From Pictorial Representation to Conceptual Expression: Bateaux au clair de lune
In the early 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki embarked upon a series of travels across Europe. The new scenery and sights left a strong impression upon the artist, who would go on to depict the Notre-Dame in Paris, the Burgos Cathedral in Spain, and images from Venice with his paintbrush. In his rendering of landscapes, Zao Wou-Ki, along with other modern art pioneers, was in pursuit of a breakthrough that would transcend the current forms and aesthetic concepts of painting. Monet did this in his portrayal of haystacks at twilight by capturing the shifting colours under the light of the flickering sun. With his brush, Van Gogh captured the rhythm of nature, drawing upon his time in the countryside, amid the rivers and streams. Monet’s mastery in the realm of landscape painting resided in his use of colour, which led to the unfolding of the Impressionist movement. Van Gogh’s was in his wielding of emotion and feeling in his brushstrokes, a technique that set off the Expressionist movement. Zao Wou-Ki’s mastery lay in the realm of the line. His use of lines, often positioned within a haze of clouds and mist, suggested an otherworldly, spiritual realm, establishing a style of abstractionism that embodied the Eastern spirit. Amid the wave of abstractionism that swept the globe, Zao’s individual style positioned him upon a pedestal of his own.
The Penetrating Rhythm of Lines
Completed in 1952, Bateaux au clair de lune (Lot 1003), in both subject and form, comprehensively showcases the evolution described above. With the image of a landscape as its starting point, the painting is ultimately composed of abstractionist line forms, approaching a spiritual realm suggested by the smoke and mist. These spiritual elements have been historically emphasized in traditional Chinese aesthetics, and with Zao’s brush, they have re-emerged in modern art. Four different scenes converge upon the canvas of Bateaux au clair de lune: the lofty castle, the thousand sails raised in unison, the shared gaze across an embankment, and the full moon hanging upon a clear sky, all iconic images and concepts within Chinese classical poetry. In particular, the moon was for Zao Wou-Ki a subject he pursued tirelessly beginning in the 1950s. Inspired by the moon’s image and meaning within Chinese poetry, Zao painted scenes with a strong sense of narrative and storytelling. Yet within these scenes, he transcended the realist conventions of imitation and gave prominence to the unadulterated beauty of the line and of colour.
The Ethereal Gathering and Dissipation of Colours
In Bateaux au clair de lune, colours of scarlet red, husky grey, and moonlight white are rendered upon the canvas to create different layers of change and variation. The colours alternate between light and rich, showcasing the textural aesthetics of Chinese ink painting, in which calligraphy ink seeps across the paper to varying degrees of thickness, shading, richness, and wetness. The major breakthrough during this period of Zao’s paintings was his ability to render the heavy and rich texture of oils onto the canvas in a way that appears light and celestial, creating a visual effect of fluidity and change. This dynamism also allowed the artist to create scenes that mimicked other elements of traditional Chinese landscape painting, such as the rolling clouds, the surge of mist through the mountains, changes in light and dark, the rippling of waves. Even the full moon is rendered in a manner that suggests a process of gathering and diffusion, a flickering of light. Under Zao’s brush, the painted landscape is no longer still and fixed, but spirited and lively.
From Pictorial Representation to Conceptual Expression
Zao Wou-Ki’s rendering of line and colour departs from simple objective representation and leans toward a individual and dynamic form and aesthetic that is at once concise and liberated. The subtle changes in colour tones arrest the viewer’s gaze. The lines engage and intersect with one another layer upon layer, as though animated by rhythmic changes and variation, arranged in a way that expresses an abstract beauty echoing the popular abstractionist movement in the West of that time. The presence of the lines and colours in terms of substance and mass, however, is ethereal and flickering, a style that more closely follows the Chinese aesthetic principle of qi yun sheng dong (or “breath, rhythm, and vitality”), while at the same time exhibiting the Chinese art tradition’s penetrating understanding of landscape painting. In Chinese art, simple replication of the objective appearance of the natural landscape is insufficient. The light and shadows, the rolling mist through the mountains changes hour by hour, with no fixed form or image. Thus, the artist must capture these natural “fluctuations,” the living dynamism of nature. Additionally, one must discover within the natural landscape the essence of nature, the ideals of life, the realm of humanity – the artist must engage in a spiritual dialogue with the scene before him. Although Full Moon Above a Thousand Sails features nature as its subject, in every manner it transcends the constraints of objective representation and spatial logic, composing a scene that is rich with poetry, the form of its lines and colours all converging toward a celestial rhythm, an inner state of clarity. In this way, Zao Wou-Ki has transformed a simple “pictorial representation” toward a “conceptual representation” that expresses an inner spirituality containing the artist’s personal spiritual imagination. In this painting, the artist aims not to portray the landscape with greater realism, but to express an inner spirit. In this shift, he also discharges the expressive power and abstract aestheticism of line and colour, achieving the very aim of modern art. In this way, Bateaux au clair de lune answers the call of the modern pursuit in a manner that is individual to Zao, and unique to the Eastern tradition. Only from this perspective can we fully appreciate the value of Zao’s paintings from the 1950s and their significance in the development of modern art.