The Exemplary Model of Chinese and Western Fusion Post-War Paintings
During his studies at the Hangzhou Academy of Arts (1935-1941), Zao Wou-ki underwent trainings for both Chinese and Western art practices, and he was in the pursuit for impressionistic clarity and buoyancy with his art. Prior to traveling to France in 1948, he had in his possession "only a few small catalogues of impressionism paintings, and had heard of Cezanne. He wasn't aware of cubism, but knew about Picasso." In 1985, Zao saw his classmates from the Hangzhou Academy of Arts again and realized that since his departure from China, they "had not changed, and were still learning from Matisse and Picasso." This realization had him commenting downheartedly that, "I have spent great amount of time to understand and digest artists such as Cezanne and Matisse, but when I looked back in search of our tradition, I ended up realizing that paintings from the Tang and Song dynasties are the most beautiful. It took me a total of five decades to come to this realization!"
By the mid-1950s, Zao turned to abstraction to convey the narratives in his paintings. He thought of this as a natural and destined progression, and stated that, "This was not a deliberate act on my part; rather, to detach paintings from reality was a necessary step bound to naturally happen." The reality that the artist wanted to detach from was sentimental illustrations of perceptible subjects, such as landscapes and people. He developed his "oracle bone series" with symbols and pseudo script forms to replace such renderings. At the end of the 1950s, he gradually moved away from his "oracle bone series" and began creating full abstract paintings to express his inner grander vision. As pointed out by his friend, Francois Cheng, "this was a new phase, concluding the series of works that was concerned with the physical world." This marked the conclusion of his previous focus on figurative subjects and symbolic motifs, and from more comprehensible or suggestive vocabularies. Zao had shifted to expressions with abstract meanings.
Beginning in 1958, he started to title his paintings with their dates of completion. In the 1960s, Zao purported he had achieved "concrete results" in his paintings, which helped him to look at the world through a different perspective. Created between 1958 and 1970, 10.11.58-30.12.70 (Lot 4) took an extensive twelve years to complete. The piece marks the conclusion of Zao's searching phase, and is the epitome of his paintings created in the 50s with "concrete results". With complex colour variations achieved through the compilation of achromatic black and white, the black symbolizes the realm of empty void, and the white represents hope and light. This is not only a revival of the subtly elusive hint at the sense of life found in the tradition of the East; moreover, it is a dialogue between Eastern and Western poetry conducted with light and shadow.
Conferring the heritage of Chinese paintings, 10.11.58-30.12.70 is a successful achievement of a vivacious artistic conception. According to Mr. C.C. Wang, this piece of vivacious expression is based on the combinations of various elements, such as elements of black and white, and also the states of being and non-being. These combinations have resulted naturally rather than achieved through intentional arrangements. The feelings imparted are not only alive; they are also dynamic. Created over an extensive period of time, 10.11.58-30.12.70 underwent multiple alterations and adjustments by the artist. The refinement to the composition results in something completely different from Western abstract paintings. Whereas Jackson Pollock's abstract paintings employ an "all-over" drip-painting approach, Zao's abstract creations feature a focal point in the composition, and a sense of "occurrence" found distinctively in Chinese paintings. James Cahill once talked about Huang Gongwang's paintings by pointing out that with overlapping wrinkles and contours, rocky hills are compiled on top of wrinkled hill tops. The conflicting mountainous masses and textures create unique results, and yet they do not interfere with the expressions of the landscape structure. On the contrary, they bestow the landscape with an amusing sense of "occurrence", with a brand new visual interpretation created for the innate life embodied by the landscape.
While he reflected on the root of his own culture, Zao was also learning about the perceptions and expressions with light and shadow found in Western art. From Rembrandt to Turner and with observations and renderings of light found in Western impressionism paintings, these all inspired Zao to place sources of light in his abstract paintings. Lights and shadows trickled through the cracks of leaves are found in Cezanne's paintings, as the lights reflected on the rocky hills and into the eyes of the viewers. A similar light source is found in 10.11.58-30.12.70, but it is revealed from the painting in a more subtle approach. In 1959, Zao bought a warehouse in Paris, which was renovated into a studio by Georges Johannet. The studio was designed without any outward-facing windows, and instead, it had a glass skylight roof, which provided a natural light source from above. This allowed Zao to create works of larger scales. Consequently, a light source that seems to have emerged from the clouds is found in 10.11.58-30.12.70, which represents Zao's pursuit in the 1960s for "a central point emitting light". The painting stirs for various suppositions for the dark blocks of color and spaces found in the image, and is also an epitome of Zao's paintings from the 1960s. As the artist once said, "issues with technicality are no longer existent, and I could freely paint as I wish. With the larger canvas, I am pushed to confront the space, and not only do I need to fill it, I also need to give it life and completely immerse myself in it."
Oil on canvas
Signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed 'ZAO WOU-KI'; dated '10.11.58-30.12.70' (on the reverse)
Zao Wou-Ki , 1950s, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, Modern, abstract
Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Art and History Museum, Zao Wou-Ki, 1973
Paris, France, Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki 1971-1975, 1975
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
130 x 195 cm. (51 1/4 x 76 3/4 in.)
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Documentation by Françoise Marquet, Hier et Demain Editions, Paris, France and Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1978 (illustrated, plate 160, p. 212).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated, plate 160, p. 212).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain. Documentation by Françoise Marquet, 1986 (illustrated, plate 160, p. 212).
Daniel Abadie & Martine Contensou, Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1989 (illustrated, plate 40).
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Private Collection, Mexico
Private Collection, Asia