Pictographic Writing: Origins of the Universe and the Artist's Poetic Conception
Oracle-bone characters, the earliest known form of Chinese writing were developed from the pictograms found in the ancestral murals. Pictographic characters had undergone a series of simplification since the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasty. It gradually developed into clerical, seal, cursive, semi-cursive and regular script. Not only does such progress witness the dynasty change in Chinese history, it also passes on national, familial and personal memories from generation to generation. With a truly intuitive and simple rustic symbolic form (Fig. 1), oracle-bone script, for humanity in its primordial state, represents the beginning of civilization, a sheer display of artistry, which emanates painting and calligraphy have their common source.
During the "tough and depressing period" between 1954 and 1956, the death of a close friend moved Zao Wou-ki to create a work to commemorate his death. The work he created incorporates symbols that look like the bronzeware script found in ancient Chinese funeral rituals. Zao recalls that, "During this period, my work became hardly recognizable. I abandoned still lifes of flowers and, instead, I worked toward a theme of almost indecipherable imaginative writing." Zao's remembrance of his close friend evolves into an exploration of the ancient Chinese civilization. His imaginative, self-referential writing symbols inspire the visual language found in his later creations. From an aesthetic point of view, Zao's work harks back to the origin of the Chinese writing system, to the place where painting and calligraphy have their common source. Zao realizes an intense spiritual energy in written symbols to explore the living rhythms of nature and the cosmos. This led to the subsequent birth of his oracle-bone series.
The Indivisible Connection Between Painting, Calligraphy and Poetry : A Continuity with Artistic Tradition
In Water Music (Lot 3), executed between 1956 and 1957, lines informed by oracle-bone inscriptions wander spontaneously on the canvas and interweave in a seemingly broken, scattered and meandering manner. Under Zao's depiction, pictographic characters metamorphose into nearly formless, distorted figures, which may at first sight seem recognizable, but are in fact indecipherable. The written symbol forgoes its original functionality and, alternatively, solely represents the sheer structural elegance of Chinese characters. In this regard, it seems that, in the process of dissecting characters, Zao is less concerned with the meaning conveyed by these characters, and instead focuses on their pictorial and representational origin. In Water Music, the contrast between dense and sparse, swift and steady, broken and continuous calligraphic strokes, reminds one of the elegant prosody and rhythm in poetry. It evidently demonstrates that Zao shares the Chinese literati notions about the inseparableness of poetry and painting. Zao draws on the aesthetics of calligraphy, yet he does not simply limit himself to the style of cursive script, giving rise to a profound and innovative aesthetics form of interpretation and expression.
The Half-Emerging Light Source and The Cyclical Regeneration of The Universe
Fran?ois Jacob says "Zao's work constantly asks questions about our universe. He recreatesK the ancient concept and vital energy of qi. In his works he represents the cosmic moment before the birth of universeK He represents the unruliness of celestial bodiesK or the subtle emergence of life alongside the turbulent universe." Water Music is a complete embodiment of these qualities. Zao uses a warm tone of earthy brown as background, suggesting a pure yet motley texture. It reminds viewers of Han Dynasty frescos found in the Luoyang Ancient Tomb (Fig. 2), rendering the painting to have a strong sense of history. A dry thin of white paint fused with patches of green subtly looms out of the brown background at the upper half of the painting. The overlap of blurred colors bears a resemblance to an instant flash of light, as if a nebula surging steadily in the vastness of the universe (Fig. 3). Water Music is reminiscent of Turner's depiction of the mysterious atmosphere of the universe and nature (Fig. 4), or the coiling clouds and mists in traditional Chinese ink paintings. Additionally, it portrays a sense of infinite depth through psychological realism. Not only does Zao effectively make use of abstract writing characters to convey intense emotions, he also enriches the aesthetics and dimension of abstract art through his masterful employment of the composition of Chinese landscape painting in his work.
Great Music Is Composed By Few Notes; Great Painting Contains No Image
In Chinese culture, an emphasis is placed on the unity between man, the mind, material, and the environment. As a result, the ancient literati were well-versed in poetry, calligraphy and painting but simultaneously they were also skillful at playing music, chess, riding and archery. Zao Wou-ki was born to a scholarly family. From a young age, he was instructed by his father and grandfather. As a result he was cultivated in poetry and calligraphy and was very aware of the different ways of expression. In his memoir, he reveals his informed, enthused opinions about Western classical music. He saw an indivisible connection between painting and music. He was greatly moved by the musical lyricism found the works of the mystical artist Mannessier. For him, it evoked a similar aesthetic emotion he would experience in the music of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. Between the years 1956-1957, Zao Wou-ki gave his works descriptive titles, such as Hommage a Tou-Fou (Fig. 5), Mistral and La Mare au Diable. These titles are filled with potential poetic meaning. At the same time, it also exhibits Zao Wou-Ki's ambitious efforts to recreate the inspiration he got from verse, literature and music in painting.
Zao Wou-Ki's Water Music makes an allusion to George Frederic Handel's Water Music through its title. Water Music was played for the first time in 1717, at a concert commissioned by King George I on the River Thames. The brownish-yellow tones employed by Zao-Wou Ki in Water Music calls to mind the extensive use of bronze instruments in the performance piece.
It evokes the warm musical tones of the French horn, played with an overpowering momentum in open air over a river. Green and white emerge in between the thinly layered bronze colours, reminiscent of the sudden entry of clear, graceful sounds of the oboe, bassoon and strings. Even so, the only way to decipher the characters is through the lines that disperse, continue and stop abruptly. This creates a captivating visual rhythm for a tuneful melody.
The beauty of music comes from its sound and rhythm. Correspondingly, the beauty of painting comes from its colour and form. In his works, Kandinsky was clearly aware of the close tie between music and colour theory. In his works, he abandons all descriptive elements and relies on an abstracted visual language of colours and lines to convey the inner, spiritual activity of man. In Water Music, informed by Kandinsky's works, Zao places abstracted colours and symbols on top of a "soundless" canvas. His work however also highlights the touch of the brushstrokes, which transitions from thin dotting to thick dense lines. This creates a unique rhythm that reverberates with Eastern grace, tapping into the boundless emotional space.
Starting from 1958, Zao Wou-Ki ceased to give titles to his work. Water Music is thus located in an important moment in his artistic development. In Sound of Water, Zao does not employ use of heavy, dark colours and strong contrasts typically found in his works from the same period. Instead, the subtly layered space seems to embody deeper and quieter emotions that echo forgotten, distant memories. With an oil paint medium, Zao reinterprets Lao Zi's teaching in Tao Te Ching, "great music is composed of few notes, while great paintings have no image." Water Music is a continuation and extension of Eastern artistic traditions. In contrast to other Western abstract artists, Zao had a marked different starting point. In essence, this works reveals Zao's observation of ancient literati values. This work also be chronicles the artistic achievement during his oracle bone period.
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY OF AN IMPORTANT EUROPEAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
Signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin; dated '56-57' (lower right); inscribed 'ZAO Wou-Ki' in Pinyin; titled 'Water Music' in English; dated '1956-1957' (on the reverse)
Zao Wou-Ki , 20th Century, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, Abstract, abstract
Paris, France, Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki: Peintures, 1957.
London, UK, Hanover Gallery, Post Picasso Paris, 18 June - 27 July 1957.
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
160.5 x 128.5 cm. (63 1/8 x 50 5/8 in.)
Hanover Gallery, London, UK
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1957
Private Collection, Europe