"I hope I make people feel that they can let themselves go and roam freely everywhere in my paintings — just as I do when painting them." — Zao Wou-ki
In the works of Zao Wou-ki, images of the natural landscape often exist within the abstract, lyrical impressions that greet our eyes. And in Chinese landscape paintings, the subject depicted is in fact always the artist himself: a picture of his inner universe, and the projection of an inner world. It is a personal experience of space that naturally gives rise to the scenery within the work. This traditional Chinese approach to Expressionism has its counterpart in many modern Western artistic concepts, though with implications that sometimes reach deeper. Zao Wou-ki understood this traditional artistic vocabulary, and attempted to introduce it into Western painting. Borrowing quintessential aspects of both Eastern and Western painting, he believed, could create a unique expressive style; he hoped to be a successor to the literati painters of old and imbue his works with their spirit. By the 1960s, Zao Wou-ki had completely embraced these traditional Chinese concepts within his paintings, developing a unique and personal style of lyrical abstraction which ultimately helped elevate literati tradition. He succeeded at transforming and projecting onto his canvases the depths of emotion from his own life and the profound reaches of his own inner world. Zao Wou-ki once offered his own analysis: “Any work of mine becomes a painting of feelings: it is nothing more than a naked display of my own emotions and moods.”
The grey-white space that floats around and through Zao’s 20.01.69 (Lot 8009) plays an important compositional role, helping create the remote, mysterious, and dreamlike world of the painting. Northern Song painter Guo Xi, in his treatise On the Painting of Mountains and Waters, wrote, “Whoever takes up a brush to paint must unite heaven and earth. What do we mean by heaven and earth? We mean that in a work one and a half measures high, a space should be left above for heaven and a space below for earth; in between, the conception takes shape and the space is defined.” Above and below, and on the left and right of the painting, Zao Wou-ki spreads grey-white pigments in broad strokes, producing a sense of deep space as regions of mingled brushstrokes and blocks of colour emerge toward the center. Much as Guo Xi did in his Old Trees, Level Distance, Zao Wou-ki makes full use of empty space, allowing the visual field to extend virtually beyond the borders of the canvas, inviting viewers to roam in this vast imaginative space where solid forms and empty space seem to merge and dissolve. But by means of his pure, total abstraction, Zao Wou-ki moves beyond Guo Xi, making his entire canvas an expression of just that kind of deep, remote emptiness. At the same time, Zao’s sensitive positioning of his empty, white spaces seems to be modeled after the tripartite division of pictorial space in such works as Ni Zan’s The Rongxi Studio. Foreground, middle ground, and distance become clearly separated and take on real dimensions, and the sense of a landscape painting begins to emerge indistinctly from the abstract imagery of Zao’s painting.
For Zao Wou-ki, the concepts behind calligraphy and painting were closely linked in that both, through the force and movement of the brush, express the inner feeling of the artist in artistic form. In 20.01.69, Zao’s fine, tangled, interwoven brushstrokes, with their suggestion of speed, emerge from the misty background to enrich the textures of the work; the graceful beauty of these lines recalls the calligraphy of the Song Dynasty’s Huizong Emperor. At the same time, by means of these lines, Zao weaves the different areas of the canvas tightly together. The result is tension and a sense of movement, like the images of dragons soaring through clouds and mists in Chen Rong’s Nine Dragons. It is in this sense of moving energy that we find a concrete expression of the inner themes and melodies moving in the artist’s soul. Zao Wou-ki’s exceptional sensitivity of colour is also in evidence here. Dark, inky tones in the center diffuse and spread with variations in density, thickness, and weight to produce clear layers, while thin washes of violet and blue-green spread among them like the flickering of the Northern Lights. Zao’s use of denser green-brown tones helps to firmly link his dense pigments and wild brushstrokes with the areas of lighter, more dilute colour, and in managing the fine transitions between these highly contrasting areas, he constructs this ideal world—vast, deep, and filled with poetry. In other Zao Wou-ki works, the artist also subtly alludes to the same Eastern connotations so strongly set out here; in all of his carefully managed lines and colours, the artist was always concerned with an implicit sense of an inner world of landscape imagery. Through that imagery, he arouses a viewer’s own half-buried impressions of nature and other memories. As the artist once said, “I hope I make people feel that they can let themselves go and roam freely everywhere in my paintings — just as I do when painting them.”