A Boundless Mindscape Free from External Reality
Zao Wou-Ki’s Ink Painting Spirit
Chinese ink painting holds an important position in the world history of art. A representative genre of Asian Art rivaling the traditions of oil painting in Europe and America, its influences on countries in the surrounding areas are deeply profound. In turn, the Westernization movement in modern times also has strong impact on ink painting’s development. One resulting phenomenon is the development of the concept of ink painting as a representative Chinese painting genre, further strengthening its legacy and traditions. Another phenomenon is driven by overseas Chinese artists who explore the potential of mutual influences between oil and ink paintings. This was an artistic focus of Zao Wou-Ki during a creative period commonly known in Chinese as his “Boundless Period”, which began in the 1970s. From the oil painting 16.03.88 (Lot 573), offered in this season’s day sale, as well as two ink paintings Imaginary Landscape (Lot 574) and Sans titre (Lot 575), one can gain fascinating insights into how the artist introduced the spirit of ink painting into Abstractionism, revolutionizing an Eastern tradition whilst creating a sumptuous infusion in the domain of Western fine art.
The Ink Painting Movement within a Global New Trend in Abstractionism
Imaginary Landscape and Sans titre
For some artists, Chinese ink painting has been a source of inspirations in the development of Abstractionism. Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages from France as well as Franz Kline from America all studied Chinese calligraphy to search for creative innovations, and produced some important pieces for the post-war Abstractionist Movement. Overseas Chinese artists such as Chu Teh-Chun, Chao Chung-Hsiang and Tang Haiwen all explored this domain by offering their unique interpretations based on their artistic styles. As an artist, Zao Wou-Ki possessed a high level of self-awareness, and his objectives were clear in each phase of his creative journey. During Zao’s “Boundless Period”, he concentrated on the relationship between oil and ink paintings, exploring the two’s infusion in various dimensions, such as the medium’s characteristics, expressive qualities, techniques as well as philosophies. Born into a scholarly family, Zao Wou-Ki grew up with the Chinese literary and ink painting traditions and became acquainted with the art of Mi Fu and Zhao Mengfu since a young age. Whilst studying at the School of Fine Arts of Hangzhou, he was taught by Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu as well as Pan Tianshou, who together helped him establish a solid grounding in his cultural roots. Even after he moved away from home to live overseas, a distinctly Chinese inner spirit could be observed in his works. In 1970s, his wife passed away and the tragedy made it impossible for him to continue with his oil paintings. Yet he found solace in ink painting, like an old friend from childhood. It eased some of his sorrow, and inspired him to pick up his ink painting brushes again and create a series of ink paintings on paper. Zao Wou-Ki once commented:
“It gives me tremendous pleasure to touch the wrinkles on xuan paper. How different it is from the canvas, which is always smooth and firm. The irregular marks as well as water on xuan paper create unexpected and endlessly interesting rendering effects. Once in contact with the paper, the ink soaks into the material, and through the varying pressure and speed controlled by the elbow, creates infinite variations of black, white and grey, a thousand shades of grey…I watch a space born under the paint brush, taking shape and soaring free as my imagination roams, spreading widely is a sense of lightness – lightness in brushstroke, lightness in colors, and lightness in the passing of time.”
Through Imaginary Landscape and Sans titre, the viewer can feel the artist’s emotions. Since his times in Hangzhou, Zao Wou-Ki had focused on studying the language of colors and techniques, which are highly developed aspects of Western fine art. Yet a few decades later, the artist suddenly looked back at the Chinese ink painting traditions. His expressive abilities had not declined with time. Instead they went beyond the traditional concept which divides ink darkness into five shades: “dried, dark, substantial, pale and clear”. For Zao Wou-Ki, there were limitless hues and shades in ink paintings, especially when encountered with Abstract paintings which are free from physical forms and realistic representation, the ideas that can be evoked are truly boundless. The variations from dark to light conveys the changes of power from distant to near, from heavy to light, from thick to thin, or from fast to slow. Dynamics and rhythm flow and pulsate in unique ways on each canvas. Interestingly, Zao Wou-Ki’s ink paintings are predominantly drawn on square canvases. It was a habit of Lin Fengmian, and not a common practice in Eastern paintings. Either a coincidence or a tribute to his former teacher, this approach reflects Zao Wou-Ki’s intention to differentiate his ink paintings from oils.
