Foudre (Lot 25) was painted in 1955, during a time when Zao Wou-ki was gradually abandoning figurative depiction, and transferring the focus of his attention to the inner world. At the same time, in terms of his handling of brushwork and composition, he was making enormous strides forward. He was no longer emphasizing geometric composition, but was creating expressive power through the juxtaposition of colors of different “weights” and intensities, through the lines of his brushwork diverging and converging, and through different thicknesses in the application of paint. The type of layered colors creating a blurred or smearing effect that Zao had used in the past had evolved into a deployment or arrangement of pieces or chunks of color. At the same time Zao was increasingly adept at using relationships between colors to express dynamic movement and balance.
In this work, the overlapping and interplay of the three colors red, blue, and orange creates a powerful visual impact, generating a sense of action and movement, as well of luminosity and brightness. This employment of color is very similar to that in the work Line of Speed (1913) by the Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla (Fig.1).
The title of this painting is Foudre, which is the French word for “lightning.” It suggests the presence of speed, loud sound, and flashing light. But what the artist sought to express here is not the actual meteorological phenomenon of lightning. Rather he constructed a space of anticipatory psychology, rich in emotional conflict and dramatic tension. This psychological state of anticipatory tension is perhaps similar to what Sun Zi said a good general should aim to create in the minds of an enemy army which is “mentally subdued even before the battle begins.”
In the mid-1950s when Foudre was created, Zao Wou-Ki was trending toward using pure imagery (i.e. abstraction bearing no resemblance to any actual object), as well as graphic shapes reminiscent of Chinese characters, to explore the power of Nature and its ephemeral and constantly changing phenomena. However, in contrast to the structures made with geometric shapes by Paul Klee (Fig.2), Zao made “the unseen” the focus of his creative work, using brushstrokes to explore the inner nature of Nature.
Foudre has a foundation of blue and brown-black, while the blue circular shape in the upper left hand corner of the canvas is like a full moon hanging high in the western sky, a symbol of night. Meanwhile, broad brushstrokes of dark red symbolize the night sky being broken by a sudden fiery flash, a powerful burst of light that demands attention.
This was also a period in which Zao was beginning to consciously insert core elements of Chinese culture into his works (albeit under deep cover), while bringing into play his own knowledge of Chinese painting. In the orange patches in the center of this canvas as well as in the lower right hand corner, you will see shapes that call to mind ancient Chinese characters from bronze vessels, rich in a sense of unaffected beauty. Although Zao has “deconstructed” these characters into disorderly lines, they retain the essential nature and form of calligraphy.
In compositional terms, these orange patches with character shapes in them create a sense of balance with the “blue moon” in the upper left, forming a relationship of correspondence between the two colors. Meanwhile, the light blue and orange colors that dominate the middle of the painting, and are encircled in a vast swathe of red, evoke a mysterious sense of partial luminosity, offering an open space with multiple reference points for the viewer.
Finally, in the center you can see—though they are quite obscure—miniscule human figures and a mountain path that rises and falls, as if passing through valleys to peaks. These draw in the viewer for a closer look at the detail, allowing the viewer to better decode, interpret, and appreciate the work. This technique has the same nuanced charm as can be seen in some works of Ceye (“album leaf”) paintings of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) (Fig.3).
Many of the works of Zao Wou-Ki of this period illustrate his ambition to utilize abstract forms to grasp the power of Nature. This is evident from titles such as L’incendie [Fire (1954-1955)], Vent [Wind (1954)] (Fig,4), Avant l’orage [Before the Storm (1955)], and Montagne dechiree [Ruptured Mountain (1955-1956)].
The grand and imposing strength expressed through the East Asian spirit and style of famous works like In Homage to Du Fu, Epitaph, and Homage to Qu Yuan, as well as the Oracle Bone series, comes from the life force that intangibly runs back and forth between man and Nature. Zao’s works show that the artist had a profound understanding of, and sensitivity to, this force. Whereas in Western Romanticist art, the choice of “forces of Nature” as subject matter often intends to express the tension and conflictual relations between man and his world, this is not the case with Foudre. Instead, it manifests the inexhaustible dynamic balance that is contained in Nature.
One passage in the I Ching (Book of Changes) reads: “The explanations of the lines speak of the subtlest movements under the sky, and yet there is nothing in them to produce confusion.” This passage brings to mind that the ideal of Chinese aesthetic interpretation is to discover harmony or patterns, and maintain a sense of inner calm and order, in a world that is complex, nuanced, and sometimes fragmented. From a philosophical point of view, the interplay between natural phenomena and human emotion has long been part of the worldview characterized by the forces of Yin and Yang and by the “five phases” (or “elements”)—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—of Chinese philosophy. Zao Wou-ki’s efforts to capture the “qi” (life force) on canvas reflects precisely this point of view.
Of particular note is that since the Tang Dynasty Chinese classical painting, as well as poetry and song, have all emphasized pastoral elegance and harmony between Nature and man. Images of disaster and tragedy have been extremely rare. But Zao Wou-Ki chose to use a markedly different method to express the poetic majesty of Nature. Zao’s decision to focus on dramatic forces manifests and points to a psychological state of mind of the artist as an individual. It symbolizes his reliance on a relentless determination and willingness to engage in struggle in order to transcend tradition and to overcome the influence of Western culture. Foudre is evidence that, while blending Eastern and Western aesthetics genuinely and profoundly is extremely difficult, Zao Wou-Ki clearly was able to do so masterfully.