"If the influence of Paris in my artistic formation is undeniable, I must also say that I have gradually rediscovered China, along with my growing confidence. China is inherent in all my recent canvases. Paradoxically it is to Paris that I owe this return to my profoundest origins." -ZAO Wou-Ki, early 1950s
When Zao Wou-Ki first saw the works of Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland in 1951, he was full of praise: "It was just one little canvas, but because of the spatial effects he created, it looked incredibly broadKHis understanding and love for Chinese art were evident. I was dazzled by the way those tiny symbols, set within a multidimensional space, could create a whole world!" Klee specialized in Chinese literature in 1916-17, during which time he was introduced to Chinese calligraphy and painting.
Inspired by Chinese writing, he henceforth began a series of unique creative styles. In light of this, instead of taking ZaoWou-Ki's "Klee-influenced period" literally, it is more accurate to say that the Oriental elements that are bursting in Klee's paintings resonated with Zao and inspired him to revisit his own cultural roots. Ever since then, the continuation and reinvention of the traditional Chinese language, its central aesthetic of the inter-relation between lines and mark-making at its most elemental, has become a recurring theme of Zao's decadeslong creative career: Lines formed images in his Klee-influenced period, whereas in his oracle-bone inscription period, they were deployed as symbols. During the abstraction period of the ' 60s, lines have even the medium of his discourse on landscape. The transitions across these three stages between 1954 and 1964 serve as were key, formative periods in his artistic experience. Within Christie's evening auction, the five featured canvases of Zao Wou-ki, Combat de coqs (Lot 1005), Cerf volant et oiseaux (Lot 1004), Destruction des ombres (Lot 1001), Nuit, mi-nuit (Lot 1003), La mare aux diables (Lot 1002) and 22.7.64 (Lot 1006) showcase how, within a decade, Zao achieved the sublime synthesis of Eastern and Western aesthetics in both form and essence via his process of deconstruction and gradual abstraction.
Taking inspiration from oracle bones
Recalling his creative work in the mid-1950s, Zao once said, "During that period my work became harder to read. My still lifes and floral themes vanished, and I was hoping to move toward a kind of almost indecipherable imaginative writing."
Writing, for humanity in its primordial state, represented the beginnings of civilization, and oracle-bone inscriptions are the earliest known form of Chinese writing. Zao Wou-ki's art reaches back to the origins of the Chinese language, to the place where painting and calligraphy have their common source, and with the intense spiritual energy contained in written symbols, explores the living rhythms of nature and the cosmos. It was not without reason that the poetic landscapes and tranquil still-lifes of Zao's Klee-influenced period disappeared; they gave way to the simplification and concentration of formal elements in Zao's emblematic motifs, seemingly derived from the pictographic writing engraved on ancient tortoise shells and oracle bones. The shamans of the Shang Dynasty sought to divine the wishes of the spirits by examining the cracks left in tortoise shells and animal bones. Oracle-bone inscriptions were, then, a form of writing representing the gods' communication with man. In them were recorded the results of the divination, after the bones or shells had been drilled and heated to produce cracks, and they evoke a sense of how the Shang Chinese understood the evolution and change they saw in the world around them. Zao Wou-ki drew on these ancient glyphs as a source of inspiration, expressing in straight, vigorous strokes his personal feelings and insights into nature. His "oracle-bone" series of paintings thus inhabit a territory somewhere between
the pictographic and the ideographic, the place where our world of visible form meets realm of the invisible and the spiritual.
