In the annals of the history of art, it is those who have triumphed in forging and defining an iconic style that are inducted into the rarefied league of artistic masters. To have achieved such success yet continue to challenge oneself, pushing past previous heights, requires a quality that goes beyond talent, courage, and perseverance: it requires a profound wisdom. It is this wisdom that opens the door for one to create something that endures through the ages. Many artists belonging to the era of modern art have devoted the prime of their lives to creating these enduring masterpieces, often designed for public display, as a way of leaving something to posterity, to close one’s life and career with a grand finale. Matisse, for example, during his artistic prime, designed the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence; Rothko created the paintings that hang on the walls of the Rothko Chapel in Houston; Tsuguharu Foujita designed and painted the frescoes for the French chapel, Our Lady Queen of Peace. Each of these endeavours was inspired by religious themes, and from these themes, the artists harnessed an energy and intensity that elevated the works to the realm of the spiritual. By the 1950s and 60s, Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings from his Oracle-Bone Period (1954-1959) and Hurricane Period (1959-1972) had already been inducted into the permanent collections of important museums and institutions in Europe and the Americas, establishing Zao Wou-Ki as the first Asian master to attain such levels of international renown. But Zao Wou-Ki had his eyes set on something higher. He continued to strive, breaking through the boundaries of his previous limits, and by the 1970s, the artist had embarked upon the Infinite Period, a brilliant era that would accompany him for decades. This Infinite Period marked his arrival at the highest summit. The paintings express the divinity of the universe, brushing up against the apex of human civilization. By the 1980s, this achievement had firmly established Zao Wou-Ki’s now-indisputable status as an international master. With great pride and honour at this Evening Sale, Sotheby’s presents the single largest oil painting created by Zao Wou-Ki during his lifetime, Juin-Octobre 1985 (Lot 1004). This triptych of extraordinary size was commissioned by renowned architect I.M. Pei for the Raffles City complex in Singapore. The painting is a singular accomplishment, a prodigious effort by the artist to express his ideas and essence at full capacity, with great artistic power and boldness. During his entire career, Zao Wou-Ki created no more than twenty large-scale triptychs. The offering of this singular masterpiece at Sotheby’s Evening Sale marks a grand achievement in East Asian auction history.
Rewriting Asian Art History in the 1980s
As it was in the West, the 1950s to 1970s was a period of emergence and intense vying among different schools of thought in the post-war Asian art world. But avant-garde artists from China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia had their gazes fixed upon Europe and North America; entry into the Western art world was the ultimate goal and marker of accomplishment. By the 1970s and 80s, alongside the rapid rise of Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, Mainland China also started on its important journey of reform and opening up. Overnight, the entire East Asian economy was roaring forward, and finally, after thirty years of leaning toward the West, a monumental change was occurring among the Asian post-war artists. They were turning back towards the East, a trend that was becoming the new mainstream. As an artist who had already established a reputation for himself in the West, Zao Wou-Ki’s own return to his motherland was deeply symbolically significant. In 1981, Zao Wou-Ki held a large solo exhibition at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, and exhibiting at the same time was the equally renowned Russian-French abstract master Nicolas de Staël. This was an event that signified the Western art world’s high regard of Zao Wou-Ki, and served as the consummate conclusion to this stage of the artist’s Western journey. Following the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais exhibition, the artist immediately embarked upon a rotating exhibition in East Asia, launching at the Fukoka Art Museum in Japan, and continuing onward to the Tokyo Nihonbashi Art Gallery, the Fukui Prefectural Museum, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, and the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura. He followed with solo exhibitions at the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the National Museum Art Gallery in Singapore. In 1983, Zao Wou-Ki held exhibitions on both sides of the strait, at the National Museum of History in Taipei as well as the National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing and the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou (formerly the National School of Fine Art). In May of 1985, Zao Wou-Ki’s three-week art lectures at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts marked the first time an overseas artist had been invited to teach a workshop in Mainland China since the country’s reform and opening up. Students were selected from all across China, and included Shang Yang, who later became the Associate President of the Hubei Arts Academy, as well as Xu Jiang, the current President of the China Academy of Art. The workshop was highly influential for the development of Mainland Chinese art in the 1980s. It also produced the only extant Zao Wou-Ki instructional text, The Lecture Notes of Zao Wou-Ki in China. Soon after this historic series of lectures, Juin-Octobre 1985 was created.
