In 1935 Zao Wou-ki entered the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts, studying with members of the first generation of Chinese artists to study abroad in France, including Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu, and absorbing Western influences from them. While generations before them had always worked in figurative styles, the spirit behind Chinese painting and calligraphy since ancient times was always more concerned with impressions than precise forms. Elements of abstraction were always implicit, and artists such as Wu Dayu were already abandoning clear representation in favor of vague forms (fig. 1). Such works, and those painted by Zao Wou-ki in the early '50s, are already abstract works in an Eastern, impressionistic style. When Zao Wou-ki, steeped in the traditions of Eastern art and culture, arrived in France, he began gaining greater proficiency with Western styles. The works he created led Asian art step by step toward interpreting the Eastern spirit through a Western artistic vocabulary, and in so doing, he helped forge new art for the era.
Zao Wou-ki's Ville Flottante(Floating City) (Lot 33) dates from 1954, well after his arrival in France. He had eagerly thrown off the restricting stereotypes of Eastern ink-wash styles and was attempting to discover a new viewpoint in modernism. He retraced the history of art from the Renaissance and Rembrandt to the Spanish romantic Goya, then on to the Impressionists, the Cubists, the Fauves, and finally the Paris School. For a certain period after his arrival in 1948, to further advance his technical abilities, he deliberated abandoned the ink-wash techniques in which he was already so proficient. Then in 1949 he experimented with lithography, and his success in that medium spurred him toward a new synthesis in style. Adding the Eastern cultural traditions already in his blood to the thick pigments of Western oils, he blended richness and weight with lightness and grace, and relaxed spontaneity with the assurance of maturity. The sensory effects of this new style often seemed to set his subjects afloat at an indeterminate distance from the viewer. Interestingly, during his time in Paris, Zao Wou-ki viewed travel as both a kind of resolution or ending and as preparation for a new creative phase. Thus, in 1951 and 1952, he traveled frequently, feeling that it would help him find himself and get back in balance again. 1951 brought him to Tuscany, Rome, Pompei, Naples, and Ischia; in 1952 he traveled throughout Spain. His travels sparked a new awareness of the issues of space in painting; he began altering his methods of presenting perspective, creating a world of a multi-point perspectives similar to that seen in Chinese painting.
The aesthetic vision of Ville Flottante derives from the linear qualities of Eastern inkwash painting, with an admixture of Western abstraction. Flows of light and shadow move through the space of the painting; linear motifs, floating between water and sky, emerge and disappear, reflecting the changes in the rippling light as they shift from heavy to light or from dusky to bright. In a work such as the surrealist Joan Miro's The Birth of the World, housed in New York's Museum of Modern Art (fig. 2), we see a Western approach stressing linear depiction; in Ville Flottante , the deeply ingrained skills Zao Wou-ki developed with ink and brush reveal another kind of linear depiction in his mix of lightness and weight, quickness and relaxation. Here, an ancient city seems to float in an unknown space; reflections below the city help guide the viewer's eye back toward the central part of the painting, and the sense of ancient forms appearing amid ripples of blue creates a vast imaginative space. Linear forms and motifs echo each other in pleasing rhythms, while solid forms and empty space take shape above the foundation of Zao's bands of contrasting colour. As light and shadow expand toward the painting's edges, the emerging and receding lines of this semi-transparent city enhance the undulating, wave-like feel of the work. The Northern Song's Mi Fu, in Mountains and Pines in Spring , displays a similar simplification of forms, while the Yuan Dynasty's Zhao Mengfu, in Autumn Colours on the Que and Hua Mountains (fig. 4), likewise employs a simplified, reductionist manner of expression. Steeped as he was from his early years in the aesthetics of Chinese painting, it was certain to informed Zao Wou-ki's work, and while Ville Flottante is presented in oil, he transforms the scene through his inner vision in the manner of those Chinese landscape painters. His handling of colour in the background depicts this space as a non-physical one; his presentation of visual space from multiple viewpoints reflects the multi-point perspective of Chinese painting, another indication of how he broke through realistic spatial presentation to return to the Chinese tradition. Paul Klee gives his own mental imagery a linear treatment in Castle (fig. 5), though in T , Zao's gauzy shapes seem to have passed through time and space to appear floating before us. Zao's depiction reflects the artist's worldview of a harmonious universe, a vision of peaceful coexistence in an imaginary space beyond the physical world.