In his “Oracle-bone” series of works in the mid-1950s, Zao Wou-ki introduced imagery from ancient Chinese writing into poetic visual spaces, tracing out unique, animated motifs with the abstract markings of his brush. In his Ville Chinoise (Lot 21), from 1955, Zao makes use of darker tones to heighten the sense of lines etched on a surface, while the way the lines are grouped suggests inscriptions engraved on ancient bronze vessels. The lines wind in an ellipse around the center of the painting, like the dwellings of a village settled around a lake. Another of his works from 1955, White Village Near the Wood (Fig. 1), also displays this same technique of expressing scenic images through script-based motifs. The composition of Ville Chinoise echoes the simplicity, lightness of touch, and cool refinement found in the ink-wash paintings of ancient China's literati painters (Fig. 2). Zao's white-streaked lines may be slender, but they are spontaneous and joyful, and their syncopated rhythms provide the necessary support for the entire compositional space. Ville Chinoise is unique in this artist's “oracle-bone” series for the subtle, refined elegance it displays. In his use of color, Zao's gently spreading aureoles of white, pale blues and yellows, and pink-violet communicate his meticulous care in capturing impressions of nature. The pale yellow in the upper left gleams like ripples of sunlight reflected from water lake, while light touches of green at the right suggest the green of willow trees waving in the breeze, with adjacent fine brown lines that also suggest branches.
Zao Wou-ki's beautiful expressions of color and light in Ville Chinoise may have been inspired by a description of the “rippling waves” on China's West Lake in a poem by Su Shi, and they speak to us in a subtle way of Zao's dreamlike memories of his now-distant homeland. Despite naming his painting Ville Chinoise, the artist did not intend a figurative depiction of such a scene; the work is instead an artistic vision that must be understood with both the mind and heart. The visual cues of the painting guide our perceptions of its rich detail, evoking deep memories and appealing to our imaginations. Gazing at Zao's Ville Chinoise, the viewer embarks on a kind of inner exploration. The blue and violet palette Zao chose for this work resembles those chosen by the French Impressionist Monet for his Water Lilies series — though they differ in their artistic viewpoints, and the way in which they present the reflections of water and sky, and the connections between vague images and physical forms. Monet depicted the objective forms that met his eyes, though their outlines have nearly dissolved, becoming subtle and ambiguous to a degree that approaches abstraction (Fig. 3). Zao Wou-ki transforms his scenic objects into abstract forms of an even more intuitive nature; the constantly renewed energies of nature are translated by the painter's brush into the energy of movement within his lines.
The spiritual depth evident in the classical Eastern landscape paintings grew out of the artists' meditative style of observation, the way that they themselves entered into the scenes they painted — a fact that deeply influenced the late Impressionists. Zao Wou-ki, with his extraordinary creative abilities, took their lyrical, freehand style of painting and pushed it toward abstraction, while taking a leap beyond even the Impressionists in his pursuit of light and color. Ville Chinoise is an outstanding embodiment of Zao's work in this vein. Unconstrained by traditional norms, his painting embraced elements of the avant-garde, free and uninhibited in technique. He both mastered and then reinterpreted the two essential elements of Chinese aesthetic thought — imagery and artistic conception. And, by virtue of his unflagging effort, he successfully merged the spirit of the East with the mainstream of 20th-century Western modernism.
Ville Chinoise is one of the very few Zao Wou-ki paintings to be based on a specifically Chinese subject. Like his painted tributes to two great Chinese poets, Hommage a Tou-Fou and Hommage a Chu-Yun, its subject reveals a desire to return to the roots of Chinese culture. The great majority of Zao Wou-ki's works in the 1950s featured subjects derived from European architecture, making a work such as this, inspired by Chinese villages and hand-signed by the artist on the reverse side, all the more rare. The outlines of the composition, viewed as a whole, can even be seen to faintly reflect the outlines of the map of China (Fig. 4). Thus, beyond the sheer artistry and creative ingenuity it displays, the great value of Ville Chinoise can be also found in the way it reveals Zao Wou-ki's thoughts of his homeland.