Myriam Prevot, 8 June 1960
A Gem from The Hurricane Period
20.03.60 (Lot 1017) was painted in 1960, a significant year when Zao Wou-Ki returned to Paris from his around-the-world journey for career development. During his travels, he was inspired by American post-war Abstract Expressionism and he met his second wife, May-kan. The collision between passionate love and new artistic forms served as a continuous source of creative inspiration for him. His painting style shifted from the ancient symbols of his Oracle Bone period to the free yet intangible universe of his Hurricane period.
During that time, Myriam Prévot, director of Galerie de France in Paris, helped bring Zao’s painting to the peak of its prestige in the 1960s. Zao’s had his first exhibition at Galerie de France in 1957, and after that Myriam went on to organize exhibitions for the artist in galleries and museums in France and around Europe. Soon after creating 20.03.60, Zao held a second solo show at the Galerie de France in 1960. The work was featured in that year’s exhibition catalogue, along with an essay Myriam wrote in appreciation of Zao’s work.
Over the next 50 years, Galerie de France would hold nine exhibitions for Zao Wou-ki, including five solo shows and four group shows, while also further expanding his artistic platform to the rest of Europe. In September 1961, Prévot brought Zao’s work to Italy, and 20.03.60 was among the highlights of the artist’s important works at the seventh Exhibition of Pittori d’Oggi: Francia-Italia organized by the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna in Turin. The first edition of this exhibition took place in Turin in 1952, intending to strengthen cultural and artistic exchange between Italy and France. This show was as important as the historic Venice Biennale and Rome Quadriennale. The judges for that prestigious edition were among the most prominent figures in art, much like the roster of outstanding artists. Zao, who was the only participant of Asian descent, contributed fresh ideas to a world dominated by post-war Lyrical Abstraction and established his status in international post-war abstract art.
In 1965, with Myriam’s assistance, Zao’s first museum retrospective exhibition in Europe was held at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, marking an extraordinary historical milestone in Zao’s career. This exhibition featured 64 of his works made from 1950 to 1964. According to the exhibition catalogue, 20.03.60 featured in this exhibition, distinguishing it as an important work from the early years of his collaboration with Galerie de France. This piece is a testament to the wonderful relationship between the artist and gallery, and stands as a powerful witness to the rapid expansion and new peak in Zao’s art in the 1960s. Now appearing at the auction for the first time ever, this work will undoubtedly spark enthusiasm in the continuously bourgeoning market of Zao Wou-Ki.
Innumerable Twists and Turns: Traversing the Landscape of Modernity
Created at the pinnacle of Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period, 20.03.60 reinterprets Chinese traditional landscape through the adoption of post-war abstract expressionist techniques. While the middle ground outlines a magnificent view of everlasting mountains, the farther background is shrouded in thick mist, contributing to a new aesthetic perspective that explore spatial arrangement of both the virtual and the real. Rich in color layering, the composition takes various gradations of red as its primary palette, which is further embellished with ink brushstrokes and white smudges. Within the vast sea of color, the composition resembles a majestic vision of sunrise above the waters. Diverted from a representational narrative, the dense and light ink lines are interwoven into an abstract yet powerful imagery of landscapes. The artist’s internal universe of deep emotions is embedded within the calligraphic brushwork unique to Eastern cultures. Furthermore, the masterful use of an originally Western medium of oil paint creates rich layers and textures of modern landscapes, signifying a creative fusion of aesthetic values upheld in both the East and the West.
Five Elements: Studying the Boundary Between Man and Nature
Zao Wou-ki explored the transformative reactions that came about from broad juxtapositions, collisions, and even fusions of Eastern and Western culture. 20.03.60 is the perfect presentation of Eastern philosophy using Western expressionist methods. Aspects of the painting correspond to the concept of the Five Elements, a formula for integrating all things. The tree patterns in ink relate to wood, which represents the vitality from which all things originate. The meandering topography is earth, which nurtures all things. The curling mists signify water, which is the lifeblood of all things and the ultimate store of energy. The red light corresponds to fire, which symbolizes change, growth, and activity of all things. In the painting, Zao sought out the essential elements of life, perceiving the movement of matter and establishing an autonomous natural order. Representational symbols retreat from the work, implying the elevation of subjective awareness and emotional expression. The artist advocated a living naturalism, and a complete release within a keen and perceptive living aesthetic. He painted life’s war against death. He followed the nature of all things, embarked upon a journey of change, and achieved the unity of all things and the self, as well as a carefree, untroubled ease. In Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease, Zhuangzi wrote about “one who mounts on (the ether of) heaven and earth in its normal operation and drives along the six elemental energies of the changing (seasons), thus enjoying himself in the illimitable.”
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