Flowing Currents of Colour Striking at the Spiritual Universe
Music provides clues to Zao Wou-Ki’s creative journey. He and his first wife, the musician and artist Lalan, were both deeply interested in Western classical music as well as the avant-garde music of the 20th century. During early visits to France, Zao became acquainted with composers Pierre Boulez and Edgard Varèse, and also underwent a rigorous study of music theory and vocal music. The artist was in the habit of painting to music, sounds that would open up mysterious colours and dynamic spatial compositions. Ville engloutie possesses a compact and powerful colour structure, with a dominant hue of indigo saturating the canvas like the marvellous depths of the night sky. In addition to the indigo, gorgeous light peach hues, greens, and deep blacks intertwine and embellish the tableau like enchanting stardust, adding to the painting’s aura of mystery and profundity. In the painting’s centre, Zao introduces lines in a calligraphic manner, the uninhibited brushstrokes creating layers of time and space. At times scattered and at times densely layered, they draw out the movement of colour, allowing it to pour forth, resulting in a plane of colour that possesses a certain “chaotic order.” In this way, an infinite and boundless space is created, radiating with a life and vitality that extends beyond the boundaries of the canvas, striking the viewer with sensory impact. Indigo is one of Zao Wou-Ki’s abiding colours. The lot on offer is one of the few works in indigo completed during the artist’s stylistic transition in the 1950s, and stands out in its exquisite melding of colour and musical influences. It is as though the artist has captured the flash of a single instant amid the riotous activity of all living things, manifesting Zhuangzi’s observation in The Equality of Things: “The heavens and the earth are born as I am; the myriad things and I are one.” This rare masterpiece is a significant resource in the interpretation of the artist’s spiritual universe.
Uniting Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting; An Expression of Spiritual Profundity
During this period, Zao Wou-Ki often chose titles for his paintings that refer to concrete objects, yet these objects are not the true subject matter. With a language unconstrained by subject matter, the artist creates a kind of emotional atmosphere with brushstrokes that seem carelessly and haphazardly applied. The painting Ville engloutie is thus not primarily interpreted as having a concrete subject, yet the image of the submerged city can still be detected faintly beneath the attenuating mist and curling clouds. Painting and poetry originate from the same source, as Zao Wou-Ki once said, “I believe that fundamentally, the essence in the expressive manifestations of the two art forms is the same. Whether the brush is sweeping across the canvas or the hand is writing upon a piece of paper, both are revealing the breath of life. Even without physical or concrete forms, they can still reveal a hidden meaning, one that is intertwined with the universe… The poems that attract me the most are the ones that have, drifting between the lines, a feeling of freedom.” Zao Wou-Ki’s painting is a visual manifestation of his poetry. The imagery of title is a prodigious element of the universe that moves across the painting, setting free the brilliant inner fire.
Abstract painting is deeply imbued with emotion as well as the artist’s philosophy. It can transcend barriers of time, and root itself deeply in the world. It is able to withstand the ravages of history with no diminution of its restorative powers, emotional intensity or resonance. For any great artist, there will always be a unity between the work and the life. During different stages in the artist’s life, their works featuring even the same subject may take on different meanings. In his memoir, Zao Wou-Ki mentions having created a painting in the 1950s by the same title of Ville engloutie to commemorate his relationship with Lalan soon after the disintegration of their marriage (Zao Wou-Ki, Autoportrait, Chapter 6). The image and idea of “the city” is a recurring motif in Zao’s work. From the artist’s representational lithograph completed in 1953 to the painting that signified the end of his marriage in the 1950s, “the city” for the artist became something that grew in energy and force, becoming richer and more fertile with time. Ville engloutie is the earliest exploration into the artist’s Oracle Bone Period, combining poetry, calligraphy, and painting in a single body, representing the height of the artist’s works created during that period. Of even greater significance than the painting’s artistic expression, is the boundless and free spirit that Zao Wou-Ki has set loose upon the canvas. Only this can bestow us with a spiritual energy that transcends form, allowing us fully to appreciate the limitless power of art. Here, on the wings of the artist’s soaring imagination, we are invited to reflect on the past and be guided into the future.
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