The noted Chinese writer Yu Qiuyu once described the act of artistic creation, saying, "It is the smallest of undertakings, the product of just one trembling hand. Yet it is the greatest of undertakings: it reaches out across vast distance and countless centuries to touch the hearts of innumerable people."
In the paintings of Zao Wou-ki, all predefined images are abandoned, all visual barriers broken down. The viewer is brought face-to-face with the original, primeval chaos of the universe-to discover the eternal serenity at its heart. These works are like the waves that move through the deep places of our hearts, an ancient calligraphy of images beyond the images we see and know. The distances of empty space, the rhythms of life, the thoughts, desires and drives of the subconscious, all are blended into the mystical yet natural spaces of these canvases, enlivened by the energy that courses through them. The Chinese painting tradition provided Zao Wou-ki with insights about abstraction and its use in communicating images of real phenomena. Eastern and western art often began from the same place, first with the creation of primitive forms, then evolving to pursue greater realism. Zao Wou-ki brought together the spirit of East and West in his art; he began with depictions of the original forms of things, then proceeded further along the path of artistic evolution, from images towards an ultimately abstract style.
Zao arrived in Paris in 1948, already familiar with the work of great western artists of the modern era such as Cézanne and Matisse, and recognizing in it something that corresponded with his own creative aspirations. But Zao's arrival also coincided exactly with the spread of a new style, Abstract Expressionism. In its spontaneity and natural, free-flowing quality, Zao perceived basic principles of traditional Chinese philosophy, which made it easy for him to fully embrace the study that new style. And, while traveling in Switzerland in 1951, Zao met Paul Klee for the first time, an artist who was greatly influenced by eastern concepts of art.
As Zao studied Klee's work, he came to realize that there was a link between the creative work in which he was engaged and his own Chinese cultural heritage. Zao described the insights he gained from Klee's work: "I spent a good many hours studying all those little rectangles of color and the lines and symbols weaving through them. I was amazed by the freedom of Klee's brush and the energy and poetry that moved so freely through his canvases. Just one little canvas, but it looked incredibly broad because of the spatial effects he created, and I didn't even know this artist! His understanding of and love for Chinese art were evident. I was dazzled by the way that those small symbols, set within a multidimensional space, could create a whole world!" Zao's paintings from this period, with their palettes of soft, elegant color with subtle gradations in shading, we find the influence of some great French painters-Picasso's structures and Miro's free imagination also enhance Zao's ability to handle spatial effects with skill and freedom. But it was the sense of inner space in Klee's work for which he felt the greatest affinity, and which provided the greatest inspiration. Both artists express inner truth and reality. Klee believed that an artist's works must move beyond what is visible to the eye, and that this kind of transcendence of the outer world grows from something deeply buried within the heart, and perhaps it was this that Zao responded so deeply to when he discovered Klee's work. Zao's experiences in Europe at this time provided him with the space and a sense of objectivity, the conditions he needed to reexamine the nature of Chinese art and his own identity.
In 1953, after barely five years in France, Zao threw himself wholeheartedly into creating abstract works. Sometime during the next year, he began work on a series of superb early works, whose inspiration derives from ancient Chinese bronzes and oracle-bone inscriptions. The juxtaposed, overlapping layers of these compositions are based in the elements of points and lines, to which Zao adds linear brushstrokes and motifs of a symbolic Eastern character that recall those bronze and oracle-bone inscriptions. This result is imaginative spaces that are imbued with a strong sense of mystery. In them, we find objects that Zao has transformed into his own personal symbols and motifs, dancing across the canvas like musical notes and lighting our way like lampposts into the expansive spaces of these paintings. The creation of these suggestive symbols was a milestone for Zao, but so too was the exquisite color he used-it is color that allows Zao to bring the space, motion, and energy of these paintings together into a unified whole. In 1961, Zao described his thinking at this time: "Paris undeniably was an influence on my transformation into an artist, but I have to point out that as my artistic personality gradually took shape, I was also gradually rediscovering China." Paris liberated Zao, and made possible his new directions in painting. But China's traditions remained alive in his heart until time and distance, and the ability to see himself through other's eyes, led him to rediscover that most precious possession.
