This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné currently being prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki)
Since time immemorial, the dragon has been the spiritual identity and symbol of Chinese culture. It is an emperor reigning over all beings, and an emblem of peace and harmony. Southern Song dynasty painter Chen Rong wrote on his painting entitled Cloud Dragon, "Ascending to the galaxies, reaching the Hua and Song Mountains. Rain nourishes far and wide, it cultivates immortality. Riding on the energy of the cosmos, it travels through the sky." These words embody the Chinese people’s fascination and reverence for the dragon for more than thousands of years. About 700 years after Chen wrote his poem, the ‘cloud dragon’ has emerged once again, this time in Zao Wou-Ki’s masterpiece 21.04.59 (Lot 1021). Ancient, powerful brushstrokes travel across the canvas, turning and twisting along the edges, combining to create a grand arch like a bow. This dark, magnificent dragon rolls and spins throughout the clouds, heroic and powerful.
Zao created 21.04.59 at a time of important changes in his life. The Oracle Bone Series had been born and the artist was emerging as a rising star in the international art scene. His first marriage ended in 1957, and he left Paris for an extended journey that took him through America, Hawaii, Japan and Hong Kong, finally returning to Paris in 1959. This experience was more than a mental release however. It afforded him the opportunity to encounter the new postwar movements in art, to widen his international scope, and to establish his subsequent creative position. During this period, he also met Chan May-Kan, his second wife and love of his life. These experiences removed all mental barriers, releasing the pent-up energy into a torrent of creativity. The present lot was completed in this key point of the artist’s life. Like the cloud dragon in the painting, Zao ascended to an unrivaled artistic peak.
Integrating Oneself into the Landscape
The Hurricane Period, characterized by a central-axis composition, may reflect Zao’s focus on his grand ambition in the 1960s. The Infinite Period, with its open composition, might symbolize the artist’s liberated transcendence of mind and self during the 1970s and 1980s. Looking back at Oracle Bone Period of the 1950s, representative pieces, such as 21.04.59, reveal Zao’s essential process of reflection, and the disassembly of identity as a method of rediscovery. The painting’s composition at times comes together and at times disperses. Such processes pave the way for the future. In 1954, Zao Wou-Ki returned to his own culture, looking to historical connection and seeking inspiration from oracle bone scripts. In these works, the artist’s innate cultural essence is fully expressed on the canvas. They mark his transition from representational to abstract art. At the early stages, primitive characters appear in an irregular and varied rhythm. Each line and brushstroke resembles writing. Although Zao’s Oracle Bone Period only lasted for about five to six years, a fundamental shift in his approach emerged around 1958 to 1959, near the end of this period. Gradually, the symbols lost their word-like form. Powerful, heroic brushstrokes broke free from the constraints of shapes and meanings in specific characters. The strings of crisscrossing abstract shapes in 21.04.59 resemble words and yet are not actual words. These shapes leap to the sky, clash with each other. They come together, and then disperse, displaying an unprecedented life energy so vast that it can create whole universes.
At this stage, Zao Wou-K no longer borrowed from external matter, be they oracle bone scripts or bronze vessel inscriptions. Instead, he pursued internal discovery, expressing mature views on life and the universe. The pulsating composition, dispersing and coalescing, reflects the artist’s profound insights on the ephemerality of life and the ever-renewing nature of the cosmos. "Safety and danger interchange, misery leads to happiness and vice versa, gentleness and urgency press each other on, congregation makes dispersion and vice versa," according to Zhuangzi in Zhuangzi - Zeyang. The primitive and rustic lines appear independent yet interdependent, turbid, while traveling up and down in its own rhythm. The effect is a visual experience balanced in all directions, that evokes an elegant charm that encompasses sight, touch and sound. The work conjures images of a cloud dragon dancing to music, rhythmically undulating in a torrent of color and lights, a powerful announcement called forth from atop the peak of Zao Wou-Ki’s Oracle Bone Period.
The cloud dragon which gallops across the massive canvas in 21.04.59 is a remarkable vision. The composition is breathtaking and grand, taking us as far as the very beginning of the universe. Within this vast domain, clouds and mist gently roll. In this painting, the artist employs a dark palette characteristic of the late Oracle Bone period. The boundless, black ocean is bottomless, with strands of silvery-gray barely just visible, while other parts show patches of earthy brown. Such richly layered base colors are infused with different shades of ink in Chinese painting, imbuing a sense of movement in the oil paint. Each subtle change of color influences the other— at times restrained, and at times free and vivid. Woven into the composition are also indigo and midnight blue (“purple mist from the East” is an auspicious sign in traditional Chinese culture). This domain of objects, situation and atmosphere, makes up the inner landscape of the artist himself, a vision of endlessly variety, heroic and masculine, conjured at the tip of Zao’s brushstroke.
At the top area of the canvas, a splash of light appears, like a snowstorm stirred up by the soaring dragon. It brings to mind J. M. W. Turner’s stormy cliffs, capturing a tempestuous nature as it roars. When Zao first met May, the woman who would become his second wife, he was struck with wonder, as if seeing stardust in a dark universe. He described her as possessing ‘the glamor of a movie star, the maturity beyond a young age of a woman who has lived through difficult times, yet maintaining the innocence of a young woman. She knows my painting.’ With May by his side, inspirations were abundant and the artist’s sense of integrity was secure. Friedrich Nietzsche posed the question: “How can those who live in the light of day possibly comprehend the depths of night?’ Like yin and yang, Zao and May could not be more different, and yet they relied on each other. This love inspired the artist to find a “central point of glowing light” amid the dark canvas. Endless dark that shrouded the earth suddenly vanished, setting alight the path leading to the Zao’s Hurricane Period that was to come.
Ascending to a World-Class Stage
Postwar abstractionism was at its height during the 1950s, and in the decade, Zao Wou-Ki gained wide acclaim in Europe and America with his Oracle Bone Series—works that are now prominently featured in the collections of major institutions around the world. In 2013 and 2019, Sotheby’s had the honor of being entrusted by The Art Institute of Chicago and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to sell two monumental works from the Oracle Bone Series, respectively, Untitled and Abstraction, both created in 1958. Untitled sold for RMB 89,680,000, which set the auction record for the artist at that time, and in 2019, Abstraction fetched an impressive HKD 115,966,000. Compared with these two works, 21.04.59 is similar in size (canvas no. 100) and as majestic artistically. When viewed together, a subtle shift is noticeable in the final stage of the Oracle Bone Period. The refined, sharp lines of Untitled, gradually transform into the inflated, flickering forms in Abstraction, and then finally break free and soar high in 21.04.59, crystalizing into its ultimate form.
The present work has been featured in 16 public exhibitions across Asia, Europe and South America since the 1970s, and has been published in at least 15 albums and exhibition catalogues. As the most representative example of the Oracle Bone series, 21.04.59 is undoubtedly a top museum-class painting among Zao Wou-Ki’s contemporary works. Now appearing at the auction for the first time ever, this work is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors.
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