• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 12515

    Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)

    28 May 2016, Convention Hall

  • Lot 44

    ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, 1920-2013)


    Price Realised  


    ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, 1920-2013)
    signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed and titled 'ZAO WOU-KI 23.5.62. 7-1.71.' (on the reverse)
    oil on canvas
    114 x 162 cm. (44 7/8 x 63 ¾ in.)
    Painted in 1962-1971

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    Contact the department

    Now I, a boat lost in the hair of bays,
    Hurled by the hurricane through bird-less ether,
    I, whose carcass, sodden with salt-sea water,
    No Monitor or Hanseatic vessel could recover
    (Extract of Arthur Rimbaud, Drunken Boat, 1871)

    Showing a high horizon with a predominance of midnight blue and soft ivory 23.05.62-07.01.71 (Lot 44) alludes to a raging sea lit by a full moon. Manipulating the oil paint with different types of solvent Zao overlays diluted pigments to render thickness, transparencies and opacities in the characteristic manner of the artist. The unusual length of the canvas further emphasizes the horizontality of the composition like a tormented seascape. With its double date of execution 23.05.62-07.01.71 encompasses at once the creativity of two decades in one unique complex construction and, like a handful of rare paintings in Zao’s entire oeuvre, testifies of an unusual practice of re-work in a short period secluded between 1969 and 1972. To the 1960s one attributes the central composition of frantic brown and white brushstrokes intertwined in a knotted vortex contrasting with an apparently calm dark-blue tint areas and whites in the lower part. First exhibited at the Samuel Kootz gallery in one of Zao’s solo shows in the 1960s under its first version the painting crossed the Atlantic sea back to the artist’s studio in Paris, where one easily images Zao Wou-Ki examining his creation then picking up a brush and ardently painting over the composition to alter the first impression of the 1960s version. The 1971’s intervention consists of inkwash-like beige large brushstrokes bringing a vehement movement to an originally almost static composition. The translucent quality of the paint directly refers to the ink practice that Zao started at the same period. Facing the disarray of May’s sickness Zao purposely unbalanced the composition to mirror his inner torment, the painting maturing along with Zao’s own life experience. The literature about Zao Wou-Ki often cites the magnificence of the sea as an inspiration and the perfect vector of abstract expression. In Western visual art and poetry the theme is an inexhaustible source of creation, which thrived in the Romantic period, when the painter was exploring nature as a reflection of his psyche. One of the most famous poems by French 19th Century writer Arthur Rimbaud, drunken boat relates the agony of a sailor on a slowly sinking boat in a lost sea. 23.05.62-07.01.71 naturally appears as the visualization of the poem. Zao illustrated a special edition of the Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud in 1966 with eight harrowing abstract compositions in aquatint. Furthermore in the catalogue of the Paris Jeu de Paume major French retrospective in 2003, where 23.05.62-07.01.71 was exhibited, Pierre Schneider compares the painter and the poet: “The coincidence of Rimbaud's poetry and Zao Wou-Ki paintings owes nothing to chance. When the lowest part comes up- what it does when a great shock (historic, natural or personal) reminds us of the human disproportion – it is preferably in the form of the sea.” Chinese in its mastery of texture diversity and technique, French with its reference and influence, 23.05.62-07.01.71 is a quintessential artwork of Zao Wou-Ki, showcasing a perfect amalgamation of elements from Western arts and literary culture and traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting.


    Private Collection, France (acquired directly from the artist in 1972)

    This work is referenced in the archive of the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Foundation Zao Wou-Ki).

    Pre-Lot Text



    Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, documentation by Françoise Marquet, Editions Cercle d’Art, Paris, France and Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1986 (illustrated, plate 171, p. 222).
    Artist Publishing Co., Self Portrait of Zao Wou-Ki, Taipei, Taiwan, 1993 (illustrated, unpaged).
    Yves Bonnefoy & Gerard de Cortanze, Zao Wou-Ki, La Difference/Enrico Navarra, Paris, France, 1998 (illustrated, p. 144).
    Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki (exh. cat.), Paris, France, 2003 (illustrated, p. 101).


    New York, USA, Kootz Gallery, 1962
    Paris, France, Galerie du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki, October - December 2003