In Zao Wou-ki-A Self Portrait, Zao reminisces about his outlook during the early 1950s: "The outer world no longer provided me with anything satisfying. When I tried to portray reality, I saw images and lines, leading me back toward the symbols and motifs I had learned long ago when I was young. But that wasn't what I wanted then, so I just let the pleasure of painting itself guide me." To encourage Zao to learn to write Chinese as a child, his parents had drawn for him the early pictographs that developed into Chinese characters. When Zao felt uncertain about his painting or lacking in creative energy, these symbols, planted deeply in his mind, would reappear. In 1956, the death of a close friend moved Zao to paint a work in remembrance, and he began to think of the inscriptions on Chinese bronzes from the Zhou Dynasty: "When I started to reconsider Chinese things with which I was so familiar, I couldn't help but feel a tremendous respect, especially for the ritual bronzes that were created from the 13th to the 16th centuries BC and used in sacrifices. They were one of China's most beautiful inventions, part of its soul. Their use and the process of their production were cut into the bottom of the vessel." This was how symbols resembling ancient Chinese scripts came to appear in Zao's 1956 Stele pour un ami (Epitaph for a Friend). This experiment that led Zao onward toward an admirable series of works in which he explored a lyrical, expressive style of abstraction. Those works contained personal symbols with suggestive power and colors used in a symbolic manner. The interaction of the two produced startling images, conveying the inner feelings of the artist and capturing a sense of the nature's power.
It breaks my heart to see blooming trees near the tower.
On all sides, I see nothing but disaster.
The river, brocaded in springtime color, floats between earth and heaven;
Clouds float by the peaks of the jade rampart, and history passes.
Our royal court stands fast in the north,
Our enemies had better not dare to raid from the western hills!
That poor second ruler of the Shu, the temple to him is still here;
As the sun sets, I recite his old Liang-fu verse.
"On a Tower" (Du Fu)
Zao completed three works in 1955 and 1956: Hommage a Chu-Yun ("Homage to Qu Yuan"), Stele pour un ami ("Epitaph for a Friend"), and Hommage a Tou-Fou (Lot 557)("Homage to Du Fu"). It was at this time that he began adding actual images of ancient oracle-bone inscriptions to his impressionistic spaces, and melding western painting forms and Eastern traditions at a basic level. These early totemistic symbols that later became Chinese characters have a life and an aesthetic appeal of their own. An early Chinese writer, Xu Shen, in his Analysis of Characters, described how in those pictographs the Chinese "drew objects, twisting their lines to follow the forms." That is to say, they captured the basic outlines of objects in simple brushstrokes, depicting an entire object or a representative part of it, and these depictions later evolved into Chinese characters. The Chinese have an age-old tradition of adding written characters to paintings, though Zao has continued this tradition in a different way and in a new medium.
Adding text characters to paintings also has had parallels in other cultures. Some Islamic societies, for example, with prohibitions against idols and images used text and characters as the medium for spiritual insights. That gave written characters a special standing in their cultures, and their painting techniques grew out of elegant variations on written characters, which developed into rich and complex forms. The calligraphy they used for copying manuscripts also became an important feature of their architecture and ornamentation. In Europe, copying religious writings also encouraged the development of handwritten characters, but following the invention and spread of the printing press, calligraphy scripts fell into disuse around the 15th century. Western art thereafter focused its attention on image, form, color, and light.
In appropriating bronze inscriptions as a source of inspiration, Zao expanded on the insights he had gained from Klee, and by rediscovering their beauty, he injected a deep vein of Chinese tradition back into what he had learned up to that point. The ancient characters Zao drew upon are also known as "bronze script," after the bronzes used as sacrificial vessels by the nobles of the Western Zhou; in the process of casting the script in bronze, the characters evolved into a style different from that of the oracle-bone inscriptions. Oracle bone inscriptions are the earliest and most plentiful examples of ancient characters we have; they were primarily inscribed on oracle bones used as a record of divinations by the rulers of the Late Shang. Cut with primitive instruments, their lines are mostly straight and sharp, the characters erect, and their structures retain a strong sense of symbolic representation. The characters call to mind the ancient description of the early people who created them: "Near at hand, they found the human form and considered it; more distant from them, the things of nature (the 'Great Treatise,' Book of Changes)." While primitive, there is a strong artistic component to these characters. In clear, simple lines they capture the essential features of the items they represent, indicating excellent ability to observe and depict forms; at the same time, they possess a natural feel for elements of formal beauty such as symmetry and balance, also demonstrating that those who carved them possessed an acute sense of artistry. As these characters evolved and were used on different materials, their lines became fuller, more rounded, and more ornate, with greater contrasts in the thickness or straightness of the lines. Some seem to have been traced with a brush, while others begin to take on forms similar to the later clerical script, with its slanting outlines and heavily blocked forms. Along with changes in their lines, the structures of pictographic characters underwent simplification, while standardized forms were maturing and diversifying as well. These later bronze script characters were more stable, harmonious, and well-ordered, taking on the dignified flavor of officialdom and suggesting to us the Western Zhou dynasty's well-ordered culture of ritual and music.