A Crown for the Lion City
The dimensions of Juin-Octobre 1985 are highly unusual, the painting created through a commission by I.M. Pei. Both Zao Wou-Ki and I.M. Pei were born to large families during the Republic of China, and both had fathers who were successful bankers – Zao Wou-Ki’s father Zhao Hansheng was a Managing Director at the headquarters of Shanghai Commercial and Saving Bank , and I.M. Pei’s father Pei Zuyi was the President of the Central Bank of the Republic of China as well as one of the founders of the Bank of China. Both of Chinese descent, these two international masters first met in 1952 at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in Paris, and established an immediate camaraderie. Zao Wou-Ki reunited with I.M. Pei and his wife in 1964 during his travels to New York. As I.M. Pei’s career as an architect gained momentum and success, he began commissioning Zao Wou-Ki to create paintings for the walls of his building projects. In 1979, when I.M. Pei took on the construction of the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, he commissioned the artist to create a set of quadriptych ink panels for a central location in the main hall of the hotel. In 1980, after more than a decade since the project was first proposed, I.M. Pei was given the reins to design Singapore’s Raffles City. Ground was broken next to the Raffles Hotel at the location of the original Raffles College. Six years later, the architectural complex was completed, becoming a Singaporean landmark. But shortly prior to its completion, in May of 1985, I.M. Pei had invited Zao Wou-Ki to tour the premises, and commissioned the artist to create a large panel painting for the grand lobby of the main building. The painting would be displayed alongside works by Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Nolan, and together, these three paintings would become Singapore’s most important public contemporary art collection. Following careful deliberation, Zao Wou-Ki settled on a triptych measuring 2.8 x 10 meters, and immediately after completing his three weeks of lectures at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, Zao Wou-Ki returned to France and devoted himself to the painting, working tirelessly for five months. Juin-Octobre 1985 was finally completed and unveiled to the world in October of the same year. It was first exhibited at the Galerie de France, which at the time was managing the artist. On the day of the opening, Zao Wou-Ki released another edition of a large artist monograph, first published in 1978 and edited by his friend Jean Leymarie, but this time with Juin-Octobre 1985 featured on the covers. In 1986, after the exhibition closed, Juin-Octobre 1985 was officially moved to Raffles City and put on public display. All the way until 2005, when the painting was relocated during a significant reconstruction, Juin-Octobre 1985 remained at Raffles City, open for public viewing, serving as the brilliant crown in the architectural landscape of the Lion City.
The Majestic Epic of the Triptych
Within Zao Wou-Ki’s oeuvre, the large-scale triptych occupies a special position. In the forty years from 1966 to 2006, the artist completed twenty large-scale triptychs, eight of which were created after 2000. Among these twenty large-scale pieces, three have been inducted into museum collections, and seven are in the care of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, leaving only ten in the hands of private collectors. Because the triptychs span the artist’s Hurricane and Infinite periods, they serve as a connecting thread, offering a new angle from which to interpret Zao Wou-Ki’s work, and illuminating the elements of constancy in the artist’s artistic pursuits across different periods. The path that led to Zao Wou-Ki’s eventual use of the triptych format began with his creation of large-scale single-panel paintings. Large-scale canvases were favoured by the abstract expressionists, who Zao Wou-Ki had encountered while living in New York. These tall and wide panels allowed the artists a greater degree of freedom and unrestrained expression. After returning to Paris, Zao Wou-Ki also began painting on large-scale canvases. The artist’s later adoption of the triptych format, however, was not simply another expansion of creative space. Within the Western tradition since the Renaissance, the triptych has been closely tied to religious themes in painting, and carries with it an aura of deep solemnity and divinity. And in fact, examining the dimensions of Juin-Octobre 1985, one discovers that the widths of the three panels are not entirely equal. The centre canvas is 280 x 400 cm, while the left and right panels are 280 x 300 cm. This arrangement reveals the artist’s clear intention in invoking the religious paintings from the Renaissance. Correspondingly, within traditional East Asian painting, large-scale pieces often appear in the format of several joined or separate panels, together expressing an atmosphere of grandeur and magnificence. In a gesture to both Eastern and Western traditions, then, Zao Wou-Ki’s triptychs often express sentiments of respect and homage. This is apparent in many of the artists’ painting, including Hommage à André Malraux 01.04.76 (now in the collection of the Hakone Open-Air Museum in Japan), dedicated to the artist’s friend and French Minister of Culture; Hommage à Claude Monet, février-juin 91, in honour of the founder of French Impressionism; Hommage à mon ami Henri Michaux avril 1999-août 2000, for his friend and French poet laureate; Hommage à mon ami Jean-Paul Ripolle – Histoire de deux érables canadiens, 21.06.2003, for the Canadian and fellow abstract painter; Hommage à Françoise, 21.10.2003, painted for his wife; and Le Temple des Hans, 2005, created in honour of the Han dynasty. It was an attitude of devotion and respect that Zao Wou-Ki brought to the triptych.