Beginning in the 1950s, Western Abstract Expressionist artists were influenced by Chinese calligraphy art and the splashing of ink and paint. With a strong interest in abstract beauty, ambiguity, and mystery in calligraphy and abstract pictographs, Western artists merged the Eastern spirit, as they viewed it, with the dynamics of abstract expressionism and the spontaneity of free handwriting. Nonetheless, compared to Mark Tobey, Franz Klein and other artists who emphasized the momentum of lines and mark-making, Zao includes the multiple perspectives of traditional Chinese landscape paintings in his pictographic rendition of Oracle-bone inscriptions. Similar to Destruction des ombres and Nuit, mi-nuit created in 1956, which are masterpieces revealing the different approaches to spatial arrangement resulting from the artist' s respective considerations for the composition of each painting. Chinese characters are pictographs composed of lines. Their shape and form could be derived from objects 'far away at the distance, or as close as in the body' . For the ancients, they served as the abstract generalization and description of the objective nature. Zao strengthens the proportion of glyphic lines in the composition of Destruction des ombres. A patchwork of pigments varying in thickness resembles the rich textures of ink. The meandering lines glide between the warm and cold tones. The layering of symbols and the stark contrast of colors, are reminiscent of blue-and-green Shanshui (mountain and water) paintings by Wang Shen of the Song Dynasty, whose landscapes appear farreaching and broad under a visual effect of them unfolding layer by layer. Zao regards pictograph writing as a process of spatial construction. The arrangement and layout of lines in his Destruction des ombres underline profound influence of his Oriental heritage.
The subject of La mare aux diables appears to derive from a rustic novel of the same name by 19th century author George Sand; in it, the simple peasant Germaine falls in love with a young girl, Marie, over the course of a day and a night as they travel together. In 1957, Zao was in the midst of a turbulent emotional period during which he and his wife of sixteen years ultimately divorced. George Sand said that "art is not the study of the real, but the search for ideal truth," and the haunted "devil's lake" in the novel is a metaphor for the obstacles which test the lovers, yet may also work in their favor. When obstacles created by differences in wealth, family status, age, or societal pressures no longer intervene, the only obstacle to love is the struggle with doubt in the lover's heart, the questions about whether one can truly bring happiness to another. In La mare aux diables Zao moves beyond the loss and sadness of real life. He presents the work in a palette of gentle umber tones instead of the contrasting warm and cool tones frequently seen in his work, while a bright vermillion hue floats in the midst of his oracle-bone figures, perhaps suggestive of his hopes and convictions with respect to romantic love. Traditionally in China, a painted scene should evoke a broad awareness of the overall space of the setting, while the artist at the same time projects his internal imagery through it. Here Zao builds up a solid, dense structure from the vertical rise of oracle-bone motifs on the left of the canvas, not unlike the presentation of the main peak in Pavilions on a Mountainside by the Northern Song painter Hsiao Chao. In traditional Chinese landscapes such as this, painters would use diluted inks and blank spaces to portray space reaching into the far distance, and Zao likewise, in La mare aux diables, employs thinly applied haloes of oil pigments that create a highlighting and distancing effect. The gradual layering and misty brushwork suggest an undefined distance and create the atmosphere of mystery connected with the ghostly lake of the novel; at the same time, like the mists that wreathe the mountains of ancient Chinese landscapes, their psychological effect leads the viewer to perceive in them unlimited space and distance. Here Zao Wou-ki's seemingly abstract Chinese character motifs convey strong feelings, while the compositional arrangement and perspective borrowed from classical landscapes enriches the aesthetic implications and dimensionality of this abstract work.
Cool tones of colours dominate the scene of Nuit, mi-nuit, whose banner-style horizontal composition is emphasized by the exposition of oracle-bone inscriptions. Spatial depth is jointly produced by the lines of the characters and the gradient of colours. The cold ambience of the night is created with the transparent texture of bluish green and the profound depth of Prussian blue. The black ink writings at the centre surface on a pool of greyish brown and dark violet, accompanied by thin patches of white and light beige, resembling the first ray of light emerged from a silent abyss of darkness. The presence of light deepens the visual affect, and thus highlighting the seclusive depth of space. Zao manages to manifest the essential nature of objects and images through his mastery of colours, which are adeptly employed to capture the abstract construction of pictographs In Nuit, mi-nuit. It also reveals the artist's thorough, in-depth observation and exploration into the innermost states of matters.
