Zao Wou-Ki - 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Tuesday, November 29, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “I want to paint what cannot be seen, the breath, life, wind, movement, the life of forms, the blossom of colours and their fusion.”
     Zao Wou-Ki


    Coming to the market for the first time, having remained in the artist’s family collection since its conception, Sans titre is a stunning example of Zao Wou-Ki’s mature abstract works. Painted in 2007, within the final year of the artist’s experimentations with oil paint before he abandoned the medium forever in 2008, the present work showcases Zao’s painterly adroitness on full display. Dynamic brushstrokes of orange-red contrast against a background of dusky azure, conjuring images of auspicious koi fish swimming in a lake illuminated by a rising sun. Hints of lavender peek through, revealing themselves more clearly upon an extended viewing. With such vibrant, almost fluorescent hues, Sans titre is a notably vivid example within Zao’s esteemed oeuvre, beautifully representative of the faith Zao found in colour during the later stages of his life.



    Detail of the present work


    In 1948, Zao Wou-Ki boarded the André Lebon ocean liner in Shanghai. With his eyes set on Paris, the French capital would be the final destination of a 36-day voyage that would take him through Hong Kong, Colombo, Djibouti, Port Said, and Marseilles. Fascinated by Western art, Zao and his first wife planned to study in Paris for only two years – though Zao mentioned to his teacher Lin Fengmian before his departure that he would stay in France if he could support himself by painting. Advising his young student to remain level-headed about his fantasises, that no Chinese artist had ever succeeded with what he had in mind, Lin Fengmian would never have imagined that Zao would not only remain in Paris, but that he would go on to become one of the most celebrated painters of his generation.


    With a thirst for discovery, on Zao’s first day in Paris he visited the Louvre Museum, where he encountered works by art titans including Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Giacometti, whose work Zao had only ever seen in magazines and books. Taking up a quaint studio in the creative, bohemian district of Montparnasse, Zao soon became friends with artists including Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Joan Mitchell, and Sam Francis. Not wanting to be labelled as a Chinese artist, however, which he felt may pigeonhole him and limit his scope, he began to experiment with a variety of different mediums, including oil paint, as his style fluctuated alongside the inspiration he was gaining from the peers he was getting to know.



    Paul Klee, Translucencies, Orange-Blue, 1915

    Collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts


    Across various trips to galleries and museums, Zao broadened his understanding of Western art. Wanting to immerse himself more devotedly in this quest of exploration, in the early 1950s Zao even embarked upon a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, soaking up both the historical and pioneering contemporary art the countries he visited had to offer, including the work of Paul Klee, whose oeuvre Zao was particularly influenced by, as evidenced by their shared disinterest for traditional perspective. But whilst these experiences fed into Zao’s everchanging approach to abstraction, affording him with an anchoring point from which to forge his own synthesised art, his debt to the roots of his heritage was manifold and by the mid-1950s he began re-incorporating Chinese influences more confidently back into his work. Combining Eastern philosophy with Western mediums, Zao came to realise ‘everybody is bound by tradition, I am bound by two.’


    "Beneath my brush, a space comes into being. As my mind rushes ahead, it begins to take shape, flying and spreading gracefully—and all this from the lightness of the brushstrokes, the lightness of the colours, and the lightness of time's passing." 
     Zao Wou-Ki

    24 years after Zao had left his homeland, he returned to Shanghai in March 1972 to visit his mother, following the death of his second wife, May, who had tragically passed away earlier that year. By then, Zao had already garnered significant acclaim as an artist, celebrated for his fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics. However, his trip home proved to be fruitful as it reintroduced the artist to the Chinese ink brush—a medium in which he was classically trained—which would eventually give way to a pivotal shift in his later paintings, as showcased in the present work.


    As exemplified by Sans titre, where gestural strokes of vermillion collide and spark against swathes of misty blue, in Zao’s later years he returned to a more energetic and spontaneous mode of painting; still pouring his heart and mind onto his canvases, yet with a refined, sophisticated approach mastered over a nearly 70-year career. The variation of Zao’s application of paint to canvas showcases his acute understanding of traditional Chinese ink painting, as the numerous tones and countless layers are a result of how dense or light, or wet or dry, his strokes are applied.




    Caspar David Friedrich, Die Lebensstufen (The Stages of Life), 1835

    Collection of Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig


    These rich visual effects conjure both gentle and rhymical power, which is further enhanced by Zao’s mastery of the oil medium. In a manner far different from his early works where he built up thick impastos of pigment in strong brushstrokes, here, Zao focuses on the delicate harmonisation of light and hue, drawing favourable comparisons to the work of Caspar David Friedrich and other 19th-century Romantic painters interested in the abstract portrayal of the grandeur of nature. Imbuing the work with both infinite energy and potential, there is a humming vibrancy in Sans titre that immerses viewers into Zao’s powerfully poetic, introspective world.


    “Zao Wou-Ki's paintings are ageless in their questioning of the universe, in their efforts at re-creation....they present for us the birth of light, the origins of water, and beyond these turbulent upheavals of matter, a distant sense of the life energy coming into being in their midst.” ​​— art critic Francois Jacob on Zao Wou-Ki’s late-period works


    Family Ties


    “Hong Kong is where my mother and I came from and where my parents met, so the city always holds a special place in my heart.”
    — Sin-May Roy Zao



    Sin-May Roy Zao with father, Zao Wou-Ki and mother, May Zao


    Sans tire, along with 14.10.69. (1969) in the 1st December 2022 Phillips Evening Sale in Hong Kong, both come from the personal collection of Chan May-Kan’s daughter, Sin-May Roy Zao. Offered in our Day Sale, Sans titre returns to the same soil of where the artist’s deepest origins lie, and where Sin-May’s parents first met – Hong Kong, after having been cherished by the artist’s family since the work’s conception.



    Zao Wou-Ki, 14.10.69. (1969)

    Phillips Hong Kong, 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

    1 December 2022

    Estimate HK$ 8,000,000 - 12,000,000 / US$ 1,030,000-1,540,000


    • Provenance

      Collection of Zao Wou-Ki
      Thence by descent to the present owner



Sans titre

signed ‘Wou-Ki [in Chinese] ZAO’ lower right
oil on canvas
73 x 92 cm. (28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in.)
Painted in 2007, 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$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for HK$5,922,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2022