Ink wash paintings have been a constant part of Zao Wou-Ki's career, and his relationship with them is profound and extensive. When he first arrived in Paris in 1948, he did not want to be typecast as a "Chinese-influenced" artist, so he temporarily stepped away from ink wash works until 1971, when he returned to China and also the art form. In that period he found tranquillity and rekindled a new creative passion for ink wash pieces, and rediscovered his desire to paint.
Untitled (Lot 458) was painted in 1979, a few years after he resumed painting ink wash works, and reveals his practiced mastery, incorporating Western media into Eastern sentiments. Each hatch, crosshatch, brush, wash, scumbling, and stippling fill the lower part of the canvas, which might be chaotic and overwhelming, but the translucent black takes away just enough of that to maintain clarity. Untitled features layered crosshatching of mustard yellow, sapphire blue, and a pastel orange-brown in small strokes and bold brushes to develop tension in the lower parts of the scene, and that lower part is filled with strength. In the mid-section the artist's wrist can be seen to relax, and throughout the rest of the piece the lines are unbridled and free, not unlike the depiction of rugged old trees in Kuo Hsi's Old Trees, Level Distance – each stroke demonstrate their uniqueness without creating confusion, showing off their brilliance without detracting from each other, creating structure and order that is pleasing to the eye.
Untitled gives viewers a glimpse of how Zao uses Chinese calligraphy and painting techniques with watercolours, boldly and deftly, perfectly showcasing the unique aesthetics of "layered diffusion" and "colours through monochrome" in traditional Chinese ink wash paintings. The work relies on its primary colour – the varying shades of yellow – to set the overall tone and rhythm, then the touches of black and blue are used to add depth and layers to the painting. The effect of the diffusion is a sense of ancient sombreness as well as fluidity, calling to mind the beauty in Herd of Deer in a Maple Grove by an anonymous Five Dynastiesera artist, and fully showing Zao's control over the paintbrush and skilfulness with Chinese calligraphic techniques. This impression of limitless layers created with simple colours reminds one of Joseph Turner's Lausanne From the West , which uses simple watercolours to construct a peaceful landscape. Zao first used watercolour to trace outlines, and followed up with casual freehand diffusion, to create a scene that is tranquil and expansive in equal measure. This ephemerality originating from the 70s opened up and enabled the artist's sense of "vacantness" in his works, using the Western watercolour medium to construct a fusion of East-West aesthetics.
The artist's proficiency and control in calligraphy and painting was developed over decades of practice, the works in this auction span across the 50s to the 70s, and are testaments to his growth. From the age of five, he would colour and doodle on works in art albums and the family china; as early as then, he instinctively resisted the bondage of the orthodoxy in painting or calligraphy, and just wanted to paint freely, on medium beyond paper, tracing "meaningless" lines. This self-initiated pursuit of a new style only intensified after his arrival to Paris.
Sailing Boats (Lot 461) was finished in 1951. On the canvas one sees the vague silhouette of a boat, traced in clean lines like its reflection on the water and the breaking waves. It only takes Zao a few sharp and intricate lines to depict the quintessence of the subjects. These austere and noble lines may be traced back to Zao's love of ancient Chinese relief carvings rubbings. In the fourth chamber of the Wu Liang Family Shrine is the Picture of He Kui, Cheng Ying, and Liuxia Hui -- Carrying Provisions , in which none of the characters is presented representationally, drawn simply with clean lines, and that minimalist style fully reflected in Untitled (Lot 600) and Idylle Champetre (Rural Idyll)(Lot 601). These fine and strong lines came into their own during Zao's Klee period. Among the geometric shapes and straight lines in Untitled (Lot 459), one catches hints of people and cities. These 'symbols" are not representational shapes, rather they are a result of the artist flexibly arranging lines and shapes to explore how to develop space through symbolism. Each raw and simple symbols coexist and finally achieve a state of oneness. In the 60s, Zao's works became even more flexible, and pure abstract lines dominated his canvas. The composition in Untitled (Lot 460) is a perfect example of his work in that era, the conflict developing from the centre of the scene and explode with unbounded tension, and the strength and abstract quality within reminding one of Emperor Huizong of Song's impassioned Thousand Character Classic in Cursive Script . The calligraphic lines create powerful resonance, and seem to spread towards every square inch of the canvas.
From the rhyme and rhythm of the workwe can imagine how the artist deftly and nimbly adjusted the composition, depth, and perspective, to create the air of Chinese landscape paintings while combining it with the clarity of Western watercolours and the flexibility of Eastern ink wash paintings. This combination of Eastern and Western aesthetics thus achieves what the French critic Marceau put as "the fusion of two unique worlds" – a "Chinese man of Paris, and of China."