During the second half of the 1950s, Zao Wou-ki and his wife Lalan’s relationship was coming apart, and the emotional turmoil naturally affected his artistic pursuits. Brokenhearted, he decided to leave Paris and personal troubles for a while, and headed for America and Asia on an extended journey. During his travels, the postwar American abstract expressionist movement unsettled him. The agitation he felt prompted him to consolidate his abstract artistic direction in the next decade. Upon returning to Paris, Zao was bursting with new ideas and inspirations, ready to embark on his Hurricane Period. He was ‘moving forward at full speed during those 10 years, like driving a fast car,’ Zao later said about that period. In 1961, he moved his studio to Rue Jonquoy in Montparnasse, Paris. The new space was a tranquil haven for him to paint, and upon his canvases he expressed new insights and beliefs. It was during this time that the artist created masterpieces that would come to define his iconic style and would earn him wide recognition in the international art world. ‘Compared to his earlier works, Zao Wou-ki’s paintings from the ’60s were more extensive, evocative and proficient in bringing out his unique temperament and natural character,’ said Pierre Schneider, an authoritative French art critic who spoke highly of his works from this period. Zao painted 01.10.62 (Lot 1022) at the beginning of this important period, testifying to the artistic rebirth that led to the pinnacle of his career.
An Indigo Masterpiece: World View of the East and West
Zao Wou-ki is particularly fond of the color blue, from the robes of the Blessed Virgin Mary in medieval paintings to the famous International Klein Blue by Yves Klein. The color is noble and solemn, serene yet mysterious, symbolizing dreams and hopes. Zao chose blue for the main color scheme in 01.10.62, juxtaposing and interlacing different layers of celadon, azure, navy and cobalt to dance freely with the varying intensity of the brushstrokes. They undulate, creating ripples of immeasurable power on the canvas. Another piece by Zao, Ville engloutie (Lot 1020), also presented in this season’s evening sale, is an example of an early work from his Oracle Bone Period. Although both paintings are dominated by blue, Ville engloutie is entwined with softness while 01.10.62 is imbued with sharp and intense energy. The two paintings exemplify Zao’s various working techniques and philosophies during different stages of his career, demonstrating the artist’s diverse interpretation of blue.
The composition in the present work appears to be divided horizontally into three parts. Zao’s swift and vigorous brushstrokes sweep across the canvas with speed and rhythm. The middle zone of rich and bright white is set in stark contrast with the deep melancholic blue background, brightening up the canvas instantly. Black strokes with fei bai (flying white) effect in Chinese calligraphy form a diagonal composition through warp and weft, like the inscriptions on Chinese ritual bronze wares. They are imbued with robust energy and strong momentum, demonstrating perfectly the rhythmic cadences and visual aesthetic of Chinese calligraphy. The black and white collide, clash and push against each other, as if to hearken back to the time of creation when the universe burst with immense power to form earth and sky; the juxtaposition generates boundless life force with energy reaching beyond the canvas.
‘There is a sense of mysticism in Zao Wou-ki’s paintings,’ said Daniel Marchesseau, former director of Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, ‘A sense of mystery that is completely natural and not in the least bit contrived—evident from the myriad conflicts, nuanced deviations and nature of relativity depicted on the canvas, from which boundless imageries are born, and become parts of a macro universe under his paintbrush.’
Pulse of Universe: Billowing Through Time
Zao moved from figurative naturalism to subjective imagery during his Hurricane Period. The creative process was a way to express his inner emotions and spirituality through depictions of the natural world. The present work was filled with dramatic crossing and exchanging of brushstrokes, reminiscent of British naturalist painter Joseph Mallord William Turner’s ever-changing seascape of storms and torments. Turner’s sea was based on the artist’s objective observation of nature intertwined with magnificent narratives – typical in Romanticism. In the present painting, however, Zao’s inner world has long been at one with nature, absorbing natural phenomenon and understanding the pulse of universe. Onto the canvas, he poured forth the inner storms of his heart, creating intense and powerful energy while illustrating the emotional ups and downs with fearless spirit. The artist has achieved equilibrium in the restraint and release of emotions. Zao’s good friend, French poet Henri Michaux once said, ‘refined and settled, an unprovoked sudden halt, leaping beyond the physical forms, transforming into lines, a condensed call, the living continues to clamor.’
As an artist, Zao has freed his body and mind to listen and embrace the natural world. His vulnerability and strength, romantic yet bold, are all rendered through the indigo blue in 01.10.62. The artist’s passion for life and art was both pure and ardent. With his paintbrush as metaphorical paddles, he propelled himself in free exploration of the vast and limitless sea.
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