Zao Wou-Ki - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.




    The formidable oeuvre of Zao Wou-Ki (“Boundless”) rings true to his namesake: Zao was an artist whose inexorable fervor for creation was truly limitless, and in his lifetime he produced a body of works that encompassed such media as canvas, works on paper, scrolls, ceramics, amongst others. The artist seamlessly weaved together the divergent cultural strands that made up his being, effortlessly marrying Eastern philosophy with an otherwise Western medium, to create an inimitable legacy of works housed in the most prestigious institutions across the world.


    Born the son of a successful banker in Beijing, Zao settled in Paris in 1948 in hopes of honing his artistic capabilities. This supposed short sojourn became a permanent residency in France, where Zao plunged himself into the epicentre of the Parisian art scene, a city where the artist created almost all of his mature works. Like many of his artistic peers who identified with multiple cultures, in many ways his works perched on a threshold: inhabiting the liminal space or ‘in-betweenness’ of both his Chinese heritage as well as the post-war school of painting in Paris.

    "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." —Zao Wou-Ki

    The Ripples Settle


    In the early 1970s, Zao was advised by his friend the poet Henri Michaux to re-explore Chinese ink and paper, and to leave behind his preferred large format canvases with their vast expanses of space that demanded hours in the studio. In part to care for an increasingly bed-bound and ailing May, in part due to the artist’s own inner-turmoil and desperation for a new creative outlet to distract himself, Zao’s return to the Chinese ink brush—a medium in which he was classically trained—would eventually give way to a pivotal shift in his later paintings.


    Tragically, May passed in 1972, and, still reeling from her devastating death, Zao returns to his native China having spent more than two decades away. In 1961 Zao famously remarked ‘[a]lthough the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China.’i This statement would ring true once more following this very voyage to China some 10 years later, where Zao’s formative early mastery of Chinese ink would form the backbone of his later artistic voice.

    "…[R]ipples in a liquid universe. Along the way, colour becomes less and less ponderous, until it is nothing but light; gesture grows heavier, until it is nothing but form." —Pierre Schneider, taken from “Zao Wou-Ki”, Louvre Dialogues, 1971

    14.06.73 (detail)
    14.06.73 (detail)

     A Liquid Universe


    As evidenced in 14.06.73, the calligraphic methods of feibai (flying white), where an ink-steeped brush is smudged across a silk scroll to denote a sense of flight; and cunfa (‘crack technique’) in the centre of the piece, employed to mimic shadows and textures of nature, speak to Zao’s intimate knowledge of the Chinese calligraphic traditions. The Record of Famous Painters from All the Dynasties by Tang art historian Zhang Yanyuan’s deliberates 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”, of which, each can further vary in terms of the degree of wetness and concentration.


    In the present work, rich swathes of green tumble into streaks of gold and brown, highlighting Zao’s intimate grasp over the possibilities of the Chinese ink medium, but here recasting and juxtaposing them within the Western medium of oil paint. Rather than alter the wetness of ink as outlined by Zhang Yanyuan, the artist instead used turpentine to thin out the heavy consistency of his oils, creating layers of translucent washes reminiscent of gouache, or indeed ink on ancient literati paper paintings.

    "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. The ‘Yang’ was waiting for him. The ‘Yin’ too, inevitably. The whisper-thin paper had gathered them up quite naturally." —Henri Michaux

    Ma Yuan, Scholar viewing a waterfall, Southern Song, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York
    Ma Yuan, Scholar viewing a waterfall, Southern Song, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York

    The Enormity of Nature


    Observing 14.06.73, one is reminded of a verdant landscape; fractal patterns against a sundrenched sky; lush foliage set against a hot summer’s day. Considering the wealth of Zao’s sources of inspiration, it is not hard to detect here all at once the great classical landscapes of the Song Dynasties, or even the English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner’s arresting scenes. Though centuries and worlds apart, both schools of thought sought to capture the rapture of their pastoral settings and the relative insignificance of mankind set against the enormity of nature.


    Zao’s virtuosic brushwork reveals various techniques and sophisticated use of colour. The scene ingeniously employs empty space to construct compositional depth of sky and land, while the swirl of activity in the centre of the piece is breathtaking, enveloping viewers with a powerful immersive quality.


    Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Evening of the Deluge, circa 1843, Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
    Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Evening of the Deluge, circa 1843, Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

    While there was an abundance of imagination towards the East in the paintings of Western masters such as Eugène Delacroix, Van Gogh and Matisse, such works were mostly interpretations and portrayals of superficialities— bits of Western modern art’s summation of Orientalism. Zao Wou-Ki’s achievement lies in the fact that he, as a Chinese brought up immersed in Eastern art, was able to draw from his own cultural foundation, and integrate seamlessly Chinese-style landscapes, ink wash painting, as well as the xieyi approach, sensitivities and well-coordinated contrasts of traditional calligraphy with the boldness of Western modernism, thus solidifying his position within the cannons of Modern Art.


    i Taken from Maurice Colinon, “Ils ont choisi la France” [“They have chosen France”], Panorama Chrétien, France, no. 50, April 1961, p. 45, quoted in exh. cat., Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, ZAO WOU-KI, l’espace est silence, 1 June 2018 – 6 January 2019, p. 134.

    • Provenance

      Galerie de France, Paris
      Galerie Heimeshoff, Essen
      Private Collection, Germany
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Essen, Galerie Heimeshoff, Zao Wou-Ki. Ölbilder, Aquarelle, Graphik, 6 November - 30 December 1974

Property from a Distinguished Asian Collection



signed 'Wou-Ki [in Chinese] ZAO.' lower centre; further signed, titled and dated 'ZAO WOU-KI "14.6.73"' on the reverse
oil on canvas
99.5 x 81.2 cm. (39 1/8 x 31 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1973, 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$10,000,000 - 16,000,000 

Sold for HK$12,350,000

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020