Zao Wou-Ki - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “I want to paint invisible things: the breath of life, wind, movement, the vitality of forms, the unfolding and intermingling of colours.”
    — Zao Wou-Ki


    Beautifully emblematic of Zao Wou-Ki's astoundingly rich and varied oeuvre, 14.10.69. is a compelling example from the apex of the artist’s extraordinary career – the Hurricane Period – which lies between the late 1950s to the early 1970s. During this time, Zao’s work became more vibrant and forceful, growing increasingly abstract as he moved away from the figurative style that characterised his earlier works toward a bolder mode of painting fuelled with an indomitable force, palpable with energy.


    The unique features of Zao’s works made him stand out against the tide of post-war abstract paintings in Europe and earned him global fame. Directly inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting, 14.10.69. perfectly expresses the tension between yin and yang, oscillating between abstraction and tangibility, being and nothingness in a composition that showcases Zao’s creative reverie. Colours ripple in a liquid, misty universe, becoming less and less present until it is nothing but light; gesture grows heavier, until it is nothing but form.



    Family Ties


    “Hong Kong is where my mother and I came from and where my parents met, so the city always holds a special place in my heart.”
    — Sin-May Roy Zao


    In 1958, Zao met his beloved wife Chan May-Kan in Hong Kong, whom he fell in love with during their first meeting. Suffering from delicate health her entire life, May had passed away at the age of 41 in 1972. Describing this emotionally turbulent period that is simultaneously blissful yet strenuous, Zao compared it to ‘driving a fast car’ at full speed for ten years i. As such, painting became his refuge, and his atelier was ‘the only place of peace where I held onto hope like in the middle of a storm one grips onto a small boat inundated by water from all sides.’ ii



    Sin-May Roy Zao with father, Zao Wou-Ki and mother, May Zao


    14.10.69., along with Sans tire (2007) in the current Phillips Day Sale, both come from the personal collection of Chan May-Kan’s daughter, Sin-May Roy Zao. Returning to the same soil of where the artist’s deepest origins lie, and where Sin-May’s parents first met – Hong Kong, 14.10.69. is a deeply personal work, cherished by the artist’s family.



    Lot 218, Zao Wou-Ki, Sans titre, 2007
    Phillips Hong Kong Day Sale, 30 November 2022
    Estimate: HKD 4,000,000 - 6,000,000


    Bound by Two Traditions 


    “Everybody is bound by a tradition; I am bound by two.”
    — Zao Wou-Ki


    Culminating techniques acquired through his formative training in Chinese painting as well as the post-war style in Paris, Zao’s artistic approach is fully recognised as a mature symbiotic synthesis of the east and west, establishing the artist’s unquestionable status as a paragon of modern art.


    14.10.69. is compositionally reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s turbulent seascapes, yet the skeleton of a Chinese ink landscape peers through a misty veil, evoking rivers and mountains without literal depiction. Various hues of sepia rise and fall in swelling arcs within the picture plane, creating a thriving energy that is full of latent intensity, forming a unique layered effect that allows the viewer to peer into a deeper plane.


    Commenting on his own paintings in 1961, Zao mentioned that his paintings had become increasingly more abstract in style as a result of moving to Paris: ‘...the influence of Paris is undeniable in my complete artistic development, I also must say that I have gradually rediscovered China, to the extent that my deepest personality asserted itself. In my recent canvases, [my Chinese identity] is expressed innately. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris that I owe this return to my deepest roots.’ iii


    By the time it was 1975, he could confidently say that ‘There is no longer any boundary between oriental art and occidental art. The essential thing is to find a universal and international language’, iv demonstrating a gradual shift into a mature style that is deeply rooted in a holistic approach towards combining both the east and west, rather than a conveniently dichotomous vision of them.



    Labyrinth of Light 


    Touching the theme of the Sublime, English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner’s is an important source of inspiration for many Chinese artists, such as Zao Wou-Ki himself and his contemporaries such as Chu Teh-Chun. Focusing atmospheric portrayal, Turner’s stylistic treatment of the sky, sea, and wind paves the way for artists such as Zao, influencing his unique depiction of nature and form, particularly in his works from the late 1960s and the early 1970s.



    J.M.W. Turner, Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore, 1840-1845
    Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection



    As seen in both the current work by Zao and in Turner’s Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore, both artists establish a focal point at the centre of the canvas, from which rays of diagonal and horizontal arcs emerge outwards, blurring the distinction between cloud and wind, sea and sky. Both Zao and Turner capture an atmospheric or an impression of nature; yet in contrast to Turner, Zao is able to incorporate the Chinese Xieyi (寫意) approach with the boldness of Western modernism, creating a dialogue between two traditions and furthering discourse in art history.


