Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)
- Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)
- oil on canvas
Distinguished Private Collection
Québec, Museum du Québec, Zao Wou-Ki Retrospective, 1969
Charleroi, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Belgium, Zao Wou-Ki, 22 November - 27 December 1969
Shanghai, Shanghai Art Museum, Zao Wou-Ki, 60 Years of Paintings, 4 November 1998 - 29 January 1999, pl. 51, p. 153
Beijing, The National Art Museum of China, Zao Wou-Ki, 60 Years of Paintings, 11 February - 11 March, 1999, pl. 51, p. 153
Guangzhou, Guangdong Provincial Museum, Zao Wou-Ki, 60 Years of Paintings, 21 April - 20 June, 1999, pl. 51, p. 153
Dresden, Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany, Madonna Meets Mao, 31 October 2008 – 11 January 2009, p. 86
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1978, pl. 338, p.290
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1979, pl. 338, p.290
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International publications, New York, 1979, pl. 338, p.290
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Cercle d'Art, Paris, 1986, pl. 370, p. 330
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Cercle d'Art, Barcelona, 1986, pl. 370, p. 330
His Painting is His Life
“Every day when I walk into the studio in the morning, even though the room was dark and gloomy, whenever I see an unfinished painting on the easel or on the ground, I have the strength to pick up the brush again. If the paint was already dry on canvas, I can then create various visions of abstract and real, of spiritual and physical space. I want to devote the rest of my life to expressing the joy of painting. I am not afraid of growing old, not afraid of death, I will fear no evil as long as I can get the brush, the paint, I can only hope to have enough time to complete the painting in hand. It needs to be bolder and more free than the previous one.”
— Zao Wou-Ki
The Dazzling Career of a Grand Master
On 9 April 2013, Abstract master Zao Wou-ki (known as Zhao Wuji in China) passed away in Switzerland. The news was a shock for the art world, like a rain cloud that drifted into a sunny sky, bringing with it a huge thunderstorm when least expected. Zao was born in Beijing in 1920, and in 1948, he moved to France, his eventual second home. Paris’ liberal creative climate and culture had lasting impact on his art, and he successfully fused such influence with his profound understanding of Chinese Art and Eastern aesthetic traditions. Through Western oil paintings, he developed a unique artistic language that earned him a seminal position in the Abstract Art movement worldwide, leading the way in the modern renaissance of Chinese Art in the West. Created through a lifetime’s dedication, his art is in itself a tribute to the world. His marvelous artistic triumph was achieved through his passionate and tireless pursuit of breakthroughs, as he continually reinvented himself. Zao’s works have gone through a number of major transformations, from the period when he found inspirations in the works by Paul Klee, through the “oracle bone period” and the “wild cursive calligraphy period”, eventually arriving to a state when all boundaries were lifted. He produced a substantial body of work in each phase and advanced with each transformation, each time further reinforcing his status as a revered master.
In 1965, art historian Michael Sullivan featured Zao Wou-ki in his book Great Art and Artists of the World, confirming Zao’s profound influence and lasting contributions to the development of Chinese Art. Zao had received numerous awards throughout his life, including two of the highest accolades in the European art scene: the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France in 1984, and the membership of Académie des Beaux-Arts de l’Institut de France in 2002. More than 200 solo exhibitions took his work to leading galleries and museums both in the East and the West, he was the first Chinese artist to exhibit at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, and his paintings had been included in the collections of more than 120 world-class art museums and institutions. Among Chinese artists of contemporary Western paintings, such credentials are almost peerless. His passing was no less than an end of a great era, yet his personal charisma and artistic wisdom continue to affect and inspire art lovers. The only resting place for the soul, his art, is made eternal through heritage and the continuation of artistic development.
A Collector’s Treasures: Eternal Value from a Boundless Universe
At auction, Zao Wou-ki is also one of the most sought after Chinese painters of contemporary Western works, with a devoted following of collectors internationally. In October 2011, in the 20th Century Chinese Art sale, Sotheby’s Hong Kong was proud to have achieved, and still hold, the highest auction sale record worldwide of a Zao’s work - his representative work from the 60s, 10.1.68, was sold for HK$ 68.9 million (about US$8.8 million). In the upcoming 40th Anniversary in Asia sales at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, collectors will be presented six of Zao Wou-Ki representative pieces from the 50s until the 90s: Sans titre (Lot 1), a work filled with the artist’s personal memories; 16.5.66 (Lot 16) with its whirlwind of radiant red hue; 3.4.60-1.2.69 (Lot 17) which represented Zao at the Venice Biennale; the introspectively spirited 30.7.64 (Lot 10); the lush and large-scale triptych 15.01.82 (Lot 11), first time ever to be on sale at an auction; and the expansive and majestic 22.8.91 (Lot 12) in a golden hue. Every piece is a rare find. May we take this opportunity to pay tribute to the grand master, and in the warmest memory of the artist, show our highest respect to Zao Wou-ki and his timeless art.
Head of Department, 20th Century Chinese Art
30.7.64 At Auction for the First Time
“I have always been faithful to my initial aspiration. I have never tried to conceal any difficulties, nor have I tried to cheat with techniques. I want to forget techniques to create new things.”
