Zao Wou-Ki - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Saturday, May 25, 2019 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist in the 1970s

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘I think that painting is not a Chinese problem, a European problem, or an American problem, but rather an international problem. So, I think that Chinese painting and Western painting shouldn’t be separated; they should be considered as a whole. For foreigners [that is, anyone who is not Chinese], sketching is a basic skill; for Chinese, the brushwork of calligraphy is a basic skill. These are both basic skills of painting, but you can also use these two skills together. I think that Chinese art and Western art have no conflict; they can only help each other and complement each other. You can’t say that you paint Chinese paintings, and I paint Western paintings, it doesn’t make sense to separate them.’ – Zao Wou-Ki
    (Zao Wou-Ki and Sun Jianping, Zhao Wuji Jiangxue Bilu [The lecture notes of Zao Wou- Ki], Tianjin, 1987, pp. 1–2)

    Born the son of a successful banker in Beijing, Zao Wou-Ki settled in Paris in 1948 in the hopes of expanding his artistic possibilities. This supposed visit eventually became a permanent residency in France, where Zao plunged himself into the epicentre of the Parisian art scene. Zao created almost all of his mature works in Paris. Like many of his artistic peers who identified with multiple cultures, he created works that arose from inhabiting the liminal space or ‘in-betweenness’ of being all at once an insider and an outsider of his artistic inheritances. Straddling the traditions of his Chinese heritage as well as the post-war school of painting in Paris, his artistic career is fully recognised as one deeply rooted in a holistic approach towards culture rather than a conveniently dichotomous vision of it. Within this realm, he is not bound to one tradition, but freed by having both.

    14.09.70 comes from a French private collector who shared a deep friendship with Zao Wou-Ki over several decades. The collector first came across Zao’s works at the artist’s Galerie de France exhibition circa 1970, and subsequently visited Zao’s studio where, drawn by the beauty of the work, he acquired it. Fresh to the market, 14.09.70 has since been in the home of this private collector.

    Painted in 1970, 14.09.70 exhibits the characteristics of Zao’s endeavours within a period of embracing ink painting aesthetics in his oil canvases. By the late fifties, Zao had committed himself to abstraction. As his evolution took him through different stages, he found himself influenced by the Abstract Expressionist school when he visited New York during the height of the movement. What were seemingly spontaneous gestures on his canvases were painstakingly constructed. A truly international artist by contemporaneous standards, Zao travelled widely and allowed himself to experience and absorb influences at the forefront of global artist developments.

    Also in the late fifties, various artistic milieux brought Zao to witness first-hand the avant-garde art movements in Japan, where he met with artists such as Kumi Sugai, Hisao Domoto, Morita Shiryu and Yuichi Inoue. He started to ponder the debt to the traditions of ink and calligraphy which he had been trained in. Having shied away from ink painting for sake of avoiding the repulsions of ‘chinoiseries’, Zao took up Chinese ink painting with a decisive and impactful dive in the early 1970s, which enabled him to further cross-pollinate the techniques he used across the various media of oil painting, lithography, ink painting and watercolours. He brought the approach of layering thin ink washes on paper to the way he sustained painting with oils diluted in extensive turpentine to add to and rework the surfaces to manipulate the pictorial ground between foreground, middle-ground and background, creating results that assimilated Western colour composition and layout, and which culminated in images filled with ephemeral light and sensual wonder.

    The poet Henri Michaux championed Zao’s so-called return to Chinese ink painting in the early 1970s: "He showed me other [paintings] that he had so subtly washed [with ink]. It was as though smoke had penetrated them instead of ink. Oh! What a surprise! And what joy! He had thus rekindled his legacy: the rhythms of nature, greater than nature, as pictured in the minds of people of that part of the world."

    ‘Deprived from trees, rivers, forests, hills, but full of waterspouts, jiggles, spurts, impulses, drips and diaphanous colored magma dilating, coming out and bursting forth.’ – Henri Michaux

    The composition of 14.09.70 is an artful, angled trisection evoking an abstract landscape of rising mist above expansive riverbanks and mountains, reminiscent of the liubai (‘to leave blank’) aesthetic of Chinese ink painting, especially seen in Ni Zan’s pared-down landscape compositions. Our gaze lingers on the ambiguity present in the composition where empty space can be interpreted as either sky or water within a composition of solid and void. There is a luminosity breathing through the middle and background of the landscape of sweeping brushstrokes of warm orange pinks and blue greens, evocative of rolling mountainside rivers or lakes, countering the enveloping, swirling darkness.

    Zao also inherits the spirit of the Chinese ink medium through colour, his use of monochromatic tones and a recourse to a black that resembles ink. The clouds in the distance seem still and swollen with moisture, while the black brushstrokes in the lower right corner form the dynamic heart of the work, as if the beginning of a hurling vortex of energy coalescing. As René Char describes it, ‘This chaos remains suspended in the wilderness. There the ethereal and telluric spell of the travelling Orpheus breaks through. Every element forming the dividing line is the one behind the distribution of colors in a tempestuous upheaval’.

    The work exhibits the calligraphic methods of feibai (‘flying white’), where a brush lightly steeped in ink smudges across silk in order to create a sense of flight; and, perhaps yet, of cunfa (‘crack technique’), whereby a tilted and loaded ink brush layers thick, broad strokes in order to evoke shadows and texture, often utilised to render nature itself.

    Zao’s concern with nature is to capture its state and environment as an emotional or experiential one rather than a literal one, and can be likened closely to the tradition in Chinese classical landscape painting of capturing the impression of nature, rather than a factual representation. Through this work Zao utilises colours to represent the sense of consolation, shelter and reprise, and incorporates the xieyi approach in Chinese ink paintings with the boldness of Western modernism.

    Later in the 1970s, Zao's works reveal a heightened manifestation of Taoist theories of nature and the spiritual qualities of water and air. 14.09.70 precisely embodies such preoccupations, evoking a vast, surreal sense of space whilst blurring the boundaries between myth and reality. Francois Jacob describes this as:

    "there is in Zao Wou-Ki’s painting, an endless questioning of the world. A determination to recreate it. Some of his paintings evoke the fury of origins, the giving birth to matter through energy, and the latest jolts of creative outbursts. Other ones display the teasing rebellion of the nebulas. Or the birth of light. Or the invention of water. Or the first morning ever, such as this marvelous little triptych with pinky white hues. And, implicitly, beyond the convulsions of matter, as if ready to burst, life … "

    Art critic Francois Cheng places Zao within the context of the historic progress of Chinese painting: 'Zao Wou-Ki's artistic destiny was not merely personal, it was closely related to the development and evolution of thousands of years of Chinese painting.’ Zao’s artistic prowess lies in his ability to straddle both ancient and the modern, the East and West, and it can only command our utmost admiration.

Property from an Important Private French Collection



signed ‘Wou-Ki [in Chinese] ZAO’ lower right; further signed and titled ‘ZAO WOU-KI “14.9.70”’ on the reverse
oil on canvas
73.1 x 91.8 cm. (28 3/4 x 36 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1970, 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).

HK$9,000,000 - 12,000,000 

Sold for HK$9,750,000

Contact Specialist

Isaure de Viel Castel
Head of Department, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 26 May 2019