PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE AMERICAN COLLECTION
A Masterpiece from Zao Wou-Ki's Oracle-Bone Period
"To paint is to have an adventure. Each time one must try something one hasn't tried before. If it is not an adventure, then there is no need to paint it."
By the early 1950s Zao Wou-Ki had already won acclaim in international art circles. in 1951 he was invited to hold his first solo exhibition in France at the Gallery Pierre in Paris; the following year, the Cadby-Birch Gallery in New York hosted another exhibition for him. Also in 1952 profiled in Life, he was "a rising star from China in international art circles". However, Zao did not allow this early recognition to stagnate his creative growth. As he saw it, painting was a kind of adventure: a process of creation, destruction, and re-creation. In 1954, he became increasingly discontent with using simplified lines to portray his observations of natural scenes and objects, and his artistic practice underwent a decisive transition. The still lifes, landscapes, and childlike, poetic scenes that Paul Klee had inspired in Zao had gradually become limitations. He sought to break free and explore, to transcend his earlier self and to create a language of painting not limited by subject material.
Zao began to reconsider his homeland, China, and the rich cultural traditions of the East. The aesthetic heritage of stele rubbings, calligraphy, pictography, oracle-bone inscriptions, bronze inscriptions, and ink wash painting provided him with fresh sources of inspiration. He sought to establish a highly individual and exceptional system of expression. In 1954, he painted Vent, a work that is considered his first abstract painting. In this painting's boundless, nearly monochromatic grey-black space, figurative depiction is replaced by a series of flowing, interconnected symbols. As Zao once said, "still life, flowers, and animals have disappeared. I use symbols—certain imagined things that fall into a monochromatic background—in an attempt to explore. Later, slowly, the symbols in the painting become shapes, and the background becomes a space. My painting begins to move, to live". Zao had found a personal and authentic basis for painting. The symbols in his paintings, which resembled Chinese characters, announced a new brand of artistic expression: the arrival of his oracle-bone period.
In 1954, Zao was struggling through a phase of gloomy colours, but by 1955, he introduced a new artistic language of increased facility and maturity. His use of colour became more daring and bright; his new paintings were like carefree butterflies freshly emerged from their cocoons. Debut d'Octobre （Lot 1006）is a major representative work from this period.
A Poetic Suggestion of Movement
In Debut d'Octobre, a boundless grey-brown background hints at temporality, providing a setting for the pitch-black brushstrokes—rising, pressing, halting, receding, framing, and shading—that Zao uses to form character-like symbols. Some of these symbols possess a demanding gravitas with the weightiness of carved stone. Others, fine and lithe, seem to dance on the canvas with nymphal rhythm and agility; their hints of movement, like a shuttle through a loom, forms a contrast with their more solid counterparts. Although the symbols resemble letters or characters, they have no readily discernible literal content. But they seem to break the silence of the canvas and share ancient secrets with the viewer—like scars tempered by the passage of time.
Earthy ochre, mystical violet, and a radiant crimson kindle a dramatic brilliance as they roam about the initially indistinct background. The interplay of colour forms a portal to a diversely luminous world. Zao's deep red evokes maple trees in the autumn.
In text on the reverse of the painting, the artist mentions "Debut d’octobre" (the beginning of October), calling to mind the sight of the hills of Fountainebleau ablaze with red leaves in the autumn, or the fall colours evoked by the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi in "Sleeping on a Night of Autumn Rain": "When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise / The red frosted leaves cover the steps". The painting is a vivid portrayal of seasonal atmosphere. In Chinese culture, the colour red is also a symbol of jubilation, warmth, and rebirth, and the role of the crimson in the overall tableau of the painting is to manifest a thrumming vitality. Zao plays the part of choreographer, presenting the viewer with an autumnal dance in which the bodies of the performers recite a poem of movement and conjure a visual banquet.
A Surging, Moving Melody
"Sound ... emanates, propagates, communicates, vibrates, and agitates; it leaves a body and enters others; it binds and unhinges, harmonizes and traumatizes; it sends the body moving, the mind dreaming, and the air oscillating. It seemingly eludes definition, while having profound effect."
American sound artist Brandon LaBelle
In December 1954, Zao Wou-Ki met the avant-garde French musician Edgard Varèse at a concert. The two men formed a close friendship on the basis of mutual admiration. Varèse, an advocate of "liberating music from the constraints of tradition", transformed everyday objects into musical instruments, launching a revolution in twentieth century music. His music features contrasting tone qualities and original compositions that incite in the listener a sense of pleasant surprise. This music inspired, stimulated, and shocked Zao. Debut d'Octobre, which Zao completed in 1955, is a flat canvas, but its coloured light emits an undulating rhythm that expands and contracts in space. This intense contrast, much like Varèse's music, interweaves the tune of the artistic soul with the exaltation of the philosophical mind. As the renowned Chinese-French writer François Cheng once said, "When Zao Wou-Ki paints, he interweaves and combines. Beyond that, he often locates certain places in a painting that can breathe. He uses meticulous lines and brushstrokes to draw them out so that the viewer can see. It is like the intersection of one hundred sounds in which one sometimes hears the clear sound of a single string or pipe ... the canvas is like a musical score filled with notes that multiply and echo together. The tone of the notes is like the hue of the colours, forming complementary reverberations, sometimes strong, sometimes distant". The appeal lingers.
The Path to the World Stage
"We see in Zao Wou-Ki's paintings a kind of skill that only a modern artist can possess, but his roots in tradition do not suffer; there is both the loquacious sound of these roots, like a mother-tongue, and a path away from authority ... a face half-obstructed by a lute allows straight lines to break apart and tremble. An idle stroll, a mountain path outlined by slender, intoxicated antennae—these are the apples of Zao Wou-Ki's eye. Abruptly, an image emerges from a garden of symbols, rich in curiosity, trembling in delight, and a festive atmosphere quietly builds, like a joyous celebration in a Chinese hamlet".
French poet Henri Michaux
Reflecting on the state of international art circles in the 1950s, the art critic Kao Chien-Hui once wrote: "In the framework of mainstream Western art, as China moved toward socialist realism, the expression of Eastern calligraphy in the West developed in the 1950s. Post-war Western artists who employed calligraphic expression were more-or-less mainstream at the time. The German-French artist Hans Hartung, the Swiss artist Gérard Schneider, the French artists Pierre Soulages and Yves Klein, and the American artist Mark Tobey, among others, established themselves as the first wave of avant-garde post-war painters". After arriving in France in 1948, Zao Wou-Ki found himself in Paris's avant-garde scene, where he also befriended mainstream artists such as Soulages and Hartung. When the Eastern calligraphy trend arose in Paris in the 1950s, Zao, as a Chinese painter, naturally chose to explore its roots in tradition and refine its essence. As a result, he produced a particular artistic style that established his unique prominence amid the tide of post-war abstract painting. Debut d'Octobre exemplifies Zao's successful creation of a modern and highly individual expressive language that employs the concepts, style, and abstraction of traditional Chinese calligraphy and literary art. He incorporated modernism into his artwork while also providing traditional Chinese art with a path to the world stage. Debut d'Octobre does not portray a figurative scene; its ineffable world contains references and implications that transcend representational expression. It proffers to the viewer a richer imagination with fuller emotions. Following its completion, the artwork was exhibited in the Kootz Gallery in New York. It was collected by a private American collector in the 1960s and has been perfectly preserved over the past 40 years. Its present availability is a rare opportunity.
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