In1954, Zao created his first non-narrative painting Vent (Wind). As he commented, "It expressed the fluttering of leaves in the wind and the ripples raised on the water surface by the passing breeze." His painting Cerf volant et oiseaux (Kite and Bird) (Lot 1004) created in the subsequent year seems to extend Zao' s exploration of 'wind' , but unlike the shapeless and formless invisible air, the 'kite' and the 'bird' are both flying on top of the wind. The only difference is that the former is operated manually, while the latter flies at its own accord. The artist boldly applies crimson red as the main tone, the dark brown tones above glimmers with a bronze glaze. A declining gradient of colours can be observed when viewed from top to bottom, with an instantaneous flash of light source imitated by the thin coat of white paint dryly rubbed at the centre of the painting. Hazy colors overlap layer by layer, and the smooth and staggering brushstrokes of the Oracle-bone inscriptions generate a floating momentum. Traditional Chinese literati painting features a combination of poetry, calligraphy and painting, through the mutual penetration of texts and images, thereby creating a common aesthetic realm with what might otherwise be considered distinct artistic genres. The famous poet in the Song Dynasty Su Shi believed that poetry was the origin of calligraphy and painting. As his poem goes, 'What overflows and fails to be carried by the vessel of poetry alone, could find its outlet in calligraphy, which could transform itself into paintings.' At six years old, Zao learned to recite classical texts and poetry and practiced calligraphy under the guidance of his grandfather, and therefore the Chinese characters and the traditions of literati paintings became a medium for his artistic alchemy as he turned concrete figuration into abstract expressionism. As he put it: "After going through different stages, I admit that the full exploitation of my knowledge of Chinese paintings allows me to express what I want... These symbols do not make sense on their own, whereas they are forcefully bestowed with implications." The pictographs he created in Cerf volant et oiseaux had already exceeded a certain level of abstract expression, to directly reflect the artist' s internal feelings. Here Zao makes use of the structural aesthetics of Chinese characters themselves. Taking into consideration the closure and expansiveness of brushstrokes that shape each character, the ebbs and flow of human emotions are visually expressed in a unique rhythm by the poetic intervals of stress projected into the brush movement, the delicate negotiation of points and lines between sparseness and density, fineness and coarseness. As such, Cerf volant et oiseaux can be regarded as a breakthrough from the conventionally rigid style of traditional literati paintings; a melting pot where the aesthetic experience of poetry, calligraphy and painting at different levels are perfectly integrated into an abstract form, with the special arrangement of characters and colours.
Combat de coqs (The Firebird) in China, also known as Phoenix, or the Red Bird, is the ancient symbol of good fortune, originated from Chinese ancestors" reverence and awe for the mythical bird who could "communicate between Heaven and Earth. According to The Origin of the Chinese Words by Xu Shen of the Han Dynasty, "Phoenix, the Divine Bird ... from the nation of virtues in the East, flies its way beyond the seas, over the Kunlun Mountain. It rinses its feathers in rivers, and resides in windy caves at dusk. The sight of it signifies peace on earth." Similar myths of the immortal Phoenix bird were also prevalent in Egypt and Greece. The Phoenix is believed to reincarnate indefinitely, and "burn itself to death and raise from the ashes" every five hundred years. In Combat de coqs, Zao depicts the form of the divine bird after deconstruction with a thin coating of grayish and brownish tones. The Phoenix, as the "Spirit of the Fire", is implied by the jet black and crimson lines. The dynamic of the bird is outlined by smooth and staggering brushstrokes. Parallel, thin lines flare out to suggest its swinging, dragging tail. Upon the creation of the Firebird as an image between the real and the fantasy, the artist resorts to the basic compositions of dots, lines and planes. As the Chinese writer Guo Mo-Ruo wrote in his poem "The Nirvana of the Phoenix", published in 1920, the Phoenix' s rebirth from the seething fire symbolized the regeneration of China. In much the same fashion, Zao Wou-ki also described that he was in a "very difficult, depressing turning point" in the year 1954. His expectation for a breakthrough in creation at the time is reflected by his painting Combat de coqs, where the theme of the narratives continues, but the artist no longer attempts to reproduce the real setting or depict the complete contour of the Phoenix. Instead, he opts to apply overlapping layers of oil paints to suggest a delicate textural change, highlighting the sharp, angular turn at the end of the lines. The ellipses of details and the simplification of lines carry the acute strength of engraving texts in ancient times. It seems to indicate the subsequent birth of his "Oracle-bone inscription Series". In Zao's words, "The penchant for painting is derived from my own needsKI will only do abstract painting when I need to." The gradual condensation and simplification of images to form the glyphs and signs in Zao's work did not happen overnight. At the same time, Combat de coqs is a testimony of Zao' s bold move towards the Oracle-bone Inscriptions Period, where he crossed the threshold between the concrete and the abstract, and the struggles and transformations he experienced in the transition.
