Galerie de France, Paris, France
Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above gallery in the late 1950s)
Christie's Hong Kong, 25 November 2007, Lot 211
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
France, Paris, Galerie de France, 1957.
Jean Laude, Zao Wou-Ki, La Connaissance, Brussels, Belgium, 1974 (illustrated in black & white, p. 33).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Editions Hier et Demain, Paris, France; Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1978 (illustrated, plate 57, p. 103).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Éditions Cercle d'Art, Paris, France; Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1986 (illustrated, plate 57, p. 103).
Daniel Abadie et Martine Contensou, Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1989 (illustrated, plate 13).
Daniel Abadie et Martine Contensou, Zao Wou-Ki, Cultural Edition Co. Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan, 1993 (illustrated, plate 13).
Zao Wou-Ki-Oeuvres 1935-2008, Flammarion, Paris, France, 2009 (illustrated, p. 124).
Zao Wou-Ki-Works 1935-2008, Kwai Fung Art Publishing House, Hong Kong, China, 2010 (illustrated, p. 124).
“Zao Wou-Ki and The Nature of Art”, Above Magzine, Fall, Centoria Inc., New York, USA, 2010 (illustrated, p. 177).
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
A Crucial Major Work Worthy of Museum Collections
After only four short years in Paris, Zao Wou-Ki had already received acclaim in international art circles. He noted, "From 1952 to 1953, my works frequently appeared in museums or exhibitions in the US and Europe, or were collected. At the same time, that was also when my style started to change." Zao in the mid-50s experienced serious upheavals in his personal life, and feelings that had no other outlet were projected onto his canvas. At that point he entered his most crucial period, the years 1954-58, which have been called his "oracle-bone" period. Given the acclaim that works from that period received from academic critics, most of the larger ones are now in the collections of major museums or other institutions; the appearance of a work such as this on the market is now rare and an extremely valuable find.
After its initial showing at the Galerie de France, Paris in 1957, Zao Wou-Ki's Et la terre était sans forme (Lot 164) was immediately purchased by a collector, and made another appearance on the market only some 50 years later. A throng of spectators gazed expectantly as it set a new market record, and today, ten years later, it is back again, giving us an excellent opportunity to view again this significant, museum-grade work. Based on currently available published information, Zao's two-by-three-meter Aube-aucun soir ni aucum martin, collected by The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, is the largest work dating from Zao's "oracle-bone" period, possibly due to the limited size of his studio at the time. This Et la terre était sans forme is the next largest, and is of the largest "oracle-bone" works to appear on the market. In addition, its theme of returning to the primordial beginning of the universe embraces both Eastern and Western thoughts. As such, it is a powerful work in which Zao Wou-Ki transcended his own culture to achieve more universal meaning.
With the Essence of China, Initiating the Start of Abstraction
In an interview with art historian Xing Xiaozhou, Zao Wou-Ki described his shift from figuration to abstraction, "From 1953 to 1954, I began painting with non-narrative elements, and my paintings became a kind of imaginary, indecipherable writing." The vein of thought behind Zao's work reflects the development of Chinese writing itself, as well as the way in which Chinese culture was a central anchor for the artist. Having left his home in China, Zao Wou-Ki had heard nothing about his parents until he received news from a French friend in the mid 1950s, and he described his reaction, "It gave me enormous consolation, and I suddenly felt I could reach what I had been longing for." His homesickness and nostalgia for China are reflected in the works of this period; his 1955 05.05.55 Hommage à Chu-Yun, and his Stèle pour un ami and Hommage à Tou-Fou from 1956 all traced a direct line back to China's traditional cultural heritage. In them he projected both his feelings over personal tribulations and his concern for China and the people; they reveal both a strong sense of historical mission and a patriotic outlook. No other period, in the course of Zao Wou-Ki's more than 70-year career, expresses such a degree of Chinese consciousness as his "oracle-bone" period, which would decisively influence all his later development.
Arriving in France, Zao had made every effort to leave behind "chinoiserie", but under the influence of Paul Klee, he began to reexamine his own cultural roots. "His (Klee's) understanding and love for Chinese art were evident. I was stunned to see the world he created from these little symbols painted in a multi-dimensional space." From Zao's words we can see that the lines and geometrical motifs of his "Klee" period are products of Chinese tradition, and how they evolved as they were gradually simplified from images into structures like written Chinese characters. Zao Wou-Ki noted that "I was also hugely influenced by the classical art of China. People say the textures of my paintings derive from the quality of ancient bronzes, and in fact I do love the shape of bronzes from the Shang Dynasty, and the symbolic figures that appear on them. Their colours and shapes really intrigue me. They are the essence of China, with no foreign influence whatsoever....The unusual grace of Tang and Song paintings moves me. If we say my painting is Eastern, inheriting the tradition of my fatherland, then perhaps its seeds were sown as far back as that." The development of written motifs, like oracle-bone inscriptions, was now inevitable for Zao Wou-Ki; they inspired him and became the fulcrum of his work. It was after this crucial period of development that, in 1958, he entered the phase of total abstraction, relying purely on the formal elements of painting. Zao Wou-Ki's oracle-bone series was thus a crucial turning point as he moved from images to less tangible expressions; it was a pivotal phase, a powerful beginning for his abstract work.
