Boat is a subject that reappears throughout the early period of Zao Wou-Ki's oeuvre. In April 1948, Zao Wou-Ki boarded Andre Lebon, the same French liner which also took Lin Fengmian, his teacher at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, abroad. After a 36-day voyage, he eventually settled in Paris, the art capital of the world. It was the memory of his long journey across the ocean, as well as other extended travels to Italy and Spain between 1951 and 1952, that prompted Zao to create a number of works linked to the theme of ships and boats during the early 1950s. The present lot Les Bateaux symbolizes Zao's exploration in a new world far away from home. In between black lines finely woven like embroidery threads, the viewer can see several boats are running on the sea surrounded by the rugged mountainous ranges in the background. The artist's unique use of lines and colour changes create the sense of space and depth in the composition, instead of following the Western tradition of using light and shades to construct a three-dimensional appearance. A rather unique approach is also employed, with different objects overlapping and running through each other, an apt demonstration of the artist's innovative spirit. The picture has not employed a realistic object size ratio neither, most noticeably shown in the ratio between the boats and a full yellow moon in the sky, adding a touch of fairy-tale aura through such a treatment. Zao simplified the external appearance of objects to express their real nature, without taking away the viewer's understanding and enjoyment of the work in any way. The artist's gaze is not fixed at a single place. Instead, it travels back and forth with his footsteps and vision, merging together his observations from different places, be it level, looking from above or below, proposing a spatial reconstruction. A limited space on the canvas thus becomes vast and open, thanks to Zao's talent in creating space. Just as French art critic Alain Jouffroy said: "Zao Wou-Ki's works clearly reflect a Chinese point of view towards matters of the universe, the distant and hazy domain portrayed in the painting reflect the spirit of meditation, not the physical matters of meditation." (Paris Magazine Arts)
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