Zao emulated the spirit of Chinese traditions while opening up new provinces in the field of contemporary painting. He avoided some of the stereotyped formalities of typical of Chinese tradition, however: he never placed a seal or wrote an inscription on any work he created, even those in traditional ink-wash styles. Nor is there any trace of imitation in his works. No matter how much affinity he might have felt for ancient painters such as Tung Yuan, Fan Kuan, or Mi Fu, Zao's work remains free of any clear derivative influences. He understood the ancients' tribute to life and the changing face of nature in all its forms-rugged hills and cliffs, birds and insects, the sun, moon, and stars, the peal of thunder, the celebration of dance, and the violence of war-but conveyed those things through the dynamics of a modern aesthetic of form, closer to the lives and feelings of modern people. We see this not just in the form of his paintings, but in their emotional power. Their combination of reserve and profundity, and their tremendous energy, represent an entirely different cast of thought than that found in Western abstract art.
Ancient script characters provide the point of departure in each of Zao's three works, Hommage a Chu-Yun, Stele pour un ami, and Hommage a Tou-Fou. Here Zao Wou-ki was not just exchanging one kind of symbol for another-in his journey from a Klee-inspired outlook to Chinese forms and images, he had already left behind pure structures and the depictions of landscapes and still lifes. These three are rare works of exceptional value to Zao because they represent the obstacles he had to overcome to make his art a genuine reflection of Chinese traditions and feelings. For that reason Zao retained Hommage a Chu-Yun permanently in his own collection; Stele pour un ami was a gift to a close friend, and Hommage a Tou-Fou is making its reappearance only for offering in this sale. The eastern thought that informs these paintings became, from the time of their creation onward, the most intriguing and valuable aspect of Zao Wou-ki's abstract art. The beautiful, calligraphic lines and the harmonious energy of nature in Zao's later work are perfectly complemented by his keen brushwork and a discriminating sense of form and style. Zao's inspiration and the resources he commanded were all he needed to create a new kind of space within his paintings, and to invest it with its own life and autonomy.
Zao's Chinese background is also revealed in his comments on poetry and painting: "In the Chinese tradition, poetry and painting were so connected that the verse was often written in the empty spaces in paintings. I loved poetry as a boy and began writing it as soon as I learned my first Chinese characters. Poetry and art are essentially the same, as they both express the Qi of life, whether through the flick of the brush over the canvas or the motions of the hand as characters take shape on paper. These movements cannot be reproduced because they originate from our individual selves; they reflect our hidden thoughts and the hidden thoughts of the universe. Since 1950, whenever a publisher or a poet has wanted to make my painting part of such a combination, I've always agreed. What I like most in poetry is the feeling of freedom when every word finds its own place as part of an ordered whole; the words amble along in a carefree way, then stop, turn, and take a breath. When we pause at some point in our reading, that moment is a moment of peace and beauty, just like the spaces in a painting." If we understand this point of view, we can discover the deep vein of poetic beauty and feeling contained in Zao Wou-ki's work in addition to its formal aspects such as the utilization of pictographic symbols.
