Lin & Keng Gallery Inc., Zao-Wou-Ki, Taipei, 2005, p. 87 (illustrated)
Born into a highly educated family, Zao Wou-Ki had come under the profound influence of Chinese literati arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting since his childhood. He was inspired by Paul Klee in the early 1950s as he began exploring Eastern images and lines. He continued his exploration and entered into what scholars have acclaimed as his “Hurricane Period” of complete abstractness in the 1960s. With an infinitely varied palette and immensely unrestrained brushstrokes, Zao integrated the spatial concepts of traditional Chinese aesthetics and the philosophies of Western Abstract Expressionism while blazing a new, unprecedented trail for the development of abstract painting in the 20th Century.
Heavily influenced by the language of Western art, Zao utilised oil paint as his main medium as he developed his artistic style, drawing inspiration from Parisian abstract paintings he encountered after his move to the French capital. However, with the education he received in his formative years laying the foundation of his Eastern aesthetics, the composition of his paintings often recalls the influence of traditional Chinese ink painting. In the painting 12.2.69, Zao organises space in his composition in accordance to the philosophy of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. As Zao once stated, 'I admire how Mi Fu arranged space. This differentiates Chinese landscape painting from Western oil painting. In my paintings, a lot of spaces are also left empty. However, as oil paint does not splash as easily as ink, I actually work more meticulously on the empty spaces than the occupied spaces. The ever-flowing, cadenced rhythm resulting from the interaction between the real and the virtual in Chinese paintings has given me significant inspirations'. In the 1960s, Zao broke away from his earlier method of expression - using symbolic representations to display his own traditions. In its stead, he enhanced the rhythm of his paintings with a greater sense of power and speed in his brushwork to create a brand new, intensely emotional abstract context, as seen in the present painting.
Akin to the three-plane composition of Chinese landscape painting, in 12.2.69, Zao employs the foreground, midground, and background arrangement to create a world where the virtual and the real coexist and complement each other. Through the methodology of Eastern aesthetics, he presents to us a balanced composition. Guo Xi, a famous artist and art theorist in the Northern Song Dynasty, commented in Lin Quan Gao Zhi: Painting Techniques: 'Whenever you paint, you must reserve spaces for heaven and earth. For a one-foot painting, the upper third should be reserved for heaven, and the lower third for earth. Only the middle third is allotted for the main scene'.
Through his masterful flat wash technique and a saturated colour scheme, Zao depicts a solid and rich background scene of haziness in the upper portion of the painting. Bordering the midground lie flowing paint marks. This conjures up a vision of vast stretches of snow-blanked mountains amidst a boundless sea of clouds. The interlaced, overlapping fine brushstrokes produce striking clashes at the centre. Complicated, and fragmentary whilst orderly, the brushstrokes seem to showcase range upon range of rolling mountains unveiled amidst drifting clouds. This brings to mind the dramatic scenes created of intertwining light and colour by Joseph Mallord William Turner, whom too, employ darker colour tones in the foreground to distinguish it from the background scene. In the present painting, the sharper horizontal brushstrokes appear to portray ground texture water ripples on a lake, whilst the white oil paint at the centre projects a scene of glistening waves. Visually striking, the clashes amongst the different sections infuses the composition with a powerful dynamism into what originally appeared to be a more still, tranquil scene.
Consciousness and Expression of Colour, Light and Shadow
Colour is a vehicle for spatial arrangement and light expression. In 12.2.69, Zao chose beige oil paint as the anchoring tone for a blend of warm and cold tones, harmonising a range of colours through his multi-layer approach. Having repeatedly talked about his focus on space and light in paintings, Zao once delved into this during a lecture in China, ‘Light is colour. In Pierre Bonnard’s paintings, colour is essentially light. Light is not necessarily what comes from outside. Light is the sensation of colour - the tremor of colour.’ The composition of 12.2.69 is interspersed with brushstrokes of dark indigo and variegated brown, creating a flowing atmospheric texture that delicately expresses a spatial tension. A contradiction is then generated between the contrasting colours and vigorous movement of the brush, which perfectly accords with the artist’s pursuit of ‘a visual centre that emits light’, as well as ‘tremors of colour’. Indeed, in the present painting, Zao effectively captures the transient moment of emotions he experienced at the time of painting the canvas.
Gao Xingjian once commented on the art of Zao Wou-Ki, stating ‘Freed from the constraint of lines in the 1960s, Zao proceeded to rely solely on splashes, layers, overlaps, and flows of colour to create diverse rhythms and tempos in his paintings, just like modern symphony with an interlaced movement of colour in lieu of mighty roars of sound’i. Zao had a keen sense of light and exceptional mastery of shadow in his body of work. The present painting delivers an expressive rendering of light and shadow with minimal colour changes, showcasing Zao’s mastery of his medium. The bottom layer of 12.2.69 reveals to us a faint hint of bright cyan, along with a few shades of nearly undetectable touches of pink. The colour transitions exude a melodious rhythm, contributing to the overall ethereal mood. Using a compositional layout that combines the virtual and the real as well as a gentle colour distribution, Zao creates a dreamy Chinese landscape scene amidst gauzy mistiness, conveying a truly poetic sense, emphasized through vibrant visual rhythms.
Blurring cultural boundaries, Zao took the freehanded brushwork in traditional Chinese paintings to pioneering level. The milky, nebulous landscape he has created on the canvas of the present work actually reflects the hometown scenery etched in his mind. His unique artistic style, impeccable command of imagery, and integration of Eastern meditation and Western representations of light and shadow, all enabled him to transcend the limitations of genres, explore the natural rhythm of the universe, and stride towards the truth of the inner world. With a pronounced presence of Chinese elements and fascinating array of expressiveness, Zao’s art has earned him one of the most supreme reputations for the integration of Chinese and Western aesthetics.
iGao Xingjian, ‘Symphony on Canvas: On the Art of Zao Wou-Ki’, Twenty-First Century, Number 19, October 1993, p. 78