— Zao Wou-Ki
Zao Wou-Ki visited the United States in 1957, where he met a group of dynamic artists, including Yves Klien and Clay Huffman. He was amazed by their powerful creativity and the wonderful feeling that they could draw freely as they wished, and he admired their sense of freedom. They painted as if they had no past or any traditional burdens on them. All this inspired him and had an indirect influence on his later works. During the same year, Zao Wou-Ki won recognition from the director of the Samuel Kootz Gallery, an authoritative gallery in New York. He signed a contract with him to hold exhibitions regularly in the U.S. On his return to France, Zao Wou-Ki devoted himself to producing paintings on big canvases and repeatedly challenged his physical limits. On the larger sized canvases, he experienced Klien’s unrestrained freedom. He fought with the large canvases, not only filling but also enlivening them, to create a series of touching works. During the late 1950s, Zao’s creations went through a key transformation. He attempted to use just pure lines and coloured light to express his observations of the world and his inner emotions. The semi-physical shapes in his works gradually began to disappear, and he started to explore an abstract core. He made use of contrasts or multiple tremors of the same colour to inject vitality into the paintings. He felt that he was not restrained by technique any more and had a skillful control of the paint. The brush became his mind. He had very few fears or restrictions. 30.7.64, which was completed in 1964, was representative of his work during that period.
A Dynamic and Compact Poem
In this square-shaped work, Zao Wou-Ki reduced the number of colours he used. He chose only brown, ink black, orangey pink and white. As the colours were of a similar hue, there was a sense of harmony. It is clear that Zao must have arranged and mixed the paints with oil on the palette. Spinning and rushing around, the wet brush moved like a contemporary dancer on the canvas. Viewers can tell from the directions of the brushstrokes that all of the strokes were drawn consistently without stopping or hesitation. This was accompanied by a vivid rhythm. The brushstrokes compose a wonderful melody of heaven and earth. With separation and convergence, structure and content, concealments and rushes, infinite liveliness was created. The thick black lines burst in among all the colours. We can see a cyclone coming from the bottom up. This forms a powerful climax to the music. Zao Wou-Ki once said, ”What a real artist must possess is technique, honesty and confidence. Never try to capture the beauty of nature through imitation, but regard it as the source of inspiration. For example, when one paints a tree, it is better to capture the sound of the leaves rustling in the wind or the energy of the light, rather than merely painting the tree.” Although viewers may not know what is depicted in 30.7.64, it is certain that Zao’s interests lay in the light, sound and how to depict on the canvus what his discerning eyes observed in daily life — the abstract nature of life; its essence, which is usually forgotten amid the hustle and bustle as well as his eulogy to the generosity of the universe and nature. The painting is like a dynamic, compact poem, from which viewers can discover what it says and implies, in their own different ways. By silently appreciating the painting, we will slowly experience a delight beyond the material world.
The Formation of Clouds
Even though abstract painting mainly features lines and colours, the lines in this painting demonstrate Zao’s confident mastery of technique. If it wasn’t for this, he would not be able to paint such a masterpiece. Just as the famous calligrapher of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Wang Xizhi wrote in his Theory of Calligraphy, “A horizontal stroke should be written like a line of troops. A hook should be written as an arrow shot by a hundred-weight crossbow. A dot should be written like a dangerous precipice. Connecting strokes should be written like an ancient withered vine.” Every dot and every line can make or break. Zao Wou-Ki studied calligraphy from his grandfather from an early age, and was proficient. He brought with him his Chinese cultural heritage when he moved to France. He passed it on, connecting it, like a shining pearl, with Western paints and abstract vocabulary to produce the masterpiece, 30.7.64, which demonstrates infinite space and vitality. Jackson Pollock, pioneer of American action painting, created Automatism by dripping paint. He laid the canvas on the floor and poured paint from the top. Without using a brush or tool, the paint was dribbled and splashed on the canvas according to the rhythm of his actions. Moving between control and lack of control, Pollock created a pending moment on the canvas, in which we cannot find the starting point or finishing point. We can only see the rhythm of the energy and a composition and spacial expression, which breaks with tradition. Though some may compare Zao Wou-Ki to Pollock, they are in fact different in nature. Zao Wou-Ki’s lines have a strong sense of direction and narration. Blended with his own emotions, observation and recollection, they were indicative and implicit, not merely focusing on innovation in spatial expression. Historical critic Michael Sullivan commented in his The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art that “Zao Wou-Ki’s large abstract oil paintings combine calligraphic liveliness with an atmospheric depth that owes nothing to Pollock or Klien, but is the expression of his instinctive Chinese feeling for three-dimensional space. The Chinese artist is never concerned with the surface of things. He is always aware of what lies behind it…and hint at a reality that exists beyond what the eye can see.” 30.7.64 was once displayed in Zao Wou-Ki’s solo exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-arts, Charleroi, Belgium and at Madonna Meets Mao held in Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Dresden, Germany, an exhibition of Eastern and Western masterpieces. This painting is one of this top private collector’s most cherished Zao Wou-Ki’s works. It has been devotedly treasured for the past decade. Now, for the first time, they are willing to part with it. This is a rare opportunity for collectors.