“China or France? The East or the West? In fact, Zao Wou-Ki lives in one-land – he lived in the land of no limits for many years now.” - Claude Roy
A HISTORY OF MONUMENTAL SCROLLS
Between 1980 and 1990, Zao painted seven monumental triptychs. Only two have been presented on the art market so far. Tryptique 1987-1988 is a highlight of that decade, with highly contrasted colours, where the artist roamed from dark corners reminiscent of his works from the 1960s, to a light floating space as the central piece of the painting.
Although the 1980s and 1990s is characterised as one of Zao’s most famous periods for its epic abstract polyptychs, his long history of working on a large-scale surface contributed to the recognition of his natural ease at producing monumental triptychs.
His purchase in 1977 of a large studio in the Loiret, a French region just outside of Paris, definitely stimulated his eagerness to experiment with over-sized formats. Although he had already started to experiment with large-scale oil paintings, as early as the late 1940s, it was his trip to New York in 1957, exposing him to the American abstract painters, which provided him with the freedom to experiment with large canvases. In his autobiography, Zao Wou-Ki refers to monumental surfaces: “The large surfaces inspired me to battle with space: I had to fill this surface, bring it to life, give myself to it. I was attempting to express movement, its creeping slowness or flashing flurries, I wanted to make the surface of the canvas vibrate with contrasts or multiple bursts of a single colour. […] I later realized that balance is more easily attained on a large surface rather than small: the excessive availability of materials always allows to compensate here or there […] Hence, I had transitioned from sentimental painting to painting space.” Zao Wou-Ki operates a transformation from his large formats from the 1960s, directly influenced by the American abstract expressionist painters, to his monumental works from the 70s onward. As he had returned to his Chinese roots after May
’s death in 1972, Zao transfers traditional ink methods to oil painting, allowing a more diluted oil to sweep larger and further on the canvas. His exploration was no longer about conveying the depth and darkness of his inner space, but about providing a new perspective and travelling through new realms of physical and colourful space.
In 1981, Jean Leymarie organized a first museum exhibition on Zao Wou-Ki’s large formats at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. Three triptychs were exhibited there, 15.12.76, 24.11.80 and 05.06.80, the latter two painted for the exhibition. 2018 was equally an important year in bringing Zao Wou-Ki’s work to the forefront of the artworld with the Paris Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition focusing on large-scale works. Its high-ceiling rooms with large windows provided a new approach to the artist’s work, where natural light could take the viewer to different spaces on any given day. Out of the twenty large-scale triptychs ever painted by Zao Wou-Ki, seven were exhibited there.
While most of his tripychs from this decade convey a sense of depth of space through multiple pathways and arches, none have set the stage as clearly as this one. Triptyque 1987-1988 is an open window to the artist’s newly appreciated world, where characteristics from his previous works, but more importantly elements from his most admired mentors such as Matisse and Monet converge into one work.
MATISSE – A LIMITLESS SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
Zao Wou-Ki painted our triptych, Triptyque 1987-1988 , in the wake of the revelation of a revived language and interpretation of masters of art. This exploration started in 1986 when he painted Hommage à Matisse, and represents a turning point in the artist’s career. Using very similar composition in Triptyque 1987-1988, the two side panels provide a frame to the central composition. Just like Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, the window is only meant as a frame to transform the outside view into a painting, as a mise en abyme. The view, representing the artist’s universe, becomes the focus of the painting. This triptych is at the height of Zao’s discovered exploration, he has fully absorbed a new approach to fluid composition giving way to inner light, originating from his Hommage à Matisse. The understanding of Matisse’s painting is thus essential to our full appreciation of Zao’s Triptyque 1987-1988. Matisse painted
French Window at Collioure in 1914, in the context of a war threatening to abruptly destroy the blooming artistic experimentations he had started to undertake, Zao Wou-Ki has qualified this painting as “the most important painting from the 20th Century […] It is an immense black hope. For all of us, it is an open door toward true painting”
The theme of painting a window as a frame transforming the view into a painting can be drawn back to the Renaissance. Matisse frequently explored this viewpoint throughout his work, however French Window at Collioure distinguishes itself as a resolutely abstract painting, much more than any of his other works painted before or after. It is likely that this particular treatment of colour and space would have deeply resonated in Zao Wou-Ki, especially in the 1980s when he painted Triptyque 1987-1988.