1:"1" In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:"2" And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:"3" And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
With the exception of a very few late works, Zao Wou-ki only gave names to his paintings before 1958, names that allow us a glimpse of his creative stance and his thinking. They include references to natural scenery, nature, and people and things, but Et la terre était sans forme is the first to touch upon Western religion or the idea of "creation," another indication of its unique value. The title, in French rather than Chinese, is notable for beginning with "et" ("and"), suggesting it is part of a larger text, and in fact it matches chapter 1, verse 2 of the Bible's "Genesis." Genesis, describing God's creation of the Earth in six days, provides us with a text for deconstructing the painting's symbolic meaning. Shapes reminiscent of bronze vessel inscriptions spread and intertwine throughout the central portion of Et la terre était sans forme, suggesting a theme and developing the meaning of the work as they float above the yet-unformed Earth, revealing the universe as the primordial chaos first begins to take form. They hover, in a space of virtual light and shade, amid the shifting tones of light brown, burnt umber, orange, and inky black, creating layered depth and a sense of space. Zao Wou-Ki spread these inscriptions across the breadth of the canvas, dividing it into upper and lower halves. He set them off, in the upper half, against a background of powdery white and pearly golden-yellow pigments, as if in a shimmering, dazzling light. The inscription-like shapes in the lower half are distributed and built up to form contrasts of light and shade degrees of distance. As a whole, it suggests the appearance of light above the formless Earth, as in the passage where God speaks "let there be light." Patches of pure yellow and vermillion catch our eye in Et la terre était sans forme as Zao uses colour to represent the world emerging in this initial light, and to show that it was neither empty or desolate. A variety of complex "oracle-bone" inscription figures are dimly discernible, as if God's creation of the world, with its tremendous energies, is only beginning to take shape, while also projecting onto the canvas the artist's own personal mix of hopes and expectations. But, in addition to the Biblical story of origins, the title "Et la terre était sans forme" can't help but lead to associations with the Chinese legend of Pangu, who cleaved heaven and earth with his axe. Eastern classics tend to describe the universe as being born from nature itself, as in Laozi's Dao De Jing, which reads, "That which was the beginning of all things under heaven, we may speak of as the mother of all things." Or Zhuangzi, "When the state of Yin was perfect, all was cold and severe; when the state of Yang was perfect, all was turbulent and agitated. The coldness and severity came forth from heaven; the turbulence and agitation issued from earth. The two states communicating together, a harmony ensued and things were produced." Or the poet Qu Yuan, who in the opening to his Heaven asked, "When all was void and the Earth began, who was there, who could pass the story on? When all things above and below were still formless, what could be used to measure or describe them?" These viewpoints reflect their exploration of the basic laws of the universe and everything in it. The logical, philosophical musings of the pre-Qin peoples of China would evolve, becoming the outlook that informed China's later art forms, out of which developed the unique aesthetic concepts and structures of the East. Zao Wou-Ki, combining religious imagery with oracle-bone-style inscriptions and the unique Chinese philosophy and view of nature behind them, gazes back toward the origins of the universe. Et la terre était sans forme, as one of the most unusual of his oracle-bone series of works, is a testament to the transformations of the artist's core creative concepts.
Intangible Meanings Written in Symbolic Motifs
"Without knowing it, I was attracted to the light, that is, the greatness that naturally flows from belief. At the same time, I began to understand the universal appeal of China's ancient arts, such as the art at Dunhuang and the art of the Tang and Song. Thus around 1955 my crisis finally began to pass. I was brimming with things I wanted to say artistically, and I knew how to express them. The new space became mine, and I could breathe freely in it."
