Zao Wou-Ki's Watercolour Treasures
Sketches are important academic specimens which can be extremely helpful for understanding an artist’s individual techniques, development of a series, and sources of inspiration. Chu Teh-Chun made gouache-on-paper versions of his large oil paintings for his own orderly records, and Tsuguharu Foujita always did first drafts with charcoal or pencil sketches on parchment paper, refining and perfecting his compositions with basic studies for future oil or watercolour paintings. In contrast, Zao Wou-Ki’s watercolour paintings were not preparatory or transitional, nor were they subordinate to another medium. These paintings represent an independent creative genre that spans the various phases of Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic career. Their academic and collection value is equivalent to that of his oil paintings, and they possess immeasurable market potential.
The colour characteristics of oil and watercolour paints evince similarly high degrees of plasticity. The strengths of the former lie in expressing deep colours and the texture of brushwork, whereas the latter allows the artist to capture the fluidity of water and blend layers of colour. Because watercolour paints permeate paper, they create a transparent effect, yielding a visual quality that is bright, limpid, and gentle. An avid student of classical Chinese painting and poetry from a young age, Zao Wou-Ki learned from ink landscapes how water and pigment can interact with paper. Though he eschewed ink painting during his initial years in Paris, he demonstrated a natural facility for Western watercolour painting, creating poetic compositions with a bright, agile, and rhythmic hand, and developing an innovative artistic vocabulary.
For this season’s evening sale, we have assembled four rare and exquisite watercolour pieces from Zao Wou-Ki’s early periods, including Two Pots (Lot 1018) and Vase and Cup(Lot 1019) from his Klee Period and Spirits (Lot 1001) and Festival (Lot 1002) from his Oracle Bone Period. The juxtaposition of works from these two periods perfectly demonstrates Zao Wou-Ki’s gradual transition from figurative and semi-figurative styles to complete abstraction during the 1950s.
Festival and Spirits: Poetry Inscribed in Paint
In 1954, Zao Wou-Ki set aside narrative paintings of still lifes, animals, and landscapes. His transition to abstraction was rapid and enthusiastic. The childlike, poetic spaces and expressive elements of his previous paintings evolved into spiritual, mystical forms. This was the beginning of his Oracle Bone Period. Figurative depictions disappeared completely, replaced by symbols that resembled characters but could not be pronounced or understood. In his own words: “My paintings became indecipherable. Still lifes and flower petals no longer existed as I moved toward an imaginary, unidentifiable form of writing.” In traditional Chinese aesthetics, painting and calligraphy were considered a unified field: two interrelated genres that possessed a unique capacity to fascinate. In contrast, in the West, painting and calligraphy are separate disciplines. During his Oracle Bone Period, Zao Wou-Ki subverted the pre-existing separation between these categories of art in the West, combining painting with primeval characters that resembled ancient oracle bone inscriptions. Pictographic characters are symbols based on natural forms, and Zao Wou-Ki’s oracle bone paintings returned written Chinese characters to their origins in painted symbols: series of strokes forming inscriptions in metal and wood, revealing symbolic significances beyond their textual connotations.
Zao Wou-Ki harkened back to ancient Chinese civilization, drawing inspiration from oracle bone and bronzeware inscriptions, and incorporating the lines of such engravings into his compositions. In his own words: “These symbols have no meaning. I only seek to infuse these characters with suggestive power in order to pay homage to Chinese writing. The form of a painting is similar to that of a stone tablet, and the intricate brushstrokes of characters are black and textured. These characteristics accentuate the dramatic power that I hope to capture.” In the transition from Two Pots and Vase and Cup to Festival and Spirits, Zao began to deconstruct and blend his compositions. The character-like forms fly towards the edges of the picture plane or gather in the centre, weaving together melody and rhythm in a rising, falling, and free-flowing visual song. The paintings masterfully contrast the fluid charm of the watercolour medium with the historical gravitas of the calligraphic elements, yielding a mesmerizing and ethereal creative gestalt.
Most of the oil paintings from Zao Wou-Ki’s Oracle Bone period rely on a monochromatic palette, but the bright and transparent qualities of watercolours allowed Zao to add more colour to these paintings, yielding a visual effect quite different from that of his oil paintings. The large swath of warm coral tones in the middle of Festival resembles a lively flame that subtly emits a jubilant atmosphere, whereas patches of lake-blue, lavender, and gold fill the centre of Spirits, like sunlight shimmering on rippling blue water. These overlapping layers of watercolour paint create effects completely different from the dense and rich qualities of oil paints, demonstrating how the artist skilfully exploits the potential of each medium and infuses each painting with extraordinary knowledge and deft technique.
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