‘The titles of works from 1954 to 1958 responded to the artist’s first profound transformation, in which factual narrative was abandoned. Since then, no recognizable images could match up with these titles. However, it was the titles which revealed the lyrical connotation still conveyed through figurations until that time. Motional landscape – Foule noire, Avant l'orage and natural elements – Pluie, Orage, Nuage surpassed any description.’
–Daniel Abadie, extract from Le passage du vent
From 1954 to 1958, Zao Wou-Ki ventured toward abstraction through the ancient Chinese oracle bone script. His paintings were freed from a narrative imperative, pressing forward onto a profound and primeval simplicity; the colours were condensed and richly textured, creating a mysterious, impenetrable atmosphere. During the 1950s, the art circle in Paris witnessed the rise of Arte Informale, the emergence of Zao’s Oracle Bone series imbued the abstractionism of Post-war Paris with Eastern elements. In this way, Zao Wou-Ki established a strong basis for his subsequent rise in the Western art world. In 1955, Zao Wou-Ki was invited to represent France to participate in the Third Biennale of São Paulo. At the same time, his work was displayed at the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh during the Fifth Carnegie International Exhibition, where it was awarded an Honourable Mention. It was during this time of the artist’s quick rise that Ailleurs (Lot 1018) was created.
Zao Wou-Ki’s works from the Oracle Bone Period from 1954 to 1958 mainly featured natural elements as the subject matter, only a handful were dedicated to commemoration of lost friends, the mother country, old friends and family back home, such as Épitaphe (1954) and Hommage à Qu Yuan (1955). Therefore Ailleurs is a very rare example from this period, considering whether the theme, size (no. 60) or provenance. The mysterious, deep and distant atmosphere of Ailleurs lures the viewers with an intense sense of unfillable yearning and longing. In surveying the history of Chinese art, Zao Wou-ki pointed out that, ‘paintings and poetry are inseparable, and paintings are often inscribed with poems.’ Evidently the artist had discovered early the special significance of the written character in Chinese painting.
If the written inscriptions upon traditional paintings can be thought of as an ornamentation of paintings with literature, then Zao Wou-ki’s oracle bone inscriptions are a return to the natural state of Chinese characters as hieroglyph. In Ailleurs, all of the oracle bone characters are not rendered with complete meaning, they were stripped back to the most primal state of the Chinese character. The artist’s characters approach the age of primitive man rendering figures with spire and stone, engraving the objects of the world with great curiosity and care, setting off the start of civilization. From a young age, Zao Wou-ki was familiar with the oracle bones and bronzes collected by his father, marking the genesis of Zao Wou-ki’s aesthetic appreciation of these objects. Beyond the symbols originally carved on metal and stone, the colours of Ailleurs act almost as a purification of the vicissitudes, resonating with the ancient treasures deeply buried for thousands of years, now becoming dazzling flourishes of light with the passage of time.
An outlander in Paris
The current piece has indeed an extraordinary provenance. The current owner’s mother Maria Martins acquired this work directly from the artist as she visited Zao Wou-Ki’s studio in Paris in late 1950s. Maria Martins was a highly acclaimed artist known for her sculptures and writings. She spent most of her lifetime overseas and travelled widely around the world, with her husband Carlos Martins, a Brazilian ambassador. In 1941, the Surrealist artist André Breton introduced her to a number of individuals in the circles of Surrealist, Dadaist and Arte Informale, such as Michel Tapié, André Masson, Ives Tanguy, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp. She moved to Paris in 1948 and stayed until 1950, when she returned to her home country Brazil. Since 1951 she participated in the organization of every Biennale of São Paulo. Ailleurs has never left Brazil after Maria passed away in 1973. Sixty years after completion, this work appears in the public for the first time in this auction.
In the 1950s, Paris was the ‘ailleurs’ (alien land) to Zao Wou-Ki who left China a few years ago, as well as to Maria Martins who spent many years away from her home country Brazil. Perhaps it was this shared feeling of being an outsider in a foreign country, Zao chose to sell Ailleurs, executed in 1955, to Maria during her visit to his studio in the late 1950s. Perhaps both of them could not erase from their mind the fresh and yet sometimes indistinct memory of home town, and the land and family back home which they yearned for day and night. For Zao Wou-Ki, that homeland in his heart need not be rendered with distinguishable scenes or classical landscapes; instead he wanted to express the feelings of the diaspora generation of his time through the awe-inspiring infinite expanse of territory. As with the author of L’Étranger Albert Camus, who left his home country in North Africa, journeyed across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe and landed on an alien land — France; he was subsequently recognized as a prominent figure and cultural symbol of France; it was the same with Zao Wu-ki – he was both French and Chinese as an artist. Ailleurs blurred the boundary of homeland; being forever an outlander, what Zao depicted on his paintings was his spiritual home in the realm of art.
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