Zao Wou-Ki - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Saturday, November 23, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Zao Wou-Ki, '29.05-31.10.68', Lot 12

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 24 November

  • Provenance

    Galerie de France, Paris
    Private Collection, Paris (acquired from the above in 1969)
    Cornette de Saint-Cyr, Paris, 4 April 2011, lot 8
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Hong Kong, Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery, Rue du Moulin Vert, 9 May - 16 June 2018

  • Catalogue Essay

    "Forests, rocks, sky, waters – landscape is the nudity of the universe itself." (Dominique de Villepin, ‘Into the Labyrinth of Light’, Zao Wou-Ki, 1935-2010, 2017. p.28)

    Over the course of the 1960s, Zao Wou-Ki’s international fame reached unprecedented levels whilst his painting underwent another transformation, reaching a new pinnacle. In 1964 he finally obtained French nationality, thanks to the intervention of the Minister of Culture André Malraux himself. Over the course of the decade, his French gallerist—Myriam Prévot at Galerie de France— organised exhibitions in galleries and museums at home and abroad, expanding his recognition. Amongst them was a major retrospective of 64 paintings which took place in 1965 at the Museum Folkwang in Essen. Samuel Kootz, the New York dealer who was one of the first to champion Abstract Expressionism, exhibited Zao’s works in the USA every year from the start of their collaboration in 1958. Although this ended in 1966 when the gallery closed, it gave Zao valuable exposure to Abstract Expressionist art and resonated with Zao’s art strongly. Together with Chan May-Kam, his second wife, Zao travelled intensively and engaged with the most successful living painters across Europe and the USA, the couple becoming an integral part of the artistic intelligentsia during this decade.

    During this period, Zao’s style reached a new level of maturity. Balancing the virtues of Western paintings in their use of colours and tones with the essence of traditional Chinese ink landscapes from the Song and the Yuan Dynasties, the result is an image of implicit scenic beauty, evoking the four elements and natural phenomena in magnificent abstract landscapes:

    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, ‘Into the Labyrinth of Light’, Zao Wou-Ki, 1935-2010, 2017. p.26)

    The English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was also an important source of inspiration for 20th century Chinese artists including Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun and T’ang Haywen (Zeng Haiwen). As seen in his most famous series, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Turner’s works focused increasingly on the atmospheric qualities of sky, sea wind and fire, paving the way for the Impressionists and ostensibly influencing Zao’s unique treatment of light and atmosphere, particularly in his works from the late 1960s and the early 1970s:

    "His progression is the same as J.M.W. Turner’s, the eye and hand returning again and again to the same spot. 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." (Dominique de Villepin, ‘Into the Labyrinth of Light’, Zao Wou-Ki, 1935-2010, 2017. p. 22

    In the present work, Zao’s vigorous brushwork illustrates the battle between the four elements: fire, earth, air and water. To balance this epic encounter, the painting is ingenuously divided into three horizontal bands which give a sense of stability to the central swirling composition. The use of monochromatic tones of beiges, browns and white reflect nature: peeking through the fire are sweeping blue brushstrokes evocative of tumbling mountainside streams or, if we refer to Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, the dark marine sky peeking through the flames. If the 1950s were associated with the Oracle Bones period and the appearance of signs in Zao’s works, in the 1960s Zao starts to pursue his calligraphic experiments in a different manner, recreating the atmosphere of ink paintings by adding turpentine to thin out the heavy consistency of his oil paints and offer him greater freedom to create highly translucent washes or layers with a visual effect akin to the flowing smoothness of ink applied by the Chinese literati masters onto rice paper. As such, the lower part of the work illustrates the traditional ink painter’s textured brushstrokes. The work also displays 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. Also visible in the lower right quadrant, is the use of the cunfa technique (‘crack technique’) whereby a tilted and loaded ink brush layers thick, broad strokes in order to evoke shadows and texture, often used to render nature itself. In the Record of Famous Painters from all the Dynasties, Tang Dynasty art historian Zhang Yanyuan elaborates on the notion of manipulating ink to produce tones that correspond to the five colours. This pentad of tones includes ‘scorched ink’, ‘concentrated ink’, ‘dense ink’, ‘light ink’ and ‘clear ink’, which could each be further varied in degrees of wetness and concentration. In the present work, Zao has grasped the possibilities of the Chinese ink medium and recast them with a sense of immediacy using a Western medium.

    Zao Wou-ki’s achievement lies in the fact that he, as a Chinese artist, brought up immersed in Oriental art forms, was able to draw from his own cultural foundation and integrate ink wash painting, Chinese-style landscapes, the xieyi approach (‘the freehand brush’), to create sensitive contrasts of traditional calligraphy with the boldness of Western Modernism. For Westerners, Zao’s paintings fulfilled their expectations of the imagined East, but at the same time Zao was celebrated by the Chinese as an ‘Orientalist’ in his approach and his interpretation of Western abstraction. To achieve such bewitching works of art, Zao unites the spirit of both worlds, casting ‘his signs onto the canvas like so many divination sticks; he shows us the cracks in the fiery shells of tortoises, his spells, by twists and turns, close in on us in these paintings’. (Dominique de Villepin, ‘Into the Labyrinth of Light’, Zao Wou-Ki, 1935-2010, 2017, pp. 36-37).

Property from a Distinguished Hong Kong Collection



signed ‘Wou-Ki [in Chinese] ZAO.’ lower right; further signed, titled and dated ‘ZAO WOU-KI “29.5.68. 31.10.68"’ on the reverse
oil on canvas
81 x 100 cm. (31 7/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1968, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki.

HK$28,000,000 - 38,000,000 

Sold for HK$32,550,000

Contact Specialist
Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 24 November 2019