Zao Wou-Ki’s art incarnates the aesthetic essence of traditional Chinese landscape painting of Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), meanwhile radiates the virtue of western paintings’ vivid depiction of colours and tonal contrasts between light and dark, eventually evolves into a fundamentally original expression of abstractionism which exemplifies a perfect fusion in pursuit of the combination of Chinese and western aesthetics. Unlike furious dashes of brushstroke and majestic composition harbouring instantaneous strength and dynamic momentum in his works from 1960s to early 1970s, after the mid 1970s, Zao Wou- Ki’s works are brought to another level: with more adept command of oil painting techniques and more vibrant and brighter choice of colours, the expression of spatial depth and light is emphasized; and with depiction of various natural elements as sky, earth, water and fire etc., his works then are more of implication scenic beauty. In this evening sale, Zao Wou-Ki’s 8.11.79 (Lot 32) is presented as one of his magnum opus created during this period of time, to reveal artist’s gradual transformation in abstractionism from his mid-period to late years’ characteristics.
Since 1970s, Zao Wou-Ki’s works although themed with cosmos, space, and dynamic momentum, significant changes in terms of painting style could be spotted, possibly due to his experience in practice of Chinese ink painting. In 1971, he re-embarked on traditional ink painting on paper. At first, it only served as an approach to express inner feelings; shortly, he found out the unlimited potential of ink painting as a medium of creative work. Therefore, many ink paintings are done during this period of time, as mentioned by artist that: “Unexpected effects are rendered through casual paper creases and water-soaked ink papers. Once water and ink touch the paper, along with turns and changing pressing of the wrist as well as shifts of the speed of movement, through the white paper, it starts to present endless variations of black, what, and grey, thousands of different shades of grey.”
While closely observing Zao Wou-Ki’s work of this period of time, he deals with oil paints in the style of Chinese ink painting and blends in a great amount of turpentine to create an ink wash effect on canvas, so that colours appear with a more misty and hazy charm. Due to Zao Wou-Ki’s original re-exploration in the essence of Chinese painting, the composition of his paintings starts to change: he sometimes leaves huge tracts of white or only tints light colours in the centre of the painting, while renders dominant colours and images circling around the margin or four corners, to present an aesthetic realm of ethereal pureness, as he once mentioned “in large tracts of blankness, do I find rest; in blocks of colours, do I have peace.”
8.11.79 was painted in 1979 with a three-layer horizontal composition: the lower one-third of the painting seems to appear as a tranquil lake surface below the skyline; the middle part is rendered with black, brown, yellowish green, shimmering with ocher, white, bluish violet, and aubergine, etc., stretching from left towards right to create an expansion of space, which resembles the continuous mountains and luxuriant forests usually set in the middle ground of traditional western landscape painting; the upper part is painted with horizontal brushstrokes of pasting, rubbing, dry brush, and dripping techniques, to imply the light penetrating the canvas as if the first ray of morning sun is breaking through the cloud through subtle changes of colours. The dripping diluted yellowish green in the middle part of the right side contrasts with the gentle light bright colours pasted horizontally, presenting a comparison of movement and stillness, voidness and absolutenesss. The skyline lying across the painting divides it into two spaces, as sunshine travels through the morning mist, slowly pours over ranges of mountains and reflections of emerald green mountains are mirrored down in the lake. The glistening lake water rippling in the sunlight reflects a majestic landscape gauzed in mist and cloud, incarnating a poetic beauty of “sparsely reflected sceneries in the clear shallow water”, and presenting an oriental aesthetics of ethereal and meditating image.
Black blocks arrayed from left to the right are also inspired by artist’s attempt of revisiting traditional Chinese ink paintings in 1970s. Although there is only one colour, black, in Chinese ink paintings, thousands of different shades and changes in dense, light, dry and moist brushstrokes give the painting myriad of spatial depth, which is as well brought into Zao Wou-Ki’s works after 1970s, hence such black patches often appear in his works of this period. These black blocks are of thick and solid texture, consisting of coarse brushstrokes. Although lightabsorbing, yet in the mean time, they balance the white and light-coloured areas and calm the whole picture, also echo to the furious dashing strokes and lines of dynamic rhythm and absolute freedom, giving the painting a rich texture and beauty of brushstrokes. Zao Wou-Ki once mentioned that his works turn into a new style since 1973. Different from the grandeur of early works, his paintings of this period are gently polished and detached from his works of 1960s which emphasize lines and bright colours, transforming to images of natural landscape of tranquility and elegance with rich and soft brushstrokes resembling to the traditional ink paintings.
I very much favour the tranquil lake, with a tint of mystery, having endless colour variations.
While studying in National Academy of Art on the bank of the West Lake in Hangzhou at his early years, charmed by its scenic beauty, Zao Wou-Ki often lingered around the West Lake, observing the nature. From the exterior appearance of bridges and pavilions, or the specific flowers and birds, he found out the infinite changes of passage of time and turns of seasons. Its shimmering ripples, dance of the light, and the misty gauze falling between the heaven and water also mesmerized him. Zao Wou-Ki once said “space is the focus: the expansion and twisting of the space. I often try to figure out: how to draw the wind? How to depict the blankness? How to capture the brightness and pureness of the light?” To perceive the “brightness”, “pureness”, and “passage of time and turns of seasons” requires artist having an unfettered imagination, poetic aesthetics consciousness and philosophical mind of broad vision, which as well the artistic realm highly esteemed in Chinese culture.
In his early years at Paris, Zao Wou- Ki devoted himself to absorb the great quintessence of Western Art. As being reluctant to be labeled with “Chinese artist”, he was determined to rid himself of anything relevant to China and decided to give up traditional Chinese painting; However, unexpectedly, as he re-started to explore in ink paintings since 1970s, the absolute freedom inspired by the ancient art form brought back Zao Wou-Ki an extreme joy and cheerful feelings, meanwhile, it allowed him to rid of the meticulous control during his practice of oil painting of abstractionism in early stage and unleashed him to a more free and comfortable state. As he once said that “I feel like having walked away from China, and then again it brought me back to China”, with the same landscape paintings, yet at this moment, he seemed to have reached the spiritual awareness of “seeing mountain still as it is”, a return to his original nature after having fathomed the essence of life. In the work 8.11.79 , with more adept use of Eastern and Western aesthetic images and techniques, Zao Wou-Ki gains a free command of traditional ink painting and oil painting, which not only exerted a profound influence upon his works in this period, also conceived a new artistic style of creating a spatial atmosphere with flowing touches of brush since 1980s.