Triptyque 1987-1988, by its composition and choice of colours, masterfully displays the artist’s full integration of Matisse’s mode of expression combined with his own personal traditions. It is no surprise that he would apply resolutely western colours, directly inspired by fauvist movement, layered with nuances of diluted black oils symbolising splashes of ink. The painting expresses a colourful movement illustrating the artist’s vacillating process of integration of light: from the centre emerges the Western notion of colourful light with bursts of pinks and blues, gradually transforming into the Chinese definition of light the colour black. Reversing Matisse’s composition, Zao uses his preconceived Chinese notions of space in relation to light to frame a revelation of light imbued with Western influences. In his essay,
Painting Beyond Limits, Yann Hendgen declares that Zao’s return to Paris after his trips to China triggered “a frenzied period in which he produced a number of large-scale paintings, as if seeking to make up for lost time. These paintings reiterate all the tension of the preceding era, but with an additional conception of space that gives the idea of void more importance as an essential structural component that lends the paintings all their vibrancy.”3 With Hommage à Matisse as a stepping stone for this period, Triptyque 1987-1988 is the first triptych painted subsequently fully affirming this newly discovered appreciation of space and void, thus characterizing it as a true masterpiece of the period.
AN IRIDESCENT AND DYNAMIC SPACE
“A space is born of the movement of the brush. It grows, flies and gently expand as my mind roams”- Zao Wou-Ki
Walking from one side of the triptych to the other, the viewer’s eye is initially overcome with an imposing dark fog, which gradually opens up towards the light as the clouds reveal the incandescent sun as they part. The striking vibrancy, dynamic light and shadows, and psychological twists hint towards Monet, who left a great impression on Zao Wou-Ki and his works. Three years after this work, Zao used the colours featured in this triptych to create Homage to Claude Monet, which was his reinterpretation of Monet’s Water Lilies series in his own artistic language.
Monet’s Water Lilies, penned during the last years of his life, took inspiration from the Asian tradition of the handscroll format inviting viewers to walk alongside a long horizontal scroll and traverse and experience nature’s kaleidoscopic changes in light and colours. Zao’s Triptyque 1987-1988 features an additional Eastern flourish, in that not only is the passage of time and space communicated through variations in light and shadows, the artist further included brushstrokes and perspectives from traditional Chinese ink wash paintings, and as such viewers are led by the light to experience the artist’s creative dynamism and energy – sometimes dense with fervour, sometimes tactile and textured, sometimes reverberating with energy, twist-and-turning, resplendent in its variety and vitality. As the Southern Dynasty painter Zong Bing (375-444) said, “A hundred miles is captured in strokes running a few feet wide”, and in this triptych, Zao took the impressionists’ understanding of light to express sky glow, dusk light, dawn break, and the constellations in an incredibly diffuse range of pink, sapphire, emerald, canary, and lilac. Atop the electrifying spectrum of colours, he even used diluted oil paint to create brushstrokes that are not unlike Chinese ink wash paintings, evocative of roaring clouds and heavy waves. Upon closer inspection, one sees that each corner of the work is a complete composition, creating countless microcosms within an expansive atmosphere.
Zao Wou-Ki said that “I seek a special relationship that is free. My perspective is similar to the dynamic, multi-point perspective in classical Chinese paintings.” Triptyque 1987-1988 took the sense of immersion from the Water Lilies and decisively combined it with the dynamic perspectives from traditional Chinese landscape paintings. The viewers’ perception roams across the many miniature worlds created by the artist, and the meters-long scroll surrounds the viewer in a ring of light, and elevates nature to a transcendent emotional experience, as the Swiss author Jacques Chessex said, “The space in the painting appears to be a pleasant and sweet spectacle. There is no human figure in the painting, yet it embodies an intense energy that brings to mind the journey of human beings, the memories of the artist and all the quotidian and perfect memories he has been through.”
BRIDGING THE EAST AND WEST: ZAO’S GENESIS
"[It] attains a stage of grace: a quality of gesture that is stripped of all hurriedness and creates a more powerful 'bone-structure' (to use a term from Chinese calligraphy and painting), a luminosity extending from infinite softness to enveloping darkness, a topography of form that opens itself to stillness and silence." --Jonathan Hay
In Genesis - Creation of Adam, Michelangelo captured the moment when man and God became separated but connected at once, when humanity turned over a new chapter in their history.
