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Gao Shiming: Two Traditions and Two Centuries ----Zao Wou-ki’s Artistic Path and Its Cultural Value
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Edited BY:Fang Shuaiyin

Zao Wou-ki is not just a towering figure in the academic lineage of the China Academy of Art but also a shining star in modern art history. His works bridge the gap between Eastern and Western cultural traditions, creating a modernist oriental style that allows the underlying spirit of Chinese culture to flourish in the fertile ground of modern painting.

The works of Zao combine two traditions. He deftly navigated the waters of “ancient,” “modern,” “eastern,” and “western” art traditions, serving as a cultural bridge between Chinese classics and Western modernity. He integrated Chinese classical traditions and Western modernism, for example, by using Paul Klee’s modern painting language to describe the rusticity and antiqueness of oracle bone inscriptions, echoing the brushwork and composition of cursive calligraphy through expressionist splashing and smearing techniques, emulating Monet’s landscapes with rolling hills, valleys, the vast sky, and earth in Chinese landscape paintings, or paying homage to Qu Yuan and Li Bai with unconventional compositions and loose brushstrokes. Zao was able to break away from object-oriented realism and move into a more organic, spontaneous style of painting. His paintings reflect the distinctive way in which the Chinese see the world: “wandering (游/yóu)” (feeling the unrestrained changes in unbounded wandering), “observing (观/guān)” (opening oneself to the outside world and studying its subtleties), and “pondering (望/wàng)” (using both one’s rational and emotional selves to achieve mastery and envision far). He enjoyed the creative notions of images as he used his paintbrush to explore the world of visions that arrived one after another, fascinated with both his mind and the physical matters surrounding him. His canvases evoke a movement of time that is hypnotic, as though various elements are blurred, muddled, and flickering together. It’s just like the poet Qu Yuan, to whom Zao paid homage, wrote in his poem, “Suddenly I turned back and let my eyes wander. I resolved to go and visit all the world’s quarters”.

Zao witnessed the changeover of two centuries. In the 20th century, he was a great trailblazer for the oriental style of abstract painting, and in the 21st, he was a purist when it came to painting in the complex modern art environment. Digital technology has made it easy to create and share works of art in a wide variety of formats, and AIGC images can be generated indefinitely. For what purpose do we still insist on painting? Exactly what is it about painting that cannot be replaced? Can painting arouse new sensibilities? Can painting touch the joys and sorrows of human beings and the exploration of our soul? Can one make a decent living from painting? This series of questions and complexities trouble modern painters, but Zao seemed unconcerned by them.

In his own words, Zao once said, “I let the paintings breathe, and the paintings breathe for me.” Painting was as natural and indispensable to him as breathing. Zao maintained his childlike enthusiasm and innate talent for painting throughout his life; thus, he never doubted his ability to paint and found great freedom and joy in the creative process.

“Make the picture come alive”, as Zao put it, requires “activity” in the painting, which Zao emphasized. This “activity” and “liveliness” are reminiscent of the aesthetic emphasis on “rhythmic vitality” (气韵生动/ qì yùn shēng dòng) in Chinese painting. It’s also a phase in which the painter goes from observing to participating, where inactivity is detrimental but activity is vital. The ultimate goal of modern painting is to “make the paintings come alive”, or to convey lively movements, and therefore to eventually correspond to the interminable nature of existence.

Zao was able to move freely between object and phenomenon, physical being and imagery, abstraction and representation in his final years in a way that is unattainable by most modern painters. In his few public remarks, he consistently expressed a desire for greater freedom in his subsequent works. This liberty is not merely the liberty to paint, but the liberty to find oneself in and through one’s own artistic expression. On the one hand, he valued “unpreparedness and spontaneity” in painting so that he could improvise and indulge freely and composedly. On the other hand, he attributed this freedom to nature, saying, “I don’t paint landscapes; I paint nature.” In Chinese philosophy, nature is the most essential way: Nature is full of life and creations. And nature is the creation and evolution of the great cosmos itself, not simply a plant, tree, mountain, or river. From the mountains and rocks to the trees and forests, everything around us is interconnected. The energy of life, or Qi (“气”), is taking on new shapes. An imagery can be made of anything, and it flows seamlessly from mountain to river and back again. Horizontally, vertically, and laterally, it’s expansive, undivided, boundless, and without end or limit.

Zao, in the new millennium, devoted himself to painting in solitude in a quiet neighborhood in Paris. The imagery in his paintings is full of profound poetic and philosophical insight. The brushwork and artistic conception are harmonious, and the paintings exude an infinitely evocative movement and atmosphere. His later works became more unadulterated, similar to the "pure poetry" that modernist poets advocated. “Pure poetry”, according to Liang Zongdai’s writings, is “to abandon all objective descriptions, narratives, reasoning, and sentimental emotions, and to produce a kind of charm-like suggestive power solely by virtue of the elements that make up the poetry’s form—music and color—to evoke the response of our senses and imagination, and transcend our souls to a wandering, bright, and blissful state.” For Valély and Yeats, “pure poetry” is “absolute poetry” set to music. Zao’s paintings in his later years are exemplary examples of “pure” and “absolute” art. “Painting is painting”, Jing Hao wrote in A Note on the Art of the Brush (Bi Fa Ji/《笔法记》). That is precisely the case with Zao.

“Painting is superficiality.” — In his later years, Zao’s free, optimistic, and careless state of mind manifested itself in a more tranquil, spiritual, glorious, and noble expression in his paintings. Incorporating elements of Chinese culture into his works, he breathed new life into modern painting and introduced an exclusive, eastern vibe into art history. The ancient and modern, the eastern and western, were all brought together in his art. As the brightest blossoms of Chinese modern civilization, his works also represent the pinnacle of achievement in the realm of modern art in the context of cross-cultural understanding and mutual learning between the East and the West.

Although the great man has passed on, his legacy will endure, and the ways ahead are boundless.

Gao Shiming

By the West Lake

All works by Zao Wou-Ki : ⓒ Zao Wou-Ki-ProLitteris, Zurich.