-Comments by Zao Wou-Ki, 1989
Zao Wou-Ki's Et la terre était sans forme dates from the maturity of his "oracle-bone" period, as he became ever more skillful at introducing influences from traditional Chinese art into his work. Making these symbolic inscription motifs the central focus of the painting has crucial significance. Oracle-bone inscriptions are believed to be the earliest codified form of Chinese writing, originating in the practice, by Shang Dynasty shamans, of using tortoise shells in divination. The cracks that appeared in the shells after heating were seen as clues that revealed divine will. The results of the divination were then carved on the shell in spidery, angular characters. Those characters, a means of communicating with the spirits, also represented the evolution and change seen in the natural world, as understood by the Shang people. Chinese characters were originally pictorial motifs, "borrowed from things at a distance, or nearby, from one's own self"; they were simplified, abstract images made by the ancients to represent the workings of natural phenomena and the appearance of the mountains, rivers, and forests around them. Zao Wou-Ki, however, did not paint pre-existing characters, but instead created character motifs of his own, beyond any known language. After deriving the forms of characters used in Et la terre était sans forme and then eliminating the meanings associated with them, Zao engaged in further interpretation and abstraction. Their lines, forms, shapes, balances, and symmetries all reflected the artist's creativity, and were abstracted from life and the things around him. His feelings and experiences had been formalized, becoming symbolic motifs that were his vehicle for imagining the primal chaos as the universe formed.
Constructing the Earth Out of Poetry, Painting, and Calligraphy
Xu Shen, in the introduction to Explaining and Analyzing Characters, tells the story of how "Cangjie (credited with inventing Chinese writing) created graphs and tallies, and as he did so, relied on categories and the images of shapes. They were therefore called wen, or patterns. Later, the 'form and sound' type of graphs increased, and these were called zi, or characters. When written on bamboo or silk, they were called shu, or writing." The union of poetry, painting, and calligraphy was an important feature of the Chinese literati painters, as all three are closely bound up with text and image. Through their combination, an artist could create a deeper and more all-embracing aesthetic experience. The poet Su Shih believed that painting and calligraphy had their origins in poetry, "Poems cannot embrace all, and therefore calligraphy developed, and later became painting." This was the tradition in which Zao Wou-Ki was steeped since childhood. He noted that, "In China, there is a tradition that the children of upper-class families must be good at calligraphy. My mother of course had this same hope for me, and I studied my characters from age six to age eighteen....Today I still feel very close to those ancient works, including Du Fu, Li Bai, Qu Yuan, the Book of Changes, and Laozi's Dao De Jing. When I'm not painting, I love to open them up and read them over and over. Aside from that, I also have a lot of dictionaries and calligraphy style books." Et la terre était sans forme is thus not limited to the images conveyed by its script motifs; the pictorial space Zao Wou-Ki developed also projects poetic conceptions and the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting. When China's traditional literati class expressed their ideas in artistic forms such as poetry and landscape painting, there was always an emphasis on the artist's experience of self and his spiritual pursuits. The oracle-bone inscriptions in Et la terre était sans forme are built up into tight, interlocking structures as Zao's brushwork in the script symbols turns and winds, revealing the depth of his experience with calligraphy and his mature grasp of line. They radiate out from the painting's centre, similar to the way in which traditional landscapes used diluted inks and empty space to heighten the sense of depth and distance. Zao's thin, spreading layers of oils build up to create the background, their layering and the increasingly vague brushwork suggesting indefinable distance and an atmosphere of primordial chaos. Given the scale of the work, the viewer feels as if they are placed in midst of it all, allowing them to engage psychologically with the work and feel its limitless depths. Zao Wou-Ki here not only conveys a powerful mood through his abstract character motifs; he has also made use of traditional landscape composition and viewpoints, enriching the aesthetic character and dimensions of abstract art itself.
The Great Questions of Heaven and Earth—Exploring the Origins of Nature
The Tang Dynasty's Zhang Yanyuan, in Famous Paintings Throughout the Ages-A Discussion of the Origins of Painting, wrote, "Cangjie had four eyes, and he looked up at the sky. He fixed the shapes of written characters based on the footprints of the birds and the turtles. Creation could no longer keeps its secrets, and thus the heavens rained millet; the ghosts and spirits could not conceal their shapes, and thus they cried in the night. At this time, calligraphy and painting were the same, and had not yet been separated; images led to writing and were simplified. The intention of the heavens and earth and the sages was that when they were unable to pass on their meaning, they created a character to do it for them, and when others were unable to perceive a shape, they created a picture." Chinese writing originated in oracle-bone inscriptions, and in Et la terre était sans forme, it helps vividly portray an image of primordial chaos. Following the invention of writing, "creation could no longer keep its secrets," and seeing painting and calligraphy develop in order to transmit meaning was "the intention of the sages." From the story of creation in Genesis and the first invention of writing in oracle-bone inscriptions, to the myth of Pangu cleaving apart the heavens and the earth, Zao Wou-Ki clearly could not be satisfied with previous portrayals of existing phenomena and nature, and in Et la terre était sans forme, he sought to trace further the origins of man and even creation. It is a work that, in the core conceptions behind it and the manner of its composition, moves beyond the boundaries or barriers of language or region to reach new heights and establish a new status in art history for the union of Eastern and Western aesthetics.