To Zao Wou-Ki, Triptyque 1987-1988 marked an equivalently critical moment as Genesis - Creation of Adam. Over his decades of honing abstract art, he experienced a spiritual journey that sprouted in the East, blossomed in the West, and in the end transcended and melded the two worlds. Triptyque 1987-1988 is Zao’s story of his decades between the East and the West, told in colours and brushstrokes.
Zao lived his life across two cultural worlds, having grown up in China and lived in Paris. During his studies in Hangzhou, he learned traditional Chinese ink wash painting under Pan Tianshou, and studied oil painting under Wu Dayu and Fang Ganmin. Upon arriving in Paris in 1948, he gained even more exposure to western Classical and Modernist art, and among the cacophony of ideologies, he forged his own path.
Amidst the frenzy of Abstract Expressionism in the 60s, Zao freed himself from Representationalism, but his real claim to the world stage was undeniably his unique grasp of calligraphy. Unlike America’s Abstract Expressionists wsho merely emulated Asian calligraphy’s representational rhythm and form, Zao’s took the pen’s (or brush’s) momentum and built it deep within the artist’s heart. The bold and sweeping lines extending from the down centre of Triptyque 1987-1988 combine with the confluence of colours to deepen the work’s structural intent, while the clashing dialogue between the brushstrokes in oil paint tease out the oppressive tension between the heavens and earth.
Even more impressively, Zao’s work represents the amalgamation of natural scenery with the artist’s interior world, expressing the Eastern philosophical idea of “nature and self as one”, which is diametrically oppositional to the focus on form and representation in Western Abstractionism works. From the abstract elements in Triptyque 1987-1988, the viewer catches glimpses of cascading alpine ridges, fantastical cloud formations, clarified breezes, all of which go beyond the stylistic focus on “likeness”, “figurativeness”, or “naturalism”. In doing so, the artist achieved an abstract representation of nature’s essence, vigour, vivacity.
"I feel that leaving China made it possible for me to trace back my Chinese roots." – Zao Wou-Ki
Following the ample and fulsome branches at the base of Triptyque 1987-1988, a dazzling beam of light cuts through the sky and explodes outwards. Zao learned from Western artists such as Rembrandt, Turner, and Monet to make up for the lack of luminescence in traditional Chinese ink wash paintings; in Triptyque 1987-1988, the phosphorescence in the centre seem to break through the clouds and shine on the universe. The artist’s thousands of brushstrokes and uncountable sketches of nature become immediately illuminated by the glow of the ray of gold.
Throughout his journeys, Zao fully absorbed the artistic languages of the East and the West. His trip to Fine Arts School of Hangzhou in 1985 also triggered a renewed interest in Western masters who had greatly influenced him. He reinforced his series of homages upon his return, starting with Hommage à Matisse, which he painted again in 1993. Then subsequently followed Hommage à Monet (1991), Hommage à mon ami Henri Michaux (1999), Hommage à mon ami Jean-Paul Riopelle (2003), Hommage à Françoise (2003). In summation, Triptyque 1987-1988 is his crowning glory and tribute to all the mentors who inspired him.
Triptyque 1987-1988 can be read as an example of Zao’s penetrating dialogue with the Western art world’s masters towards the end of his life. The shadows to the sides of the work converge in light, which is more than an experience of daybreak – taken in the context of his life, the work gains profound importance. Triptyque 1987-1988 is the cleanest expression of Zao’s life journey from the East to the West: the darker colour blocks to the sides are metaphors of the artist’s “two worlds”, and this composition harkens back to Michelangelo’s Genesis - Creation of Adam, in which the two worlds on the left and right are brought together in the centre. The centre point, which is also the centre of gravity and attention in the work, marks the moment of creation in much the same way as the centred beam of light in Zao’s triptych clashes and combines. That light shines through the window to reality as opened by Matisse, passes through Monet’s impressions of colour and light, the brushstrokes and colours of calligraphy, and places Zao on the shoulder of giants – in the midst of his own boundless universe.