Zao Wou-Ki’s Sweeping Masterpiece 22.8.91
“Every time I walk into the studio early in the morning, even if it’s still a bit dark, one look at the uncompleted paintings left on the easel or floor is enough to fill me with energy to continue. If there is dry paint on the canvas, that allows me to play between the real and the virtual, the empty and the full. I want to use the time I have left to express my joy for painting. I am not afraid of getting old or dying. As long as I can still hold a brush and spread paint, I have no fears. I only hope that I have enough time to complete my current painting. It needs to be bolder and more free than the previous one.” This is the moving self-account that Zao Wou-Ki, Chinese master of Western painting, wrote in 1989.
The Ultimate Innovation
From the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki was searching for a unique artistic path. Throughout his life, he continued his deep exploration to achieve clarity. He was totally committed. He never stopped at temporary achievement. Instead, he continued to surpass himself and break through existing achievements and constraints. Looking back at Zao Wou-Ki over the past 60 years, we see a journey of extraordinary creativity, from his Klee-influenced work to oracle bone and cursive scripts and finally to his artistic infinity. His artistic vocabulary evolved on many levels, growing into a distinctive style that is held in very high regard in the art world. He was described by critics as a “sentimental and abstract representative figure”. In the tide of postwar Western abstract expressionism he shone through. In the 1980s, his internationla reputation continued to grow. In 1981, Zao held a solo exhibition at the invitation of a top French national gallery — the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris. The exhibition went on tour to galleries in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore over the next two years. It established Zao Wou-Ki’s reputation in the West. In 1983, the Chinese Ministry of Culture invited Zao Wou-Ki to return to his mother country to hold a solo exhibition and return to his alma mater, Hangzhou Art School to teach. His blend of the Western with the Chinese was charismatic. He gained a high level of recognition from the international art world. His passion for art did not fade with the increase in age. Painting was his life. In 1986, at 65, he installed a stair-lift in his gallery so he could paint large works by sitting on the stairs. With a glowing vitality, he continued to search for the ‘greater boldness and freedom’ in his work. In the 80s and 90s, Zao Wou-Ki’s work entered the next stage of transformation and rebirth.
Composed and yet Soaring
“Painting is a long-term undertaking. You cannot mature and be successful in eight or ten years. The process of art is long and difficult. Happiness comes later, and slowly.”
— Zao Wou-Ki
In this later period, Zao Wou-Ki was mind, heart and hand in unity, producing master pieces as if scribbling a sketch. As his experience grew and his state of mind changed, Zao’s work became increasingly unrestrained. There were vivid colours on his canvases. He poured out his warmth and open state of mind. The poetry of the Chinese literati and Eastern ink painting strengthened, as he depicted other-worldly scenes. He reached the unrestrained domain of “man at one with heaven”. There are two things worth noting during this period: the pursuit of lightness, abstract cosmic space, and a bolder use of colour. Zao Wou-Ki once said, “An issue that I have often struggled with, is how should I express the clarity and purity of light in painting? I don’t want to represent nature, but to arrange and combine images, so that you can see the ripples of air on the serene surface of the water. I want to produce new colour, spaces, and lightness. I want to people to feel refreshed, light and struck.” In order to produce a new space on the canvas, Zao started to break away from the traditional methods of composition and configuration. Jia Fangzhou, a critic and dealer, pointed out Zao Wou-Ki’s move from “concentrated” to “scattered”. His works made use of a “hollow” structure. The centre of the works moved from the centre to the left, right, top or bottom. Zao often “enveloped” in his paintings, from the outside towards the centre. There was more variety and variation in the configuration in his paintings. He arranged time and space freely, either concentrated or scattered, virtual or real. He moved into the realm of “soaring into the void to resist space”. Up for auction this time is the magnificent 22.8.91, completed in 1991. It is a classic representative piece of the period.
