Modern Art | Asia

Meditation on Zao Wou-Ki Painting

By Sotheby's
When I was seven years old visiting an art museum I stood on tiptoes to read the sign overhead: “Special Exhibit on Loan from Private Collection.” A single spotlight pierced the dark walls highlighting a diminutive painting placed behind a barrier of velvet rope suspended between two standing brass poles.

I inched forward, resting my chin on a scratchy, worn section of the rope and gasped. The picture, like no other, seemed painted by a child. A large, glowing, red-orange disc dominated the canvas floating on a background of deep blue-like-night sky. Two skewed triangles representing eyes vying for attention on either side of a jagged line split the disc-like-face. The light above focused directly upon a surprisingly realistic tear flowing from the lower left triangle-like-eye. My mouth tasted dry as tears welled in my eyes. I stood riveted, overwhelmed with the finality of my broken family and the reciprocal pain of the unknown artist. That artist was Paul Klee. As an adult, I carried that experience with me, dreaming some day of having a “private collection” of my own.

Years later, my husband and I visited the Laing Gallery in Toronto that showed such artists as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and paintings of Zao Wou-Ki. Upon seeing the Zao Wou-Ki paintings, I had a similar immediate connection with this artist that I had with Paul Klee years ago. My husband responded emotionally to the abstract and dynamic expression of nature within each of his paintings. So when we bought our house with its high ceilings and bare walls crying for art, we drove to Toronto to purchase a Zao Wou-Ki painting. We had almost no furniture for our house then. However, my husband had inherited a small amount of money from his family and we decided to embrace our dream for a “private art collection.” The gallery had several of his paintings mostly in red, but the quieter blue painting spoke to us both.

The vibrant motion within the deep indigo sea suggests anticipation of an upcoming storm or a reflective retreat from a prior storm. Zao Wou-Ki, in his paintings, often creates what seems to be a mystical dragon exploding from a sea of color. This painting holds the dragon in the lower left-hand corner calmly immersed in a restless sea about to emerge toward the storm. Zao Wou-Ki, like Klee, paints from an emotional synergy with nature, here from his heart, his hand sweeps upward toward the light above the storm on the right. For me, this painting changes, calms or challenges.

Zao Wou-Ki spoke of the internal conflict of his identity as an artist between the two cultures and traditions of the Eastern and Western aesthetics. And I, about to be a new mother at the time we purchased the painting, was seeking my space within the two cultures of my separated parents, determined not to inflict the same pain upon our soon-to-be-born son. Our painting’s sea-dragon either resonates with reflective strength to calm me or challenges me to navigate the conflicting storms. And on the best of days it is “Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea /And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali.”

Years later I learned that Zao Wou-Ki, after experiencing the paintings of Paul Klee, felt “an intimate, inner world that came close to his own sensibility.” Paul Klee influenced by Chinese painting inspired Zao Wou-Ki’s entrance into the aesthetics of Western art. Now this Zen-like painting, that we have lived with and loved for almost fifty years, hopefully, will be sold to someone who senses the strength in confronting a stormy sea that supports reflective peace.

This article was written by the collector of 19.01.61

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