After arriving in Paris in the early 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki attempted to cast off the facile but excessively technical and repetitive creative style he achieved during his education in Chinese painting. In its place, he sought to establish his own creative idiom through the influence of Western modern art. Prior to 1950, the artist said that his painting practice remained in the “fermentation” phase. Then, in 1951, he happened to encounter the abstract paintings of Paul Klee at a museum in Switzerland. This occasion marked the first major stylistic transition of his artistic career: the beginning of Zao Wou-Ki’s “Klee Period”.
Klee’s paintings portray symbols of imagination and pure, deconstructed images. Within flat canvases of limited dimensions, he concealed vast spaces that trigger marvellous fantasies while also expressing motifs that bear resemblance to the unique creative concepts of traditional Chinese painting. Klee had in fact drawn inspiration from Chinese painting, and so his works expressed an artistic genealogy that resonated with Zao Wou-Ki’s deep Eastern aesthetic foundation. At the time, Zao had returned to line, and he was more directly engaging with and expanding on the symbols and lines of traditional Chinese culture. In this way, he gradually established a creative basis for his subsequent artistic development.
In the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki lived on the same street as the master sculptor Alberto Giacometti, who once praised the figurative details in Zao’s paintings, and in particular, the free and vibrant tone of his brushwork. Two Pots (Lot 1018) and Vase and Cup (Lot 1019), painted in 1953, both bear testimony to Giacometti’s compliment: the painter uses a fine black line to outline the shape of household objects, which serve as narrative symbols within the painting. These outlines are embellished with clear and brisk watercolours, lending them a gravity-defying litheness that strikes a sharp contrast with the static and weighty air of an ordinary still life. Vase and Cup includes the sketched edges of a table surface, delineating the three-dimensional space of the composition, but the objects in Two Pots seem to float above a semi-abstract swath of orange colour, producing an intense visual tension and rhythm. The relative positioning of the objects is ambiguous; the relationship between foreground and background is deconstructed. This spatial arrangement is rich in poetic sentiment and childlike wonder, marking an intriguing divergence from the typically cultured and elegant tone of still life paintings.
In the preface to an exhibition catalogue, the poet Henri Michaux, another friend of Zao Wou-Ki’s, once offered the following interpretation of the painter’s Klee Period: “He seeks to reveal, yet still hides; what seems like change is in fact continuity. His line follows his joy, expressing the pulse of fanciful thoughts: this is what Zao Wou-Ki likes. Suddenly, the tableau leaps forth with the happy atmosphere of a Chinese village, both jubilant and humorous, conveyed within a system of symbols.” Beginning in the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the Suichaotu and Qinggongtu genres of Chinese painting, both infused with auspicious folk symbols, were the expressive forms of choice for Chinese painters. The Bogutu style, with its reverent emphasis on elegance, was another means of portraying the lifestyle fashions of the literati. These Chinese genres of painting belie the notion that the still life is a strictly Western tradition, for indeed, such paintings of objects also have a long and important place in Chinese art history. Michaux’s reference to the jubilant ambience of a Chinese village shows how Zao’s paintings diverge from the visual effects of Western still lifes, highlighting the most subline aspects of Two Pots and Vase and Cup.
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