ABADIE Daniel -  Extract from « Le passage du vent » (The passing of the wind), catalogue of the exhibition Zao Wou-Ki – Hommage à Riopelle et peintures récentes (Zao Wou-Ki Tribute to Riopelle and recent paintings) at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec Editions, Quebec, Canada, 2008 (pp. 11-12).

"One day in 1959, Zao Wou-Ki stopped conferring a title on his paintings. He decided that, from this point forward, they would be identified by a simple date, the date of completion of the painting: from then on, there would be no more Bateaux en chantier (Boats in construction), Forêt verte (Green forest) or Paysage au soleil (Landscape under the sun). There would no longer be a Début d’octobre (Beginning of October) or Traversée des apparences (Going through appearances). The reason was that, for the second time, Zao Wou-Ki’s painting had changed. However, only few people were aware of this new mutation, although all had obviously recognized the first one.

In 1954, the painter had actually given up the fine shorthand signs by which he represented a running animal, a women laying nude in the landscape or a house among trees. Other written forms had then appeared in his paintings; however, they did no longer represent the world and its objects. For the Western viewer, they spontaneously evoked series of Chinese characters, naturally unreadable, but evidently meaningful. On the contrary, for the conventional well-read viewer, such notations were futile paintbrush strokes deprived of any meaning, far from this tradition of ink painting which partly establishes the Chinese civilization. Besides, the use of oil painting itself, unfamiliar in the East and symbol of modernism supported this interpretation. 

By such signs, bordering in 1954 the margin of Vent (Wind) where the writing seemed to invent itself in another form and transformed, in some kind of commemorative stone, the narrow vertical format of the canvas, Zao Wou-Ki undoubtedly marked the double distance where he would position his work from then on:  Western from a Chinese perspective and Chinese from a Western perspective, modern and traditional at the same time.

(…) The titles that from 1954 to 1958 echoed back this first and deep mutation forwent the stating of facts – from then on, no recognizable image would justify these titles. However, titles became responsible for the poetic substrata conveyed by figurative images until then. Moving entities – Foule noire (Black crowd), Avant l’orage (Before the storm and natural elements – Pluie (Rain), Foudre (Lightning), Nuage (Cloud) prevailed over description. Instead, suddenly, they were there to suggest, although the paintings were getting larger and great inspirations had started to sweep out the « verger des signes » (orchard of signs) that, a few years back, had caused Henri Michaux’s admiration (Foreword of the Cadby-Brich Gallery catalogue, New-York, 1952).

Indeed, the large signs, whose meaning was unpredictable, were inscribed in these paintings in the manner of those incised in divinatory bones at the time when the writing was being invented, lines at the same time are definite and pulsating, such as those engraved into ancient bronzes that the painter so admired. Such signs were bound to disappear from the painting with everything they reminded of an unambiguous discourse. (…) From then on, Zao Wou-Ki’s painting, like a free course across the great movements and micro-events of its surface, must be understood no longer as the memory of a landscape, identifiable or suggested, but rather as the transcription on canvas of contradictory forces that the painter eventually overpowers through the completion of the painting." (…)

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