Sotheby’s Paris has its own entry into the Zao sweepstakes coming to the auction block on Wed, June 5. The work comes from the collection of Raphael Cherchève, a French physician and close friend of the artist, who has never sold work before. More important, the work adds to the small handful of nine paintings from 1957 that have ever been to auction.
Sotheby’s catalogue makes a case for 1957 being a pivotal year in Zao’s evolution both personally and as an artist:
Kept out of sight for half a century, Temps Calme is indicative of the major and fruitful shift taken by Zao Wou-Ki between 1953 and 1957, a change characterized by the use of “signs conceived as bases to break through the appearances” from figuration to abstraction, to quote the great art historian Jean Leymarie. Zao Wou-Ki did not draw these “invented” signs from calligraphy, as could have been expected. They were “an alphabet with specific rules and meaning, although they refer to more remote and mysterious sources”. They probably made reference to the “ancient inscriptions carved fifteen to ten centuries before our time on the divinatory bones and ritual bronzes of the Chang dynasty” and inspired Zao Wou-Ki the composition of Temps Calme. Although they are of striking beauty, the forms that make up this outstanding composition seem to come from the depths of time, a distant time and space that could unleash magical powers if we pronounced the right incantations.
We should also recall that it was in 1957, pivotal year in the evolution of Zao Wou-Ki’s unique pictorial vocabulary, that the artist met the actress Chan May-Kan, during his trip around the world. He married her and they came back to Paris together in 1958. The choice of Temps Calme, the title of the bewitching work we are presenting here, is certainly not a random in that regard. It probably refers to the -maybe fleeting yet newfound- happiness that gave a new creative impulse to the artist. For the first time, Zao Wou-Ki seemed to have penetrated the mysteries of the matter and revealed a composition torn between grandiloquence and modesty, magnificence and discretion, with graphic and kabalistic signs on one side and a prudish yet dark and dusky color palette on the other.