The subject of Hommage a Tou-Fou is the Chinese poet Du Fu (712-770). Du Fu is the greatest of China's classical poets, a figure who saw in his lifetime the Tang Dynasty at its height and the beginning of its decline. Much of his poetry reflects the social realities he encountered; it covers a broad range of subjects and suggests far-ranging implications. In particular, Du Fu showed great sympathy for the sufferings of ordinary people in such an era and displayed compassion for the sometimes tragic fate of the nation and its citizenry. Du Fu's poetry represents the poetic art at its highest pitch in the Tang period, and among later generations he is known as China's "poet historian." Du Fu's political outlook was part and parcel of his success as a poet; his poems give voice to a deep sense of patriotic loyalty, and despite a career whose rocky course often left him to drift homeless and miserable, he never lost sight of the plight of the nation itself; for that reason he is also known to many as "the patriotic poet." In his sympathy for the suffering of the common man, Du Fu projected a kind of universal love and humanitarian thinking, and he boldly revealed the oppression practiced by the feudal lords of the period. At a time of rebellion and incursions by clans from outside China, Du Fu's unique artistry vividly depicted the misery of the people while subtly conveying his own subjective feelings. Du Fu continued the tradition of social responsibility and sympathy for the suffering of the average man found in China's earliest anthology of poetry, the Book of Odes, and the Li Sao, a famous poem attributed to Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), while adding his own patriotic conscience. But rather than passively receiving the tradition of those previous classics and lamenting the current state of affairs, in Du Fu's work, grief and helpless indignation spark a sense of historical mission, a desire to come to the aid of the failing state, and he continued to express concern for the well-being of the people despite his own often demeaning material hardships. It was no accident that Zao Wou-ki should have produced his Hommage a Tou-Fou just after his 1995 work Hommage a Chu-Yun. Both Qu Yuan and Du Fu were literary figures that greatly influenced succeeding generations, and close connections unite the creative work of the two. Zao Wou-ki's creation of these two large-scale works in a two-year period shows clearly the artist's regard for the poets and his deep sense of connection to them.
Qu Yuan, born into nobility and comfortable circumstances, possessed both political acumen and literary talent. Nevertheless, out of a sense of patriotic fervor and social responsibility, he did not hesitate to admonish the court directly, and was sent into exile by the king of the state of Chu after unfounded accusations were leveled against him. "Qu Yuan spoke out, saying the emperor was unwise to believe the slander. He called the official unworthy and a harmful influence, and said an upright person should not have to bear such wrongs. In his anger and resentment, he wrote 'Li Sao,' or Leaving Resentment ('The Lives of Qu Yuan and Jia Sheng,' from The Annals of the Great Historian)." A line from one of Du Fu's poems reads, "Best to emulate the style of Qu Yuan and Song Yu, lest we be thought no better than the poets of Qi and Liang," clearly indicating his admiration for Qu Yuan. And in fact, a subtle flavor of Qu Yuan's poetry does seem to hover about Du Fu's work in many respects-in the styles and forms he adopted, the use of asides or soliloquys to an unseen audience, in the content and the allusions employed, in and certain phrases with a conversational tone. Even more, the presence of Qu Yuan and his Li Sao and Nine Songs can be felt in Du Fu's dark and distressed moods, and perhaps most of all in his manner of expressing personal feeling through external scene and situation and his realistic narratives in the yue-fu (songlike) form. All of this speaks to the depth of Du Fu's learning, but also to the poet's manifold accomplishments and his position as a poet who both inherited tradition and broke new creative ground.
Around the year 766, Du Fu traveled the Xiang River and was ascending the tower of the famous poem. In his sad mood, he could not help but think of the trials Qu Yuan had encountered, giving rise to lines in Qu Yuan describing "sorrows that seem to compel one to go on distant wanderings." Du Fu was thus even prompted to borrow for his own use the title of a Qu Yuan work, Distant Wanderings. At times, other titles of Du Fu's poems perhaps unwittingly reveal a slight Qu Yuan "complex," such as his poem Meeting Li Guinian in the South. The poem was written when Du Fu was drifting in the Tanzhou region of Hunan in the aftermath of the An Shi Rebellion. It was late spring and early blooms were falling to the ground; meeting an old friend, Du Fu spoke with him of times they had seen together and of the pain of bitter memories. In the poem as well as its title, Du Fu refers to Tanzhou as "Jiangnan," and one cannot help but think of the similarities, in terms of circumstance and mood, with the line from Qu Yuan's Songs of Chu, "Qing Xiang of Chu exiled Qu Yuan to Jiangnan, between Xiang and Tan." Du Fu, alone in alien surroundings, spoke in Distant Wanderings of his situation: "I am a fugitive, suddenly, a vagabond, and with so many fears to trouble my heart. My spirit is gone, it will not return, I remain here alone and lifeless." The shadow of Qu Yuan, who, like Du Fu, had wandered in the region of Xiang and Tan, must have haunted Du Fu as he too traveled in far-flung regions and sought solace there.