In addition to color changes, composition is another aspect in his works influenced by ink painting traditions. Zao’s dramatic paintings from the 1960s are filled with surging power. The artist once said that “the large format canvas meant I must wrestle with the space. Not only do I need to fill it, but also to give it life”. Perhaps, Zao Wou-Ki had reached a higher artistic state in his “Boundless Period” through life experiences. Imaginary Landscape and Sans titre were imbued with transcendence, otherworldliness and a sense of ease. Despite their similar sizes and dimensions, the two paintings present two drastically different domains through varying shades of ink, evoking two distinctly different mindscapes: Imaginary Landscape is open and expansive, like a great eagle spreading its wings as a strong wind develops; Sans titre evokes the sensation of substantial thickness, like grand mountain ranges or deep valleys amidst a brilliant rising mist. Using techniques of splashing, throwing, daubing and sprinkling, the artist borrowed from the essence of traditional splashed-ink (“pomo”) and splashed-color (“pocai”) techniques, whilst sharing some aspects of subconscious mental activity in Western automatic writing. His close friend and French literary laureate Henri Michaux, who had encouraged Zao Wou-Ki in his ink paintings exploration, described:
“In his own way, Zao Wou-Ki invented another game with ink again. In a domain even more pure and complete, he broke free from restrictions imposed not only by predecessors but also his own ink paintings previously. Swelling, exploding and flowing, heaven, earth and human became one within this domain and infused into life itself. Despite the application of ink, the white color of xuan paper is perceptible across the canvas. This unexpected color of white is awakened. This ‘emptiness’ is indispensable in universal harmony, regardless of where it is.”
From the approach of “filling” and “wrestling with the space” adopted in the 1960s to the “emptiness” and “harmony” of the 70s, this transformation reflects not only the evolution of Zao’s artistic style, but also a kind of sublimation in wisdom. His creative philosophy from this period moved even closer to the otherworldliness, unconventional spirit and freedom of the minds pursued in Taoist philosophy and Chinese ink paintings. Two of Zao’s ink paintings sharing certain stylistic similarities with Imaginary Landscape and Sans titre are held at the New York Museum of Modern Art, testament to the international art world’s recognition of his achievements in the ink paintings series as well as his celebrated oil paintings.
16.03.88: Sculpting the Ink Painting Texture with Oil, Enriching the Oil Painting Spirit with Ink
In the 1980s, Zao Wou-Ki travelled to Taipei to attend his solo exhibition at the National Museum of History, and visited Chang Dai-chien (Zhang Daqin), with whom he was a close friend. This meeting of the greatest Chinese oil painting and calligraphy masters of the 20th century was a monumental occasion. Chang’s splashed-color and splashed-ink works in his later years might have brought new inspirations to Zao Wou-Ki and deepened the artist’s insights into the two types of painting materials. Between the viscosity of oil and the fluidity of ink exist exciting possibilities of mutual transformations. In 16.03.88, Zao paid tribute to the Chinese ink painting legacy. When viewing from a distance, it resembles a majestic splashed-ink hanging scroll, depicting a stunning sheer drop from the edge of a cliff to the ocean, the cliff’s top almost touching the sky, and at the bottom, giant waves roll and roar with shattering power, sending silvery white waves into the air, almost reaching the ivory black cliff edge. Such a scenery reminds the viewer of the dramatic Sichuan terrain depicted in Tang dynasty poet Li Bai’s Shu Dao Nan (The Arduous Road to Sichuan), in which the poet described: “Above is a peak so high even the six-dragon carriage (of the Sun god) had to take a detour, below is a rough sea with wild eddy currents. The soaring yellow cranes cannot pass, the apes and monkeys struggle to climb across…Peak upon peak, the mountain ranges are less than a foot from the sky, withered pines hang inverted from sheer cliffs. Cataracts and vast torrents clamor with huge sound, thunderously dashing upon the rocks on the cliffs.” Together, the poem and the painting offer an extraordinary infusion of literature and fine art, evoking a majestic landscape in which one could almost hear the echo of the water and valleys.
From the sense of movement of the oil paint, one might deduce that the artist had placed the canvas on the floor instead of using an easel while painting, the same practice he employed in his ink paintings. Diluted, translucent silvery-grey oil paint in various shades was applied to the canvas intimately, like mercury spreading across the floor. The colors are soft and calm, the misty atmosphere and suspense akin to Mi Fu’s works. Its expansive majesty, on the other hand, reminds the viewer of the all-encompassing spirit in Chang Dai-chien’s later works. Informed by ink painting practices yet without resorting to simple imitation, the transparency and fluidity of this oil painting moved beyond the usual convention. When in contact, ink is absorbed into paper, yet layers of diluted oil paint stayed on the surface of the canvas after they dried up and stabilized, adding a unique textural quality. As art critic Georges Duby pointed out, “it is the balance point between the refined roughness, oppressiveness, gloom, ruggedness, thickness and weight represented by the mountains, rocks and earth, the emotional outpour in flowing water, sky, cloud and mist, as well as the haze and the breeze in classical Chinese paintings”. To highlight the unique color tension of oil paint, Zao Wou-Ki added a layer of golden chrome yellow on top of the layers of ink colors, like an unexpected ray of evening sun shining across a huge waterfall, causing the viewer to marvel at nature’s incredible creation. This treatment may be compared to Chang Dai-chien’s masterpiece Ancient Temple amidst Clouds, a magnificent visual spectacle that accentuates the contrast between the gold and ink colors by employing splashed ink on golden paper. Zao Wou-Ki’s works from the “Boundless Period” have generated keen interests on the market in recent years. One of such works, 15.01.82, achieved a new record for Zao Wou-Ki’s pieces in the 40th anniversary evening sale last year in Hong Kong. Looking ahead, these enduring masterpieces are bound be increasingly treasured.