Beginning in the 1980s, the artist began receiving invitations for solo exhibitions at important museums, as well as more commissions. In 1980, for example, Zao Wou-Ki had solo exhibitions at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Carleroi in Belgium and the Musée d’Histoire et d’Art in Luxembourg. Both exhibits featured large-scale oil paintings. In the same year, Zao Wou-Ki designed a large-scale mosaic for the Honoré de Balzac grammar school in Mitry-Mory, built by architect Roger Taillibert. Later, in October, Zao Wou-Ki was appointed as professor of mural painting at the Parisian École nationale supérieure des art décoratifs, a post he held until 1984. In 1981, Zao Wou-Ki travelled extensively around China, encountering the majestic and romantic ancient Yungang grottoes and frescoes in the province of Shanxi. The reverence and longing for the deities expressed by these ancient large-scale creations left a deep impression on Zao Wou-Ki. The artist fervently studied the mural form for the next five years, even purchasing a studio space in the French countryside of Loiret, larger than the one on Paris’ Rue Jonquoy, so that he could create large-scale paintings. Each of these creations were a step in the preparation toward creating Juin-Octobre 1985.
Boundless Mystery: Manifesting the Spirit of the Universe
Juin-Octobre 1985 possesses the trademark characteristics of Zao Wou-Ki’s Infinite Period. As Yann Hendgen, Art Director of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, explains in an essay for Sotheby’s Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening Sale: “From the beginning of the 1980s, Zao Wou-Ki was then able to give free rein to his desire to create large-scale painted polytychs; a new workshop, public commissions, and an enthusiastic public for the introduction of such monumental compositions. Such large works also communicate a decisive turn in Zao Wou-Ki’s work: his gradual rediscovery of China” (15.01.82 – Triptych and Its Role Among the Large-Scale Paintings by Zao Wou-Ki). The paramount characteristic of the Infinite Period is a compositional departure from using a central axis, in which the visual weight is distributed along a vertical or horizontal dividing line. The artist’s change in composition is not merely a visual one, however, but a significant shift rooted deeply in artistic and human philosophy. During the Hurricane Period, Zao Wou-Ki’s career and romantic life were carrying on smoothly. His mood was one of contentment; his body was strong. As the artistic described himself, during this period, he approached the canvas wielding his bold ambition, as though the canvas were an oppositional force, and he were “fighting against [it].” Thus, his use of the central-axis in the paintings from the period demonstrates a strong sense of individualism. It is a scene in which the dominant individual conquers space in every direction, constructing a new world. This was the overriding creative spirit. But in 1972, this formidable energy of domination came to a halt – the artist’s wife, May Zao, had passed away. After a period of deep contemplation and reconsideration, the artist began creating paintings that displayed a striking “open” composition, in which the perimeters of the canvas are reinforced, and more space is given to the centre. This new composition revealed a sudden opening-up, an enlightenment in the artist’s soul, a liberated state of “non-self.” The artist had departed from his previous perspective of “man conquering nature,” toward a belief in the oneness of nature and humanity. This foundational shift in ideology formed the basis for the Infinite Period. The Western tradition of painting derives from a single-point perspective, originating philosophically from Western civilization’s individual-centred way of viewing and conceptualizing. The tradition of Chinese painting’s “scattered perspective,” however, comes from Taoism, the belief that all things in the universe are one. The Western tradition places its faith in man being made in the image of a Christian God, whereas the Eastern interpretation of “god,” informed by Taoism, is our omnipresent and all-encompassing “nature.” The most profound value of the Infinite Period, then, is the manifestation of Eastern philosophy’s belief in “nature as god,” within which there exists a continuous cycle of life and death. It is this endless cycle that is the permanent law of the universe. The ultimate essence of the universe is that of oneness. Juin-Octobre 1985, an epic of abstraction, is a grand expression of this idea.
