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

    Collection of Maria Martins, Rio de Janeiro (acquired directly from the artist)
    Private Collection (by descent)
    Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 2 October 2016, lot 1018
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Inspired by the works of modern masters such as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, Zao Wou-Ki arrived in Paris in 1948 to pursue a new artistic direction. During a short visit to Switzerland in the early 1950s, the artist encountered works by Paul Klee, and felt that his pictorial forms resonated with the kind of creative vocabulary he was looking to express. This eventually led the artist towards a phase of semi-abstraction, and what is now known as the ‘Klee period’ of his career.

    During his Klee period, Zao treated the canvas as a space for artistic meditation; figures, landscapes, architecture and still lifes were depicted with an infusion of spontaneity and ambiguous perspectives as he began to transition towards abstraction. Eager for a breakthrough, Zao wanted to “invent a language that will no longer be confined by the choice of the subject” (Zao Wou-Ki and Françoise Marquet, Autoportrait, Fayard, 1988, p.104). From 1953 to 1954, Zao’s artistic style underwent a tremendous transformation. He recalled in 1976: “During this period my paintings were no longer recognisable, still lifes and flowers no longer existed. I yearned to develop a type of imaginative and incomprehensible artistic vocabulary.” (Françoise Marquet, "Chronologie de Zao Wou-Ki", in A Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, 1995. p.264) Zao began to renounce the representational in his works, instead returning to his cultural roots with the incorporation of ancient Chinese hieroglyphic scripts found on oracle bones into his works.These oracle bone inscriptions recorded divinations performed by the kings of the Shang Dynasty and documentation of the royal court by official historians. Known as the origins of Han Chinese writing, to this day these inscriptions have not been completely interpreted nor understood. Writing was a mark of human civilisation— transcending space and time through the handing down of history and culture to future generations (fig.2).

    During his ‘oracle bone’ period, Zao was inspired by the spirituality of these ancient inscriptions. Rather than simply depicting these inscriptions, Zao dissected, re-organised and created unique scripts and symbols of his own. By then, the artist had completely abandoned figurative painting, and now concentrated solely on abstraction. The imagery present in his works became increasingly liberated— his use of colour and light fluid and rhythmic. His work conveyed the sense of a brand new universe birthed in the artist’s mind– one that masterfully incorporated elements of Oriental culture with the aesthetics of Western abstraction.

    The present work, Ailleurs, was completed in 1955 – a moment when Zao’s style of painting underwent a crucial and decisive transformation. As a teaching assistant at his alma mater (the Fine Art School of Hangzhou) in the 1940s, Zao made the decision to move to Paris in pursuit of wider artistic possibilities that Chinese traditional art education could not satisfy. Upon his arrival in Paris, Zao spent much time visiting art museums to learn about the works of Western masters. Hoping to be accepted as a painter in Europe, Zao deliberately avoided traditional Chinese techniques and media such as ink and brush. After several years of artistic pursuit and self-discovery, Zao eventually returned to the Chinese traditions that he had originally shied away from, achieving artistic liberation and developing a unique personal style as he stepped away from the world of figuration and moved towards abstraction. Ailleurs tells of Zao as a stranger in a foreign land where he had found his artistic path; through this journey he had the opportunity to explore his identity and discover, examine, unite and sublimate the innovations, traditions, and cultures of the East and the West.

    In Ailleurs, enigmatic signs and glyphs resembling oracle bone script meld into a background of earthy hues. These texts float and drift against a field of dark paint on the upper part of the canvas. Within this space, touches of yellow, blue and pink intermingle with the inscriptions. The signs merge organically, with the rhythm of dark clouds and light created through layers of paint projecting life as they swirl within the space. Through different layers of paint, Zao builds depth to create an image reminiscent of a galaxy and its constellations. Upon closer look, the signs and glyphs dance and drift along the canvas. Condensed and richly textured, these elements draw viewers into a state of meditation, allowing their minds to drift along the currents of time, to traverse the origins of the universe and to discover the chapters of human civilisation woven into stories.

    Ailleurs was originally in the collection of the Brazilian Surrealist sculptor Maria Martins (1894-1973) (fig.4), who acquired the work during her visit to Zao’s studio in the late 1950s. Martins, along with her diplomat husband, travelled extensively and lived in many different countries. She participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris on multiple occasions and also helped to establish the São Paulo Art Bienniale. In 1955, Zao was invited to participate in the Biennale’s third edition where his works were exhibited in the French Pavilion. It was through this occasion that two artists from opposite ends of the world became friends. It was a shared sentiment of being a migrant in a foreign country; the drive both artists possessed in pursing their careers (one a Chinese artist working in Paris, the other a once-marginalised female artist) that prompted Zao to entrust Ailleurs to Martins. For the next sixty years, this work remained in the treasured collection of Martins and her family.

    Zao’s cultural roots were always inherent to his works, from the Shang Dynasty oracle bone inscription-inspired abstract works from the 1950s, to the development of his whirlwind style of brushstrokes that resembled the Tang Dynasty calligraphers Zhang Xu and Su Huai’s kuang cao (‘wild cursive’) in the 1960s, or even to his approach to large scale atmospheric paintings in the 1970s:

    "What must be said is that there are many things that I owe France, although I don’t make comparisons about where those things are bigger than what I owe China. Because I feel a deep connection with the ancient traditions of China. However, it is France that has made me clearly see that these traditions live inside me, that has liberated that feeling in my own creativity."- Zao Wou-Ki

    Ailleurs is a powerful imprint made by the artist’s creative journey; an outstanding example of Zao’s pivotal transition from Klee towards oracle bones that suggest the artist’s creative style and artistic practice was moving in an increasingly enlightened direction.

Property from a Prestigious Asian Collection



signed and dated 'Wou-ki [in Chinese] ZAO 55' lower right; further signed, titled and dated 'ZAO WOU-KI "Ailleurs" 1955' on the reverse
oil on canvas
130 x 97 cm. (51 1/8 x 38 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1955, this work will be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity to be 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$40,000,000 - 60,000,000 

Sold for HK$52,040,000

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