Inspired by Paul Klee in the early 1950’s, Zao began to compose his paintings by fusing both figurative and abstract elements with his lines. After pursuing this poetic manner of painting for several years, however, Zao found that it had become an obstacle to his creativity. By 1954, he had adopted a radically different worldview, directing his gaze inwards and transforming it into spiritual introspection. Accordingly, he abandoned narrative and ceased to use lines purely as pictorial ornaments. Drawing inspiration from the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty, rubbings of Han-dynasty pictorial artefacts, seal-script inscriptions on ancient bronzes, and other aspects of China’s archaic cultural heritage, he transformed and synthesised them into a mystical symbolism that reflected the vastness of his imaginative mind. Only then did he find release from his creative quagmire and become able to express himself fluently in abstract painting.
As the source of writing in East Asia, the oracle bone script represents the development of human civilisation and its cosmology. When in 1954 Zao Wou-Ki incorporated them into his painting, he effected an electrifying and endlessly productive meeting across time between China’s five-millennia culture and modernism, opening a new epoch in art history. Dating from this very year, Zao Wou-Ki’s Village de Montagne se dispersent (Lot 1027) is one of the very earliest works in his Oracle Bone series.
An Ode to Life
The majority of Zao Wou-Ki’s abstract paintings from this period are landscapes, but in them representational elements all but disappear, replaced by densely interwoven symbols. As he wrote in Self-Portrait, “Still life objects, flowers, and animals all disappeared. I strove to manifest my imagination with symbols, painting essentially on monochromatic grounds... Then, gradually, symbols coalesced into forms, the background became space, and that which was within me began to emerge in the painting, which became mobile, alive.”
In Village de Montagne se dispersent, Zao negates the illusion of a three-dimensional space, emphasising instead the visual interest and beauty of infinite varying lines on the picture plane. The lines become densely layered clusters of iconic symbols at the center of the painting, harmoniously and rhythmically radiating outwards and manifesting a primitive vital energy. The “village” itself can no longer be seen, but its life can be perceived through the pulsating layers of symbols. Zao Wou-Ki has transformed the representation of nature into boundless spatial structures, within which the lines of the oracle bone script are the wellspring of vitality.
At the same time, Zao’s use of colour was unsurpassed among post-war painters. In contrast to the sombre palettes more typical of his period, he here employs harmonious earth tones, which convey a sense of the deep, cosmogenic past and resonate with Untitled (Lot 1026) from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum collection. On top of the foundation of earth tones, Zao has added details in a striking bronze colour, which enliven the otherwise tranquil scene and evoke the irrepressible beauty of nature. Through duration beyond human imagination, this vital force has continued to nourish the earth.
Art without Boundaries
For Eastern viewers, Zao Wou-Ki’s oracle bone script-inspired symbols are familiar as part of a shared cultural heritage. For Western viewers, the oracle bone script is a portal to a mysterious and exotic historical context and inspires a different kind of sympathy. As Alfred Manessier, Zao’s friend and winner of the 1st Prize in Painting at the second Sao Paolo Biennial, said, “[Zao] is very different. The world, past, scenery, and light as he conceives of them are unknown to me. But through this unfamiliar person from an unfamiliar world, I am touched by something I know and can recognise. Although superficially different, this person is the same as us, and his inner world is not far from ours.”
Whether in the East or the West, Zao Wou-Ki, with his individualistic symbolic world and unadorned, sincere modernism, was a bridge between past and present. He forged an uncharted path for Chinese art towards the rest of the world. Village de Montagne se dispersent is a rare masterpiece by Zao from this special period in his life. Quand il fait beau, sold at Sotheby’s in spring 2018, is of the same size and dates from similar period as Village, although in Village there is a far greater concentration of Oracle Bone script-inspired symbols than any of Zao’s previous paintings. Works from Zao’s Oracle Bone period being extremely rare, the lot on offer is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors.
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