Sunlight, Cloud and Rain
In 1989, Zao Wou-Ki adopted a new form of composition in his work. It was cave-like, with the outside enclosing the inside. It started with his triptych 5.8.89, 30.6.92 stored in Taipei Fine Arts Musuem since 1992, and 11.8.99 Après l’éclipse finished in 1999. This form was significantly different from his style of the 1960s, which was ridge-like with a concentrated inside and an open outside. He continued in this new style up until his 2000 works. 22.8.91 is a mature and seemingly effortless demonstration of the new form. On the vertical canvas, the main tone is a warm yellow in different brightnesses, splashed on layer by layer. It creates a glaze of golden light, like golden rain and a sprinking of sunlight. He then applied a large splash of purple to the top and right. With a stroke of the brush, it smoothly embraces the yellow. The two colours are a contrasting pair. The bold meeting of them creates a sense of harmony, without conflict. It is very clever. The enclosed style of the composition gives a sense of ease and intimacy. The ourside is dark and the inside bright. As well as focussing the eye, it also makes the viewer feel like an adventurer, going deep into an ancient cave. From the light of a candle in their hand, we can see the marks and murals left by our ancestors on the cave wall. Zao Wou-Ki was like a child, returning to the physical world from the abstract to present the glitter of the world and share it with us.
So, what kind of world is it? It is as if I saw a full moon in the vault of heaven, so magnificent and glorious, dazzling us. Under the golden colour and light, the subtle, quivering purple and dark green lines stretch down from the centre of the painting. They are like the traces left by flying Chang’E and the jumping rabbit of the moon or the calligraphy of Mi Fu. They record Zao Wou-Ki’s attachment to life, and his flight to heaven. It is just like French poet Henri Michaux described, “Secluded space, secluded like numerous fishes falling on the still surface of the water. Happy, deeply happy, the new moon hangs high, glorious and resplendent.” It gives off a feeling of magnificence and vastness.
Mysterious and selfless
In 22.8.91, Zao Wou-Ki created a consistent and perfect balance of colours and lines between softness and calmness, jumping and dancing, and conflicts and contrasts. This work calls to mind two extreme paintings. The first is The Tempest painted by the famous Venitian artist Georgione in the 16th centrury. We can see that 22.8.91 is interestingly similar in its handling of light and darkness and its spacial arrangement. Georgione depicted an evening before a storm, in which a shepherd found a mother feeding her baby under a tree. This painting was regarded as a revolutionary breakthrough in art history. For the first time, the architecture, trees and weather were not just added elements. As well as forming the background, they also existed independently as a true theme of the painting. They balanced the composition of the painting perfectly. In 22.8.91, Zao Wou-Ki took a different abstract path. As with Georgione, he saw the nature, land, light, trees, architecture, people and city as a whole. Both artists used colours joyfully. They used floating air and lights to give the paintings consistency. Their paintings are harmonious and consistent. They expressed their emotions in a pastoral style. Both Georgione and Zao Wou-Ki went above and beyond the conventional Western classic perspective and made painting a unique art of mysterious rules and strategy.
The other painting similar to this Zao Wou-Ki piece is Light and Colour - The Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, by the famous English landscape painter William Turner in the 19th century. Turner focussed on light effects in his later works. He combined fog and steam and brought together blocks in movement and rising flames, which evoke a sense of rhythm almost like in abstract painting. The beauty, bathed in the light was a charming fantacy. Zao Wou-Ki did the same in his 22.8.91, which was permeated with the flow of glamourous and dream—like dramatic elements. As art critic Jia Kebo said, “in front of our eyes is the chaos before the world was created. It is a road not leading to a destination but which can be traced back to its origin. Between the tangible and the intangible, this is where Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings lead us to - a world that hasn’t been completed, that is hesitating on a cliff edge. It is the soaring flight at the final moment before the order in the world came about. Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings are always questioning the universe, and they always try to recreate. They reveal the birth of light and the invention of water. They represent the emergence of life out of the indistinct, beyond the material turbulence.” These are perfect words with which to end this introduction to Zao’s work.