Du Fu gain much from Qu Yuan's poetry, and inherited his intense feeling of a personal, historical mission tied to the fate of his country. Du Fu's fate seems to have been much like that of the earlier poet: born into nobility, gifted with great ability but meeting with ill fortune in public life. It must have been for those reasons that the songs and poems of Qu Yuan resonated so strongly with Du Fu. They resonated also with Zao Wou-ki, living abroad in Paris. For Zao, 1953 was a year when creativity seemed to have come to a halt. He said, "It was a painful and chaotic time. I couldn't understand what I was painting. The still lifes, flowers, and animals were gone, and I was trying to use symbols to express my imagination, painting on a virtually monochromatic base." Perhaps in his life abroad, Zao remembered Du Fu and Qu Yuan and the greatness of their work, their expression of worldly concerns as a part of their Confucian spirit. Or perhaps he was able to gain from them some new inspiration. But it is in Zao's Hommage a Tou-Fou that we see the great transformation from a Klee-inspired outlook to the dramatic rediscovery of Chinese traditions. In place of the lightly dancing, finely etched lines of his earlier work there are rough, heavy brushstrokes, and in place of the clear, quiet elegance of the earlier painted spaces, Zao here projects a more intricate and complex mood, and a stronger and deeper one. Zao said, "Gradually, the symbols and motifs became shapes and the backgrounds became space. I continued to paint, destroying my paintings and then starting again, and it seemed that something began to surface in my mind, and my paintings began to move, to come alive. Shapes materialized in them and I became able to use colors I'd been afraid of before." After a period of inner turmoil, Zao had suddenly found brilliant inspiration in intense colors and suggestive motifs. The source of his creativity, life Du Fu's, grew out of agitated, subjective feelings whose intensity quickly jelled into a creative form. Zao's work in this period is closely linked with the important events of his life and their subjective impact; his happiness, sorrows, and intense yearning for peace, so like the feelings he must have found in Du Fu's poetry, are alive in the abstracted forms and spaces of Hommage a Tou-Fou.
In 1993, in his Zao Wou-ki-A Self Portrait, Zao recalled his state of mind in the 1950s:
I often thought of Claude Roy and Agnes Varda. Among my friends in France, only they had met my parents-Roy in 1952 and Agnes in 1956. I know they remembered, sine they mentioned it from time to time. When they met, we had no translator, we couldn't communicate, and they probably got little out of it. But just to hear from them a mention of my parents was a big comfort to me, as if something I had hoped for and looked forward to so many years had finally come within my reach.
Beside Bei Mang Mountain, grave mounds row on row,
Among them four or five great ones.
I ask, whose graves are these?
Everyone says, "the former emperors of the Han."
Two I can see lying away in the distance;
Here, above the Guang Wu Emperor's tomb, the grass grows thick.
When an emperor's reign draws to and end,
Thieves and bandits grow bold as tigers and wolves.
If you scoop up a handful of earth in this fallen kingdom
You've made a door into the anteroom of a grand burial chamber.
No longer do ritual garments of gold and jade adorn those bodies,
Their jewels are gone into the hands of grave robbers.
The nearby shrines have collapsed into ruins,
Now I find small trace of their high walls.
Brambles grow thick here;
Only young cowherds pass along the narrow path.
Rabbits and foxes hide inside the brush,
For who is there now to clear the overgrowth away?
Old walls have become dikes between the fields
Where the common people grow their plots.
Once vast armies encamped here with their chariots,
They've left us nothing but the dirt of these burial mounds.
Why speak now of Meng Changjun,
When all we can feel is sorrow and grief at the tides of history?
With autumn comes a chill wind from the west,
Rustling sadly through the woods before us.
The birds that sang in spring sing no longer,
The cicadas of autumn too are silent.
This time of year, cold dew comes in the night,
And everything turns brown at winter's approach.
The red sun spreads its light here in the north;
Soon this scene will disappear with the early setting sun.
I gaze all around, though there's little to see
But shadows among the pines and cypress near these mounds.
Amid the high branches of a Tung tree,
A single bird flutters to roost.
I lift my head at the sound of departing geese,
And at my feet small crickets chirp.
In our grief we become so emotional,
That these smallest of things somehow add to our sadness.
The days of the past grow more distant;
The more I think of them, the more I am touched by their loss.
My worries are turning my hair whiter,
And I don't know how I'll get through the autumn.
