Zao, Wou-Ki – Chinese/French Artist

Zao Wou-Ki (French/Chinese, 1921 to 1913)

Zao Wou-ki occupies a pivotal role in the artistic dialogue between East and West. A seminal figure in 20th century art, Zao studied with Lin Fengmian at the National Academy of Arts in Hangzhou in the 1940s before moving to Paris in 1947. Zao has since called France his home, and his influential career developed in that dynamic, cosmopolitan environment. Paris was still the capital of world culture when Zao arrived in the late 1940′s, and his early work from that period demonstrates the impact of any number of modern masters. The spirit of Matisse infuses Zao’s portraiture, while his fanciful landscapes reveal an appreciation of Raoul Dufy, among others. By 1950, however, Zao found a more kindred sprit in the work of Paul Klee, and one sees the impact of the Swiss master’s instructive influence on Zao’s work for a number of years. Klee’s analytical separation of line and color and his playful pictographic forms provided Zao with useful tools. Zao Wou-ki soon moved beyond his sources of inspiration, however, and became a central figure in Parisian artistic circles of the 1950s, particularly with his move to complete abstraction in 1953.

Quand il fait beau (When the Weather is Lovely) from 1955 is a wonderful example of Zao Wou-ki’s work from this important period of his career. Although one senses moments of near figuration amidst the diversity of Zao’s lively marks, they and the composition remain definitively abstract. The black marks dancing across the painting’s surface may pay homage to the lessons of Klee, but they are equally bodied forth from Zao’s own calligraphic tradition. While oracle bone inscriptions on ancient Chinese bronzes were a specific source of inspiration for the artist at the time, he has absorbed their formal properties to make a painterly language of his own. Here, the black marks indicate incidents in painterly space, forming together a vaguely X-like pattern that is the armature for the composition as a whole. The dominant tone for Zao’s abstraction of a sunny day is a pale green, one that may indeed recall the patina of ancient bronzes. But even within this narrow tonal range, the number of different colors the artist deploys is impressively rich, from pale, powdery turquoise highlights to variations in light olive that tip variously into the yellow, khaki or gray spectrums. In the highlights of this fair weather afternoon, one finds lemon and mustard yellows, bright oranges and burnt umber, the occasional pink and even a few bright red dashes. The darker, shadowy area at the right center of the picture highlights the brilliance of an orange daub of oil, the brightest moment of this painterly stand-in for a lovely day. While Zao would go on to develop more explosive forms of abstraction in the late 1950′s, this period of the mid-50′s is justly viewed as a highpoint in the artist’s influential oeuvre.

Two works from 1967 show us a more developed Zao Wou-ki, now fully comfortable with an abstraction of bold brushstrokes alone. The smaller of the two works on offer, 5.7.67, seems inspired by the beauty of a midsummer’s setting sun, the brilliant red expanding horizontally across the center of the image. Uncharacteristic for this period in its reliance upon such a hot color for its dominant tone, the picture is nonetheless a beautiful study of the lighter side of Zao’s imagination. For here, the use of turpentine and washes yields an almost cloud-like area above the expanse of red, and what seems a chalky white area at the base of the picture is actually almost imperceptibly pink, an effect to which the stain-like under-painting contributes. At the painting’s central vortex, a gregarious meeting between red and black turns tumultuous, and a long slash of thick, red paint dashes to the right, as though straight out of the tube.

One sees more of the 1955 work in the staccato-rhythm of black marks across the surface of 30.11.67, but like July’s red abstraction, this painting from the end of November is worlds away from the sunny day of twelve years before. Vibrant brushwork in light lilac, peach, yellows, blues, and blacks, dances across the center of the composition, a dynamism that is offset by bands of color across the bottom and top of the picture. The top of the image is a brilliant white, painted over blues and browns that give the white its varied richness. A white streak defines the lower edge, but the color darkens to yellow, browns, grays and blacks as we move into the picture. The falling washes of intense blue at left, capped by a torrential rain of light gray from above, are a particularly beautiful passage in this painting that offers many such incidents. In the whole of the composition, it is hard not to see a rugged seascape in violent turmoil, frothy waves crashing on a plunging shore just near us and across the painting’s lower middle expanse. Again, however, the painting remains purely abstract; it captures the vitality of natural forces expressed as an embodiment of this masterful painter’s vivid imagination.

Information courtesy of Sotheby’s, March 2008.

Zao Wou-ki’s paintings are a fusion of a Modern Western aesthetic and Chinese painting tradition. Wou-ki was born in Peking and studied both Chinese and Western painting at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhow. He moved to Paris in 1948 where he was exposed to the work of the preeminent artists in Paris including Matisse and Cezanne. Wou-ki embraced the developing trend of abstraction and was particularly drawn to the lyricism of Paul Klee. He uses the element of color to create mass while his use of ink references the calligraphic elements in Chinese art. The blending of Wou-ki’s cultural and artistic identities can be seen in his signature; he signs his first name with Chinese characters and his last in the Roman alphabet.

Information courtesy of Skinner, Inc. May 2007

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