The nature of Shanshui paintings under the influence of Abstract Expressionism
The mid-1960s, both in life and career, was a time of frequent and significant changes for Zao, leading him to vent his suppressed emotions in his artistic creations. In 1985, the artist recalls, "I had been painting pictures from 1935 to 1964. It takes me nearly 30 years to truly understand how to do freehand oil painting." Emotionally driven, the creative energy accumulated throughout three decades clearly displays itself in 22.7.64 , which differs from the works created prior to early 1960s, Zao simplifies his complex and overlapping brushstrokes, while retaining the free-spirited dynamics of convergence at the centre, which contrast starkly with the diffused background layers. Such techniques harken back to the large axe-cut strokes and 'Painting at a Corner' skillfully mastered by Chinese painters in Southern Song Dynasty, who, through in-depth observation and profound understanding of objects and images, managed to employ the effect of a partial close-up, drawing the viewer's attention from a panoramic view to the most moving part of the landscape, which is concentrated and extracted through a concise composition and brushwork. After many years of exploration, painting the contour line of objects, to the breakthrough of abstraction, Zao finally entered into an aesthetic of entirely abstract symbols. When the formative elements of his paintings returned to its simplest origin, embracing his full capacity for subtleness and poetic expression, the works serve as a testimony to the artist's commitment, insights, and life trajectory.
Despite a background of subdued hues in 22.7.64 , Zao Wou-Ki has masterfully enriched the space and depth of the canvas by employing a range of techniques and tools, such as large horizontal brushes, drip painting and deliberate smearing. He once noted, "My paintings may appear to have a lot of blank spaces. The fact is, smearing in oil is not as easy as in Chinese ink. A lot more effort has to be put into blank spaces than the filled ones. The rhythmic alternation between void and solid in Chinese paintings creates waves of movement and naturally arranges the contrast between heavy and light. On this issue, I have been enlightened by tradition". In 22.7.64 , delicate crisscrossing lines and rough brushes of yellow, white and black in the foreground set the scene for an expansive background, drawing the viewer into a sophisticated and ethereal realm. The vastness stretches spatial possibility to the infinite, so much so that space itself appears materially manifest and yet unreachable, its depth and distance are immeasurable. No longer just a contrast between void and solid, or between near and far, the painting signifies as much as a juxtaposition and opposition between dynamic lines and static space. The multiperspectival composition in traditional Chinese landscape paintings subtly conveys the painter's reading and sense of his surroundings. It covers seasonal, climatic and diurnal changes. Instead of representing a simulated static scene from a single vantage point, landscape paintings always illustrate the state of life in its wholeness.
