The 1950s may have been one of the most important eras for mankind's exploration of the cosmos: The first satellite was launched into Earth orbit in 1957, and the first lunar probe landed on the moon in 1959. For Zao Wou-ki too, and for Asian art in general, the 1950s were an equally important period of exploration. Zao's Voie Lactée – 09.11.1956, an extremely rare large-scale work from his 'oracle-bone' period, powerfully demonstrates the artist's understanding of Asian art's place in the world. In it, he transforms ancient Chinese written characters into the vast flow of stars that spreads across our skies in the Milky Way, linking the ever-evolving civilization of mankind's past to its future—and leaving the unique imprint of Eastern art on the eternity of the cosmos.
Zao's “oracle-bone” period held great significance as a breaking-out point in his career. Chinese oracle-bone and bronzeware scripts represent some of the oldest forms of writing in China; by engraving characters on tortoise shells or ritual bronze implements, ancient emperors could communicate with the spirits and find guidance for their realms. In 1947, even as Zao Wou-Ki settled in Paris and began studying the vocabulary of Western painting, he continued investigating the cultural foundations underlying Chinese art; in 1954, in the inscriptions carved in ancient relics, Zao at last discovered a key that could unlock the spirit of the East. He began incorporating in his art creatively deconstructed and reassembled fragments of oracle-bone and bronzeware scripts. Strong and sinuous, these mysterious characters snake through the paintings of that period like dragons flying among the clouds. Combining these with the myriad possibilities of the Western oil medium, Zao had unlocked a door that brought him great freedom, allowing him to truly meld Eastern and Western forms of art.
But unlike the rough, coarse, and diffuse scripts of the early oracle-bone style, Zao's “calligraphy” in Voie Lactée exhibits a more mature, flowing quality; it is exquisite, delicate, and complex, extending throughout the canvas. The artist weaves these motifs into a whole of such vitality that viewers feel they can almost reach out and touch the great tides and turnings of history. The inscriptions of old have been broken apart and reassembled, infused with the elegance of the Song dynasty script. The painting communicates an ineffable message as the character motifs converge from all sides of the work, massing together and colliding at its center. Marcel Duchamp once enveloped an entire exhibition hall in a webwork of twine threads, a woven installation pointing out the inherent directions and possibilities of art history. Zao here employs a complex interweaving of cultural symbols and motifs, fusing the primitive with the avant-garde as he guides the viewer through the vast spaces of his painting, toward an encounter with the ancient civilizations of the East.
The Ru kilns of the Song Dynasty produced wares with a base colour of “skies after rain”, which were further enhanced with naturally occurring “cracked-ice” veins that added a sense of gentle warmth and sacredness. In Voie Lactée, Zao Wou-ki likewise holistically merges traces of humanity with the grand beauty of nature, evincing the Eastern philosophy of “man and nature as one”. Though in reality, the night sky is dark and deep, Zao presents his galaxy in a resplendent, romantic vision, building up layers of gentle, elegant hues such as lilac, azure blue, aquamarine, and turquoise. With these washes of mild, mellifluous colour he evokes the kind of misty, almost otherworldly vistas often seen in the landscapes of J.M.W.