I amble along as the wind gathers around me,
Tears staining the folds of my robes.
from Song of Seven Sorrows, by Zhang Zai (Western Jin)
The Chinese government set out in the 1950s to bring about a wave of sweeping domestic change. For Zao Wou-ki, the poem by the Western Jin dynasty poet Zhang Zai represented his feelings about being far from home with so little news of his parents. Song of Seven Sorrows is a poem about helplessness in the face of political events, and Zao also found comfort, in the face of his separation from home and country, in reciting poems and songs by Du Fu. Du Fu's concerns extended to all levels of society: the state of the nation, the common people, and his own personal encounters. Du Fu's work hardly seemed to belong just to his own era; even a thousand years later, his strong sense of personal and historical mission and his nationalism gave it strong significance for Zao Wou-ki.
Du Fu's poetry embodied the Confucian ideals of loyalty and love of country. Confucius said, "Poetry may inspire, may look out on the world, may connect with the people, may be a voice of censure. Nearby, it speaks about the family; more distantly, it speaks about the nation. In it the myriad plants and animals of the earth are named." Inspiration is the motive force of creativity; looking out on the world means knowledge and humility; connecting with the people means communication and interaction; the voice of censure means correcting wrongs and making them known. Confucian philosophy noted the social function of poetry and certainly did not reject its aesthetic aspects, and the inspiration, observation, communication, and social concerns it speaks of are entirely in tune with modern ideas about art and creativity. Nothing could more concretely express the achievements that Zao Wou-ki hoped to attain.
Uniting Poetry and Painting
Art is often divided into two categories, the first of which includes architecture, sculpture, and painting, which are seen as dealing with forms in space. Dance, music, and poetry are viewed as arts with a rhythmic and temporal nature. Painting in general seeks to "re-create nature"; it tends toward the objective, and the artist must be physically sighted. Poetry seeks to express feeling. It largely expresses aspirations and tends to be highly subjective; the poet should be an emotionally sensitive person. Both, of course, are true art and have much in common in their basic spirit and outlook. The Greek poet Simonides said, "Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech."
In China, the genre of landscape painting appeared more than 1,200 years earlier than in the West, owing largely to the influence of the mystics of the Wei and Jin dynasties, who emphasized man's relationship with nature. Zong Bing, of the Six Dynasties era, wrote in Introduction to Landscape Painting that "no art in its essence captures the spirit" more than landscape; Eastern Jin poet Wang Wei, author of A Discussion of Painting, said that "all that is based in form contains spirit." Spirit, or soul, is the high and distant mystery that the artist seeks, and nature came to be presented as embodying a spirit. This spirit within art must also include the feeling of life, and it thus came about that nature was presented as embodying feelings. Chinese landscape has its basis in this kind of nature, a nature that embodies feeling; it is not only nature that is "seen," it is nature that is also "felt." Poetry makes visualization possible because of its emotive content; this is the painting within the poem. Painting is felt because of what we see; this is the poem within the painting. What the two share in common, the point at which they meet, was found in the discovery of nature by the schools of mysticism in the Wei and Jin dynasties. Man was felt to be an integral part of nature, and therefore, in the paintings of Chinese artists, man was never presented as being at the mercy of nature; instead, their work suggests a feeling of man's spirit liberated by nature.
The Images of Poetry
The most universal feature of the art of poetry is the poet's grasp of images, and the sharpness of the image that remains within the reader's mind after the poem ends is what enables poetry's shared sense of beauty. The poet's task is the ingenious use of language to call to mind images of what she speaks of, to capture a likeness. That likeness must reflect the physicality of the scene perceived and its beauty, and relies on the specificity of imagery to do so, but imagery ideally will include not just the thing itself but its essential nature and spirit as well. No stereotyped, mechanical imitation, however, can reproduce either a sense of the physical thing itself, much less of its spirit. That can only be accomplished by creative artistic activity. When the writer Liu Xie spoke about techniques for capturing the look of nature in his treatise Carving a Dragon and the Heart of Writing, he used the word "image," but indicated that the poet who wishes to create something must first "glimpse the feeling of the landscape, and only then delve into the appearance of its woods and grasses." By "appearance," of course, Liu meant physical appearance, but his use of the word "feeling" corresponds more closely with the "expression" of the landscape, whatever there is in it that can allow one to feel a living spirit. "Images" in Liu's writings were not intended to mean lifeless physical copies, but images which suggest a full, living likeness of the author's subject.