In light of this, different time frames, as well as the dynamic and the static, can co-exist and be assimilated onto one scroll. From the 1950s onwards, Zao has relentlessly sought breakthroughs in the preservation and development of traditional Oriental aesthetics, reaching from outward spatial structuring to the transformation of the inner core of creation. 22.7.64 not only reveals the fundamental divergence in creative intent between Zao and his Western abstract expressionist counterparts, but also returns in essence to the humanistic spirit of landscape painting aesthetics in the Tang and Song Dynasties. From Combat de coqs, Cerf volant et oiseaux, Destruction des ombres, La mare aux diables to 22.7.64, gradually Zao Wou-Ki has brought to life the mutual challenge and integration of the two ancient civilizations of China and the West, caught between inheritance and reinvention.
Created half a century ago, these masterpieces have stood the test of time and continue to captivate. This is not only because the West sees the exotic East in these works, or that we reciprocally see the West of our imagination through them. At a time when the wave of globalization is everywhere, these paintings take us back through centuries old civilizations so that we can reorient ourselves both to our present and to our pasts.
Oil on canvas
Signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right); signed 'ZAO WOU-Ki' in Pinyin; dated and inscribed '22.7.64. 200 x 162' (on the reverse)
Zao Wou-Ki , 20th Century, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, Modern, abstract
Essen, Germany, Folkwang Museum, Zao Wou-Ki, 1965.
Montr?al, Canada, Mus?e d'art contemporain Qu?bec, Canada, Mus?e du Qu?bec, Zao Wou-Ki, 1969.
Shanghai, China, Shanghai Museum National Art Museum of China, Beijing, China Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangdong, China, Zao Wou-Ki: 60 ans de peinture 1935-1998, 1998-1999.
Valence, Spain, Institut Valenci? d'Art modern, Centre Julio Gonzalez, Zao Wou-Ki, 2001.
Brussels, Belgium, Mus?e d'Ixelles, Zao Wou-Ki, 2001.
Biarritz, France, Le Bellevue, Zao Wou-Ki: Peintures et encres de Chine, 1948-2005, 2005.
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right); signed 'ZAO WOU-Ki' in Pinyin; dated and inscribed '22.7.64. 200 x 162' (on the reverse) 161.5 x 199.5 cm. (63 1/2 x 78 1/2 in.)
Folkwang Museum, Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., Essen, Germany, 1965 (illustrated, plate 58 ).
Mus?e d'art contemporain (Montr?al, Canada) Mus?e du Qu?bec (Qu?bec, Canada), Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., 1969 (illustrated, plate 26 ).
Jean Leymarie, Ediciones Poligrafa, Documentation by Fran?oise Marquet, Zao Wou-Ki, Barcelona, Spain, 1978 (illustrated in black & white, plate 334, p. 290).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated in black & white, plate 334, p. 290).
Joint Publishing, Zao Wou-ki 60 ans de peintures 1935-1998, Shanghai, China, 1998 (illustrated, plate 26, p. 151).
Bernard Noel, Zao Wou-Ki Grands formats - Au bord du visible, Cercle d'Art, Paris, France, 2000 (illustrated, plate 12).
Institut Valenci? d'Art modern, Centre Julio Gonzalez, Zao Wou-Ki, Valence, Spain, 2001 (illustrated, plate 13, p. 50).
Mus?e d'Ixelles, Zao Wou-Ki, Brussels, Belgium, 2001 (illustrated, plate 13, p. 50).
Le Bellevue, Zao Wou-Ki: Peintures et encres de Chine, 1948-2005, Biarritz, France, 2005 (illustrated, plate 24, pp. 58-59).
Dominique de Villepin, Zao Wou-Ki - Oeuvres 1935-2008, Flammarion, Paris, France, 2009 (illustrated, p. 153).
Fran?oise Marquet, Yann Hendgen & Edward Fung (eds.), Zao Wou-Ki - Works 1935-2008, Kwai Fung Art Publishing House, Hong Kong, China, 2009 (illustrated, p. 153).
Guy Genon-Gatalot Collection, Paris, France
Acquired directly from the artist, and thence by descent to the present owner.