Primordial Mist, Roaming as One with the Universe
In a 2001 special interview with Phoenix Television, Zao Wou-Ki explained that painting is “a slow creation of a world.” This philosophy is manifested with brilliant perfection in Juin-Octobre 1985. Making use of the capacious size of the panels, the artist has taken the lateral scroll of Chinese painting and expanded it, creating an abstract space that seemingly expresses a concrete realness. Standing in front of the painting, the viewer’s gaze naturally departs from viewing in a point-to-point manner, and instead allows one’s eyes to freely roam across the canvas. In this way, the viewer’s perspective is in constant change, as though immersed in a “scattered perspective” arrangement, journeying across the spectacular world created by the artist. The arrangement continues without end, with flowing light driving the changes and shifts in colour, representing the boundless, infinite, ever-flourishing universe. When creating the painting, Zao Wou-Ki released his drive to conquer, but rather allowed his spirit to linger contently within the painting, achieving an even more prodigious aura of freedom and ease. Throughout the painting, his use of colour and brush technique is also dynamic, dancing and adapting with natural ease. At the beginning of the Infinite Period, the artist was drawn to the “empty space” emphasized in Chinese ink-wash paintings. This translated into the use of white tones in his oil paintings in the 1970s, which by the 1980s, had become all the more brilliant and richly expressive. During this time, the artist had returned to the soil of his motherland, encountering again the landscape and surroundings he had been away from for a long time, and once again, they nourished his mind and body. The verdigris green and ultramarine colours that appeared in his earlier works are in Juin-Octobre 1985 melded in with softer, lighter tones. His oil colours are further diluted, heightening the appearance of translucence. The pearlescent, clear light, along with a ravishing violet, soft orange, and bright yellow intersect in meticulous concert. The exquisite and ethereal splashes and spatters of paint replace the brittle lines; sharp edges are concealed, further amplifying an aura of vitality and spirituality. Every inch is imbued with the breath and vigour of the universe.
Blue is a colour that Zao Wou-Ki used in all of his stylistic periods. He once explained that his understanding of the colour originated from his earliest days in Paris. He was at a museum, and encountered a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus by Giotto, the Early Renaissance master. The classic painting depicts the Virgin Mary wrapped in a blue robe, the image holy, sublime, and pure. The use of blue in all of Zao Wou-Ki’s periods has been executed with great richness. Up until the 1980s, Zao Wou-Ki’s use of blue often manifested in its deeper shades, the blue of grapes, gentle and exquisite, with a sheen of translucence. Applied with varying pressures and speed, it splattered and flowed, coalescing into a crystalline and mysterious space. In Juin-Octobre 1985, the blue manifests in a shade closer to purple jade, and in its various permutations of rich and light, dry and wet, it becomes void and substance, emptiness and fullness, linking together all the exquisite complementary colours that reverberate across the canvas. In tracing the painting back to its Eastern roots, it is important to note that after many years apart, Zao Wou-Ki reunited with the Zhang Daqian, a great master of Chinese painting, in Taipei in 1981. The inspiration behind Zhang Daqian’s iconic splashed-color landscapes came from the Western abstract paintings of the 1960s. These landscapes established a revolutionary new style for traditional Chinese painting. This example of invoking traditional Chinese painting techniques and artistic concepts was perhaps an inspiration for Zao Wou-Ki. He, also, could return to tradition. To examine the painting’s Western roots, one looks to the colour philosophy of the Impressionists. The romantic and enchanting blue-purple tones are the result of developments in optical science during the mid-19th century, and, in Monet’s later years, they became the poetic images of his lily pond, seen through his fading vision. These subtle threads to the past resonated with Zao Wou-Ki, who boldly applied these blue-purple tones across the canvas. Later, this colour was also the basis of the triptych completed in 1991, titled Hommage à Claude Monet, février-juin 91.
The Artist’s Prime, the Key to the Summit
Juin-Octobre 1985 symbolizes the beginning of Zao Wou-Ki’s late-career work. By the time of the opening ceremony of Raffles City, the artist had already been commissioned to create the poster for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. In 1993, the artist received the Commandeur de l’Ordre de la Légion from French President François Mitterrand, as well as an honorary doctorate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 1994, he was awarded with Japan’s Praemium Imperiale. Shortly after, in 1996, the artist held a large-scale retrospective exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, titled “Infinite Image and Space.” The following year, Zao Wou-Ki accompanied French President Jacques Chirac on a visit to China, where he confirmed three retrospective exhibitions in honour of sixty years of painting. They were to be held in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou between 1998 and 1999. In 2002, Zao Wou-Ki was inducted as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the highest honour of his lifetime. The following year, he held a large-scale solo exhibition at Paris’ Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume. The number of visitors to the exhibition exceeded 135,000 people. Since then, across all the arenas of academia, culture, and the market, the artist’s prodigious reputation has proven unshakeable. Zao Wou-Ki’s accomplishment of artistic flourishing over thirty years late in his career, among all of the artists of the world, is a rare one indeed. And Juin-Octobre 1985 can be said to be the beginning of this glorious chapter.
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