Chinese concepts of painting say that its various elements-form and spirit, conception, situation-should be harmoniously joined and interdependent, as in the "union of man and heaven" in Chinese philosophy, in which man and nature form a single entity. One Chinese philosopher also said, "I am rooted in the same essence as all that is; the heavens and the earth and I are but one single entity." Man is not separate from nature, nor are the mountains and rivers of the natural world separate from man. In the human act of creativity, therefore, there may be great subjectivity, and the "nature" that appears in a Chinese painting is just as often a vehicle for expressing the mind and the feelings of the artist. Xie He's Six Principles of Painting lists vividness and harmonious energy as the first principle. This principle relies on the ancient concept of Qi, as the fundamental element lying behind all things, from the universe as a whole to each individual. Qi flows through all things, and in painting, the larger elements of composition or image and the smaller ones such as brushwork and the flow of ink, all vibrate with the flow of Qi to create a whole that is animated and alive. Yun is the quality exhibited as Qi moves through forms gives them their harmony, appeal, and beauty. Qi and Yun are interwoven, interconnected qualities.
Numerous ancient texts have introduced landscape concepts, among them Zong Bing's Introduction to Landscape Painting, Wang Wei's A Discussion of Painting, and the Natural Forms in Landscapes of the Liang Yuan period. China became the center of aesthetic thought throughout the East by advocating concepts such as connection with the spirit of the landscape, lifelike portrayals, learning from nature, and elegant conceptions. Its landscape painting was a powerful force that gave direction to all genres of Chinese painting. Zong Bing's "emotional connection with the landscape" and Wang Wei's "clarity of idea in rendering forms" both epitomize the concepts important to the Chinese, and from them, later generations also derived the principle, "make nature your teacher and your heart will discover the essence of things." The changing aspects of humankind's relationship to nature determine in great part the direction in which a culture evolves. The Chinese have generally held an attitude toward nature characterized by a passage from the Book of Changes: "Look upward, and contemplate the forms of the heavens; look downward and study the patterns of the earthKto find the bright virtues of the spirit and to distinguish the myriads qualities of things." This philosophy continued to develop; the ultimate ideal of looking above and following nature would be communion and coexistence with the spirits and equality and harmony with the things of nature. This concept of the union of man and nature has been a special trait of the arts and culture of China. Because of this, while China's poetry and its painting developed sometimes along different courses, they shared a similar spirit and implications. Zao Wuo-ki expressed the idea of the spirit of nature through abstraction, and because he did, the tradition of poetry and painting both are embodied at a deep level in his work. The concept of seeking coexistence with nature that is so deeply rooted in Chinese painting and poetry brings the two closer together, and the union of the two extends further China's ideas of the spirit of nature.
Hommage a Tou-Fou traces a path of development from the depiction of concrete images to an expressionism employing mysterious abstract motifs and symbols. Ancient oracle-bone and bronze scripts are converted to dancing totemic figures, while lines and blocks of color reminiscent of washes of Chinese ink communicate a deep understanding of space and expressive imagery. Under Zao Wou-ki's brush, the Chinese painting tradition seems to be sending out new sprouts of growth.
In the Eastern Han period, Xu Shen (c. 58-147) wrote an Analysis of Chinese Characters that explained their structures by means of the five elements of nature, as well as Ying-Yang dualism and the Zhou Dynasty Book of Changes. The five elements, in Chinese thinking, reflected the seasons: Spring, when trees and grass grow, became "wood"; summer's hot sun became "fire"; the harvests of the fall with their gold became "metal"; the frozen waters of winter were "water." The seasons themselves and their transitions were "earth." The theory of the five elements in China therefore holds that everything in the universe is formed from by movements and changes in the elements of wood, water, earth, metal, and fire. Those elements originated in the four seasons, which themselves reflect the motion of the universe, and taken as a whole, the "five elements" theory describes the structures and the movements of all things. If the Chinese theory of Yin and Yang was an ancient way of unifying opposing forces, the five elements can be seen as a kind of primitive "general systems theory."
Zao's work here uses five fundamental colors, blue, red, yellow, white, and black, to express the appearance of the primal earth; the five tones represent the deep blue-green of woods, the red of blood, the yellows of the earth, and the black and white of day and night. These five colors, red, yellow, and blue plus black and white, are the original, primary colors, and in orthodox Chinese thought, they are "cardinal colors." Zao's composition features primarily red, deep blue, and black, the fundamental colors of the Chinese tradition. The red near the center seems to be folded deeply within the painting, showing strength in its firm brushwork only when it reaches the surface levels. Zao's use of red can be understood on two main levels, for its ethnically Chinese connotations and for other symbolic implications. Red has a fundamental significance within the ethnic traditions of China: it is ubiquitous in the daily environments familiar to all Chinese, as part of their holiday celebrations, their clothing, and their feng-shui traditions. From it they have developed a tonal palette of reds that is exclusively Chinese, and in the art world there is now even a special name for the color, "China red," reflecting their special love for that particular hue. Symbolically, in Chinese history, red also stood for nobility, good fortune, and authority, and today it is the color that most represents the Chinese sense of nationhood and its national government.
