Moonlight in the Realm of Poetry
The bright moon—oh, how white it shines,
Shines down on the gauze curtains of my bed.
Racked by sorrow I am unable to sleep.
Lifting my clothes, I pace to and fro.
Throughout history, Chinese poets found great inspiration in moonlit scenes, which can lend themselves to moods encompassing hopeful yearning, nostalgia, and solitary melancholy. The timeless moon, cycling between dark and light, circle and crescent, was a constant companion for scholars and literati as they recorded their every thought, and inspired their poetic imaginations and emotions. Whereas countless poets wrote about the moon, very few painters painted moonlit scenes. In the late 1940’s and early 50’s, during his ‘Klee period’, Zao Wou-ki painted in an archaizing style a round moon against a dark nocturnal background, along with bare branches, houses, and boats. In 1954, he painted Dark Moon, in which subtle moonlight first appeared as a symbol. Larger and dating from the same year, Paysage dans la lune (Lot 1017) likewise takes the moon as a theme. It is an extremely rare work from Zao Wou-ki’s early ‘Oracle Bone’ series.
In the early 1950’s, under the inspiration of Paul Klee, Zao Wou-ki returned to explorations of the line. By 1954, the line had become the primary subject of his painting, which also incorporated the profound essence of China culture. Zao’s lines are not Western lines or Klee’s lines, but the origins of East Asian writing and civilizations. The oracle bone script, the first systematic script of China, appeared in the capital of the Shang Dynasty over three millennia ago. It was lost to history until being rediscovered during the Guangxu period of the Qing Dynasty. The divinations and historical records contained in the oracle bone inscriptions at once articulate an ancient Chinese cosmology and describe the relationship between text and image; the inscriptions are thus some of the earliest examples of the imagistic beauty of Chinese characters. Zao Wou-ki looked to the aesthetic traditions of his motherland for inspiration—from the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty, to rubbings of the Han, to the calligraphy and ink paintings of subsequent times. Vent of 1954, considered Zao’s very first abstract painting, shows an ambiguous, nearly monochromatically gray space. All the figures of the past have disappeared, and what remains is a series of interrelated symbols. As the painter himself says, ‘Still lifes, flowers, and animals have all disappeared. I use symbols—imaginary symbols dissolved in the monochromatic background. I am exploring. Then, slowly, the symbols become forms, and the background becomes a space. The painting begins to move, becoming enlivened.’ Here Zao Wou-ki achieves a true freedom. This work represented a completely new kind of artistic expression and inaugurated his Oracle Bone Period.
The Moon Like Autumn Frost
Like Vent, Paysage dans la lune dates from 1954. Zao Wou-ki’s abstract paintings from his period are mostly based on themes of nature. It was only in 1958 that he began to title his paintings after dates. Within these four years, his colours and compositions were all related to natural themes; one may say that although these works appear abstract, they all evoke some aspects of nature by virtue of their titles, which encompass images like wind and rain, lightning and thunder, and snow. When we look at the paintings, we feel the austerity of wind, the vagueness of misty rain, the power of thunder and lighting, the obscurity of snow, and the scorching heat of the sun. In Paysage dans la lune, we feel the silence of the night and the immersive radiance of the moon, which are effectively evoked by the unusual palette. The lines converge in the darkness at the bottom, and their dissipation in the brightness above, amidst the dance of silver lines resembling autumn frost, creates a soothing rhythm. The gentle moon cannot illuminate the night sky entirely, but only penetrates it with elegant rays. In this work, Zao Wou-ki no longer represents nature in concrete figuratives, but through an abstract expression that results from a profound appreciation for nature’s miraculous creativity. The nature he paints is an infinite space. The lines that infuse it resemble pictographs, but are also abstract visualizations of the energies of life, so that the painting approaches a manifestation of nature itself.
After arriving in France in 1948, during the incipient stage of post-war abstractionism, when many Western artists came under the influence of East Asian calligraphy, including the Franco-German Hans Hartung, the Swiss Gerard Schneider, the Frenchman Pierre Soulages, and the Americans Mark Tobey and Yves Klein. Together they influenced the non-figurative art of Europe and the Abstract Expressionism in the United States. Although the centre of the art world was shifting to New York, Zao Wou-ki set the foundation of the first wave of abstract art alongside European abstract artists. Zao was grounded in Chinese culture, not only borrowing from the forms of Chinese calligraphy but tracing them into the origins of the Chinese script itself—into the cosmology and imaginary realms they crystallized. Zao’s idiosyncratic artistic expression stood out amidst post-war art. Pacing in Moonlight was Zao’s masterful incorporation of traditional Chinese writing and its graphic beauty, a historical atmosphere, minimalist aesthetics, and abstractionism into his earliest abstract painting. In the history art, whereas Western painters focused on chiaroscuro and volume, Chinese painters focused on the line and treated it as their primary vehicle of description of expression. In Zao Wou-ki’s work, the line becomes an avenue for traditional Chinese art towards the world. Paysage dans la lune does not depict a figurative scenery. The ineffable and ambiguous moonlight seen here in fact exceeds any figurative representation, inspiring the viewer’s boundless imagination about the eternal light of the moon.
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