Zao Wou-Ki - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, May 31, 2024 | Phillips
  •  “I paint my own life, but I also try to paint an invisible space, a dream space, a place where one always feels harmonious, even in the turbulent form of opposing forces.”
    — Zao Wou-Ki
    In the context of Chinese contemporary art, few have managed to bridge the gap between Eastern philosophy and Western abstraction with the same grace and sophistication of Zao Wou-Ki. Wou-Ki, resonant with the Taoist idea of the infinite, is an exemplification to the infinite universe and the artist’s infinite exploration of it, which is so vividly manifested in this painting. The present lot is an outstanding embodiment of the harmonious symphony that attempts to portray a glimpse of our cosmos and is reminiscent of the dynamic forces that shape it.


    Born in Beijing in 1920, Zao Wou-Ki’s art has mirrored the ever-changing landscapes of his era via his artistic journey, which is a tale of integration and evolution, as seen in his lyrical abstraction which is so deeply rooted in Eastern sensibilities. His synthesis of Eastern and Western art was not merely a choice out of stylistic considerations, but rather the result of his life’s upheavals and cultural migrations, which led to a profound reflection on life and the mystery of universal philosophies.



    1990s: Serenity, Tranquillity and Grace

    By the 1990s, Zao has distilled his life journey into a visual language that was tranquil and self-aware, which is a completely unique way of expressing himself. His artistic approach, which had been constantly evolving, had fully matured into lyrical abstraction by the 1960s. Moreover, the 1970s witnessed a revisiting of ink wash integrated into his oil paintings, a blending of mediums that further set his mastery apart even more. The 1981 solo exhibition at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais marked a significant personal triumph, as well as a milestone for Chinese artists on the international art stage.

    A fusion of blue, yellow, white and green hues, the present lot evokes the limitless depth of a landscape resembling sea and sky. The colours on canvas blend and separate with a rhythm that intends to capture life’s perpetual motion, devoid of stagnation. The rose tints on the top and the centre, are rich and meticulously layered. They add a dimension of mystery that invites the viewers to further explore and discover the subtle intricacies within the canvas. Each element within the painting – be it a stroke, a splash, a blend – becomes an integral part of a larger constellation that contributes to the overall harmony of the present lot. In a way, it is a cosmos where every detail is an exploration in itself, every colour a different wavelength of rich emotion, and every form a different expression of inner thought. One could argue that Zao's canvas is a tribute to the eternal that invites us to contemplate a universe untethered by time, roaming freely between the celestial and the terrestrial.

    Yves Bonnefoy, the esteemed poet and art critic, has made an observation of how Zao's paintings move beyond mere colour and form to orchestrate a symphony of ever-fleeting shapes and hues, constantly in motion, hinting at a wondrous dawn beyond our everyday perception. Zao's artistry is not a simple observation but a complex coordination, a composition that is alive, it moves and breathes, giving us a glimpse into the profound.

    “In his paintings, Zao Wou-Ki is not in the slightest just making simple observations of colour and form using his feelings. Rather, it is about his ability to coordinate. The shapes and colours are used but not stabilised. They coordinate with each other in the composition, moving continuously, tying together, expressing, and appearing fleetingly in the visible world… Around the edges of dissolving objects, they give us a peek at an amazing dawn unknowable in our usual lives.”
    — Yves Bonnefoy

    Zao Wou-Ki and Turner: Fascination with Light and Atmosphere


    Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake of Zug, 1843, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marquand Fund, 1959,  59.120

    Upon gazing, the British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner's seascapes and skies are filled with a radiant luminosity that prefigures the impressionist masters. In a way, it resonates with Zao’s own abstract landscapes as they both delve into the ephemeral, and intend to capture not the tangible, but the felt. By doing so, they allow the viewers to partake in an experience of the sublime conveyed by their canvases.

    With canvas filled with light, water and air, Turner’s elemental energy and Zao’s solemn serenity may seem conflicting. However, they both convey the profound turmoil and tranquillity of nature. Both masters’ use of light is almost cinematic in scope, yet intimate in effect with each brushstroke a monument to their respective explorations to capture the imperceptible spirit of our surroundings.

    Zao Wou-Ki’s 30.09.97 works way more than just a painting; it is a canvas where the spiritual meets the sensory. In a way, viewers are invited to a pilgrimage, across the vastness of emotions and imagination. In the interplay of light and colour, we observe Zao’s efforts to offer a glow that guides us through a magnificent yet mysterious world. Through the painting, the artist reminds us that art is not just a reflection of reality, but more of a window into the depths of our own existence, and an endless journey through the landscapes of the soul.


    Zao Wou-Ki painting in his Paris studio



    Collector’s Digest


    Zao Wou-Ki's personality and mastery have forged a vast network of friendships within the art community, solidifying his status as a leading figure among Chinese painters of his era. His blend of Eastern and Western artistic principles and philosophies gained significant worldwide recognition, earning him awards in both Europe and Asia, and the rare honour of a Chinese-born artist joining the prestigious Académie des beaux-arts in Paris. Zao's artistic versatility is celebrated worldwide, with exhibitions of his oil, watercolour, and ink works in prestigious venues like the Musée d’art moderne in Paris and the Asia Society Museum in New York; Notably, his major centennial retrospective exhibition The Way Is Infinite held in his alma mater, China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, has gained critical success over the period from September 2023 to February 2024, with visitors from worldwide. With a global presence, Zao's creations are part of over 150 public collections in 200 countries, including prominent institutions like MoMA, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern, underlining his profound influence on contemporary art and future generations of artists. Zao Wou-Ki was a central figure in a vibrant circle of influential creatives and intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alberto Giacometti, and I.M. Pei, which contributed to his reputation as a preeminent painter of his generation.





    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Asia
      China Guardian, Hong Kong, 7 April 2014, lot 407
      Private Collection, Asia
      Ravenel International Art Group, Taipei, 4 June 2017, lot 320
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Literature

      Galerie Thessa Herold, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, 1997, p.69




signed 'Wou-Ki [in Chinese] ZAO' lower right; further signed and titled 'Zao Wou-Ki 30.09.97' on the reverse
oil on canvas
101 x 102 cm. (39 3/4 x 40 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1997, this work will be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki after the sale. This work is referenced in the archives of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen. (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki.)

Full Cataloguing

HK$6,000,000 - 10,000,000 

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Danielle So
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Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 31 May 2024