Pictographic characters in black seem at times to emerge from the background, and at other times to sink into the limitless distances of this canvas. Zao transforms the set brushstroke styles that form Chinese characters into a structure extolling the beauty of line, and the strength with which these lines appeal to the viewer is matched by a harmonious, rhythmic movement. Black and white are most prominent in the relatively simple color palette of Hommage a Tou-Fou, and in its careful gradation of tones, it seems to embody a traditional emphasis on the handling of brush and ink and the textures of silk and xuan paper. The Chinese sometimes make reference to "the five colors of black," meaning the use of varying shades of pure blacks and whites to manifest the deep complexity of nature. Even while using western media, Zao retains a grasp of the traditional Chinese principles of maintaining a harmonious balance between black and white.
Examples of the importance to Chinese thought of man's intimate relationship with nature can be found as early as the Spring and Autumn Period, as in Confucius' dictum, "The humane take pleasure in mountains, the wise in water." As this philosophy evolved in later ages, China's landscape paintings attempted, in addition to the depiction of natural forms and scenes, to find a kind of imagery that would also express its spirit, soul, and mystery. The height of the art was considered to lie not in imitating external forms or scenes, but in making the artist's own spirit the subject of the creative endeavor, and to be able to enter into and immerse oneself in the landscape. This was not only because the beauty of the landscape forms was pleasing to the eye and spirit, but also because landscapes could evoke the harmonious energy of life itself, leading to realizations about the universe, nature, and life. Chinese landscape painting echoes Chinese poetry in terms of the relationship between self and other, as both emphasize realization and awakening to the totality of nature.
Given its thousands of years of history, Chinese painting has matured and undergone rich development, both technically and conceptually. Zao Wou-ki is an outstanding Chinese artist whose technical capabilities and a fertile imagination have produced brilliant, evocative works that reflect a fundamentally Chinese conception and outlook. Zao's response to the universe, to life, and to his personal circumstances has given us art that is both subtle and profound, that is an expression of the artist's moods, his distinctive sense of beauty, and his feel for the times in which he lives.
Signed and dated 'Wou-Ki Zao; 56' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right)
Zao Wou-Ki , 20th Century, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, Modern, abstract
Paris, France, Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki, 1957.
Essen, Germany, Folkwang Museum, Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki, 1965.
Montreal, Canada, Musee d'art Contemporain, Zao Wou-Ki, 1969.
Exposition itinerante: Fukuoka, Fukuoka City Museum Tokyo, Nihonbashi Art Gallery Fukui, Fukui Prefectural Museum Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art Kamakura, Museum of Modern Art Hong Kong, Hong Kong Art Centre Singapore, National Museum of Modern Art Ed, 1982.
Paris, France, Galerie du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki, 2003.
Kurume, Japan, Ishibashi Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation, Zao Wou-Ki, 16 October, 2004 - 16 January, 2005.
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
195 x 130 cm. (77 x 52 in.) signed and dated 'Wou-Ki Zao; 56' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right)
Claude Roy, Zao Wou-Ki, Le Mus/aee de Poche, Paris, France, 1957, p. 47. (illustrated)
Folkwang Museum, Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki, Essen, Germany, 1965, p. 4. (illustrated)
Montreal, Musee d'art Contemporain, 1969, p. 3. (illustrated)
Jean Laude, La Connaissance s.a., Zao Wou-Ki, Brussels, Belgium, 1974, p. 33. (illustrated)
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain. Documentation by Françoise Marquet, 1978, plate 271. (black & white illustration)
Exposition itin/aerante catalogue, 1982, p. 5. (illustrated)
Editions Ides et Calendes, Zao Wou-ki 1935-1993, France, 1994, p. 87. (illustrated)
Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, France, 2003, p. 86. (illustrated)
Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., Ishibashi Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation, Kurume, Japan, 2004, plate 5.
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Private Collection, Asia