After moving to Paris in 1948, Zao Wou-Ki demonstrated in his work increasing concision with colour, and more poetic and mature compositions in comparison to his figurative landscapes from his time in Hangzhou. The French poet and painter Henri Michaux summed up Zao’s works of the early 1950s in the preface to his first exhibition in P. Birch Gallery in New York in 1952: “Between revelation and obscuration, discontinuity and continuity, his lines wander and flow according to his mood, picturing the pulsations of his imagination… in the clusters of symbols in his paintings.” Completed in 1951, Untitled captures the artist’s quest to gradually eliminate the meaning of autonomous forms, and to use schematic symbols as the primary vehicle of his artistic expression in exploring the meaning of the universe. It is also an important work that heralded Zao’s oracle bone paintings of the mid-1950s in which he encapsulated his feelings in symbols.
A dreamlike poetic touch
Untitled features a sparse palette of ink black and pale brownish green as the main colours, accentuated by touches of azurite blue and indigo blue as well as traces of empty space, which imbues the work with a feeling of profoundness and a serene grace. The artist used flat washes of colours to enhance the expressive power of composition and open up its structure, instilling in the painting a poetic touch that is ethereal, dreamlike and romantic, and in a manner that recalls Lin Fengmian’s use of rich colours to create spatial dimensions and depth. From the mountains in the distance, the forest in the middle, to the human figures and houses towards the margin, all the images are depicted in simplified and symbol-like lines. These symbols that resemble carvings carry a primitive and unadorned flavour. They bring to mind Han dynasty stone reliefs featuring subtle, vibrant images that are mostly rendered in single lines, and which possess an unaffected yet grand presence. In Untitled, Zao employed simplified images in pursuit of an evocative realm, where “the form is forsaken for the essence”. Zao’s exploration of the language of lines in this work also led him towards a more purely abstract expression over time.
The “naïve and plain” aesthetics
In this work, Zao depicted a level view of distant scenery in sections within the same composition as the theme of “nature” runs through the painting. This evokes, in the words of Guo Xi, the sense of the setting being one that the viewer could “look at, walk around, live in, and travel through”, as if they were physically present in the landscape where they could stroll about and breathe in nature. This work also exemplifies the “naïve and plain” aesthetics that Song dynasty calligrapher and painter Mi Youren advocated. The scenery is delineated in simple and unadorned lines, where the execution of the painting bears a keen resemblance that of writing. The surrealist painter Joan Miró also presented in his work a sense of childlike innocence. He painted distorted animals, biomorphic forms and unique geometric shapes in bright colours that come together in a sharply logical composition. Despite the differences in stylistic expression, it echoes Zao’s poetic brushwork, and his seemingly spontaneous method that nevertheless lends a subtle order to the composition. Further, the contours of the tree branches, the couple lying on the ground, and the mountains and houses in Untitled show the artist’s defying the preoccupation with technique. They convey a raw beauty reminiscent of that of inscriptions, and evoke Alberto Giacometti’s extremely refined and roughly shaped sculptures.
A rare early work passed on through prominent collectors
Among Zao Wou-Ki’s oil paintings, his works of the early 1950s are far rarer than his purely abstract paintings. Completed in 1951, Untitled showcases a mature command of technique, a distinct form of painting and a deeply poetic essence; it can be seen as a pivotal work in the series of paintings that Zao created utilising the same composition. An exceedingly rare work of Zao’s early output, Untitled has never appeared on the auction market since it was created more than half a century ago. Before the work was released by the current owner, an American collector, it had been in the possession of John Gunther (1901-1970) and subsequently E. V. Thaw & Co. The former was a renowned journalist and writer for the US’s publication Chicago Daily News, and the author of important works including Inside Asia. The latter was the most esteemed and influential art collector and dealer in the West in the 20th century. An exceptional work from the artist’s oeuvre that has been passed on through prominent collectors, it is a remarkable treasure that makes the most prized possession.