    Dominique de Villepin, former French Prime Minister and Zao’s long-time friend, also echoed this relationship between the works of Zao and Turner: ‘His progression is the same as J.M.W. Turner’s [...] Subjects become themes, the laboratories in which pure light is distilled, an epiphany of colours following the thread of the world back to creation. [...] What is offered to view is the apotheosis of light. I find a deep affinity between these two artistic pursuits, Turner’s and Zao Wou-ki’s, which took place more than a century apart.’ v 



    Misty Mountainscape


    “The clouds rush in
    Propelling the rain
    The calm water begins to shiver
    As smoke ascends”

    Li Bai (Tang Dynasty), excerpt from Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream 


    Despite an obvious turn to abstraction in the 1960s, the structure of Chinese landscape painting continued to inform Zao’s works. The artist himself had noted in 1964: ‘I tell myself I am not a landscapist. I refuse to let the landscape into my studio. But truthfully, perhaps that is because it enters more easily than anything else.’ vi In 14.10.69., a strip of what seems to be land juts into the foreground as it curves around a river bend towards the right, where a breath of luminosity seeps through over the distant mountains in an enveloping, swirling mist, bearing visual similarities to Muqi’s Evening Light in Fishing Village (from Eight Views of Xiao-Xiang).




    Muqi (South Song Dynasty), Evening Light in Fishing Village (from Eight Views of Xiao-Xiang), Nezu Museum Tokyo, c. 1250



    Calling upon his artistic experiences with brush and ink as a child, as well as his training at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zao began to adapt the visual lexicon of Chinese ink landscapes innovatively in a uniquely modern approach. Traditional methods such as Feibai (飛白), where a brush smudges across the surface, creating a sense of flight; Liubai (留白), where areas are intentionally left blank; and Cunfa (皴法), the technique of depicting the surface character of rocks and mountains of textured strokes, can all be observed in Zao’s present work.


    Zao achieves this effect by diluting oils with turpentine, successfully imitating the ethereal, flowing qualities of ink as it sinks into paper, simultaneously imbuing the oil medium with dazzling fluidity and ephemeral light. As the materiality of the medium transforms, so does one’s perception of the work – the abstraction dissolves into a landscape, yet disintegrates again into abstraction.


    “Planes rise up, masses as well: sea, mountain, sky. Even forms, those craquelure trees. You have the sense of a reconciled landscape [… ] that brings to the surface both an Italian-style perspective and the drifting mists of Song Landscapes quivering on tissue paper.”
    — Dominique de Villepin


    Collector’s Digest 


    With his charm and unquestionable talent, Zao cultivated an extensive circle of friendships with fellow artists and influential cultural figures during his lifetime, becoming one of the best-known painters of his generation. He developed close relationships with Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis and I.M. Pei, among many others.



    Chez Margot, Golfe-Juan, 1962
    From left to right: The painter Joan Mitchell, Patricia Matisse, May Zao, the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, the art dealer Pierre Matisse and Zao Wou-Ki



    In early 2022, Sin-May Roy Zao made a generous donation of twelve works by Zao Wou-Ki to M+ Museum, Hong Kong, which now holds one of the largest collections of the artist’s work outside of Europe. The donation includes nine prints, two oil paintings, and one watercolour painting ranging in dates from 1945 to 2005, spanning almost Zao’s entire professional career. 


    As a truly global artist and cultural synthesiser, Zao’s works can be found in over 150 public collections across 200 countries, which include the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern, amongst others. His legendary legacy continues to inspire generations of creators that come after, proving him to be of paramount importance in art history with unprecedented levels of contribution towards shaping and defining the face of contemporary art today.



    Video of Zao’s most recent exhibition in Hong Kong at Villepin:

    Zao Wou-Ki: The Eternal Return to China, 2021-2022

    Video courtesy Villepin



    Zao Wou-Ki, quoted in Zao Wou-Ki, Autoportrait, Paris, 1988, pp. 139, 142

    ii ibid, p. 140

    iii Zao Wou-Ki, quoted in Melissa Walt, Michelle Yun and Ankeney Weitz, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 29

    iv ibid.

    v Dominique de Villepin, quoted in Yann Hendgen and Francoise Marquet, eds., Zao Wou-Ki, New York, 2018, p. 22

    vi Zao Wou-Ki, quoted in Melissa Walt, Michelle Yun and Ankeney Weitz, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 11

    • Provenance

      Collection of Zao Wou-Ki
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      Pierre Daix, Zao Wou-Ki, L’Oeuvre 1935-1993, Neuchâtel, 1994, pp. 116, 223 (illustrated)




signed 'Wou-Ki [in Chinese] ZAO' lower centre; further signed and titled 'ZAO WOU-Ki "14.10.69."' on the reverse
oil on canvas
65 x 100 cm. (25 5/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1969, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki. This work will be referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen. (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki).

Full Cataloguing

HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000 

Sold for HK$11,745,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022