps toward developing a unique Eastern style of abstraction. Yet this was a difficult period of transition, as he made efforts to break through traditional paradigms and to move beyond the ways in which Western art had influenced him.
A city's architecture may be artificial, but Zao Wou-ki once wrote that, regardless of whether a scene reflected human culture, people, or natural scenery, each of them is “an elements constituted by the universe, and an inseparable part of the universe.” And although the subject depicted in Zao Wou-ki's Sans Titre (Cathedrale) is European, the spirit of the work shows the same concern, contemplation, and depth of utterance found in the great Chinese paintings of trees, rocks, and mountain landscapes. Through his travels, Zao Wou-ki actively sought out new viewpoints. While striving to bridge the gulf between Eastern and Western cultures, he was also gradually moving from figuration to abstraction, paving the way for the soon-to-arrive “oracle-bone” series.