THE EXEMPLARY MODEL OF CHINESE AND WESTERN FUSION POST-WAR PAINTINGS
During his studies at the Hangzhou Academy of Arts (1935-1941), Zao Wou-ki underwent trainings for both Chinese and Western art practices, and he was in the pursuit for impressionistic clarity and buoyancy with his art. Prior to traveling to France in 1948, he had in his possession “only a few small catalogues of impressionism paintings, and had heard of Cezanne. He wasn’t aware of cubism, but knew about Picasso.” In 1985, Zao saw his classmates from the Hangzhou Academy of Arts again and realized that since his departure from China, they “had not changed, and were still learning from Matisse and Picasso.” This realization had him commenting downheartedly that, “who is aware of the amount of time that I have spent to listen and digest artists such as Cezanne and Matisse, but when I looked back in search of our tradition, I ended up realizing that paintings from the Tang and Song dynasties are the most beautiful. It took me a total of five decades to come to this realization!”
By the mid-1950s, Zao turned to abstraction to convey the narratives in his paintings. He thought of this as a natural and destined progression, and stated that, “This was not a deliberate act on my part; rather, to detach paintings from reality was a necessary step bound to naturally happen.” The reality that the artist wanted to detach from was sentimental illustrations of perceptible subjects, such as landscapes and people, and he created imaginative bone oracle scripts and symbolic linear writings to replace such renderings, with him entrusting in his art feelings towards the course of life that would otherwise be difficult to express. At the end of the 1950s, he gradually disengaged himself from his brief bone oracle phase and began creating full abstract paintings to express his inner grander vision. As pointed out by his friend, Francois Cheng, "this was a new phase, concluding the series of works concerned with the physical world." This marked the conclusion of his previous focus on figurative subjects and symbolic motifs, and from more comprehensible or suggestive vocabularies, Zao shifted to expressions with abstract meanings.
Beginning in 1958, he started to title his paintings with their dates of completion. In the 1960s, Zao purported that “concrete results” had been achieved in his paintings, which helped him to look at the world through a different eye. 10.11.58-30.12.70 (Lot 25) took an extensive twelve years from 1958 to 1970 to complete. The piece marks the conclusion of Zao’s searching phase, and is the epitome of his paintings created in the 50s with “concrete results”. With complex colour variations achieved through the compilation of achromatic black and white, the black symbolizes the realm of empty void, and the white represents hope and light. This is not only a revival of the subtly elusive hint at the sense of life found in the tradition of the East; moreover, it is a dialogue between Eastern and Western poeticness conducted with light and shadow.
Conferring the heritage of Chinese paintings, 10.11.58-30.12.70 is a successful achievement of a vivacious artistic conception. According to Mr. C.C. Wang, this piece of vivacious expression is based on the combinations of various elements, such as elements of black and white, and also the states of with and without. These combinations have resulted naturally rather than achieved through intentional arrangements. The feelings imparted are not only alive; they are also dynamically mobile. 10.11.58-30.12.70 underwent an extensive period of alterations and adjustments, with the final result being completely different from Western abstract paintings. Different from Jackson Pollock’s allover technique (fig. 1), Zao has expressed the sense of “occurring” quality found distinctively in Chinese paintings. James Cahill once talked about Huang Gongwang’s paintings (fig. 2) by pointing out that with overlapping wrinkles and contours, rocky hills are compiled on top of wrinkled hill tops. The conflicting mountainous masses and textures create unique results, and yet they do not interfere with the expressions of the landscape structure. On the contrary, they bestow the landscape with an amusing sense of “occurring”, with a brand new visual interpretation created for the innate life embodied by the landscape. (fig. 3)
While he reflected on the root of his own culture, Zao was also learning about the perceptions and expressions with light and shadow found in Western art. From Rembrandt (fig. 3) of the 17th century to Turner (fig. 4) of the 19th century and with observations and renderings of light found in Western impressionism paintings, these all inspired Zao to place sources of light in his abstract paintings. Lights and shadows trickled through the cracks of leaves are found in Cezanne’s paintings (fig. 5), as the lights reflected on the rocky hills and into the eyes of the viewers. A similar light source is found in 10.11.58- 30.12.70 , but it is revealed from the painting in a more subtle approach. In 1959, Zao bought a warehouse in Paris, which was renovated into a studio by Georges Johannet. The studio was designed without any outward-facing windows, and instead, it had a glass skylight roof, which provided a natural light source from above. This allowed Zao to create works of larger scales. Consequently, a light source that seems to have emerged from the clouds is found in 10.11.58-30.12.70 , which represents Zao’s pursuit in the 1960s for “a central point emitting light”. The painting stirs for various suppositions for the dark blocks of colour and spaces found in the image, and is also an epitome of Zao’s paintings from the 1960s. As the artist once said, “issues with technicality are no longer existent, and I could freely paint as I wish. With the larger canvas, I am pushed to confront the space, and not only do I need to fill it, I also need to give it life and completely immerse myself in it.”
It has been said that Zao Wou-ki is the result of the long, long period of waiting after Chinese painting had already stagnated for a century. He explored the value of art with a concentration possessed by few, and in his biography once said, 'I hoped to created a kind of order. Sometimes, it was as easy as scribbling a few lines, but sometimes it was incomparably difficult...' Zao's 10.11.58-30.12.70 is a rare work that took the artist 12 long years to complete. His meticulous presentation of the space in this painting produces a kind of whirlpool of flowing air with immense, spreading energy. He boldly presents his subject gradually drawing nearer as it stretches in space from left to right, like a great dragon of legend soaring powerfully through the foreground, in a composition centered along the horizontal axis. A profusion of gauzy, misty spirals mingle with inky blacks applied with the brush tip; Zao's fluid and confident brushstrokes begin, spread, turn, and complete their motion, meeting in a free and mysterious place, perfectly echoing and balancing each other, dancing and spilling out with the strong, beautiful harmony and rhythm of calligraphy. A grand symphony seems to echo and resound somewhere in a deep, hidden valley, becoming rich and full as it reaches the middle, with all its beautiful details complementing each other perfectly. The sense of free, energetic linear motion embodies important elements of the aesthetics of China's cursive style of calligraphy (Fig. 6).
A work such as 10.11.58-30.12.70, the product of a 12-year period of work, came only after Zao had first arrived in Paris in 1948, had undergone his exploratory 'Klee' period, followed by the emergence of his important 'oracle-bone' period, then finally his creation of the paintings of his 'wild script' period in the '60s, with their intense feeling of movement and space. It is a work that thus covers three of Zao's quintessential periods, and his diverse techniques are all displayed on the canvas: heavy and light brushwork, pigments applied wet or dry, scraped or brushed on, splashed, spattered, or dotted. The noted French- Chinese critic Francois Cheng, writing in a forward to the catalog for Zao Wou-ki's 1981 invitational showing at the Grand Palais Museum in Paris, described his art this way: 'Zao Wou-Ki's artistic destiny is more than just personal: It is closely linked to the evolution of China's millennia-old painting tradition. This fundamental fact does not weaken the value of his individual exploration; it only makes it much more moving. In fact, thanks to his work, our hopes for an end to this period of stagnation in Chinese painting, which has lasted for over a century, have been realized. For the first time we have seen a kind of true symbiosis between East and West, which should have occurred long ago. When I remember how, in the middle of the century, the decisive moment arrived when he traveled from his home country far away to take up residence in Paris, it seems right to me to call it a kind of miracle. It was miraculous how he found himself right away, and threw himself totally into painting. The things he expresses, the depths he achieves, still leave us amazed.'