‘A visual shock to the senses’ — masterworks by Zao Wou-Ki

Eric Chang, International Director of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art, surveys a group of works offered in Hong Kong on 26 May that embody the Chinese-French artist’s desire ‘to capture the ever-changing facets of nature through colour’

‘Zao Wou-Ki once said that colour was light that could express a sense of space,’ says Eric Chang, International Director of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

In the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013) transitioned from figuration to abstraction. No longer focused on form, his abstract colour paintings from this period were full of depth, projecting a vital, organic quality.


Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 28.02.67, 1967. 89 x 116 cm (35 x 45⅝ in). Estimate HK$15,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 28.02.67, 1967. 89 x 116 cm (35 x 45⅝ in). Estimate: HK$15,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Early in his explorations of abstraction, Zao was inspired by prehistoric art. Many of his paintings from the 1950s feature signs and glyphs that resemble the proto-writing found on Shang Dynasty oracle bones, an early form of divination.

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), Neige Danse (Swirling Snow), 1955. 73 x 60 cm (28¾ x 23⅝ in). Estimate HK$20,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), Neige Danse (Swirling Snow), 1955. 73 x 60 cm (28¾ x 23⅝ in). Estimate: HK$20,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

In Neige Danse (Swirling Snow)  from 1955 (above), offered on 26 May in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s in Hong Kong, Zao masterfully incorporates such signs into a highly modulated background with hues of pink, green, blue, ochre, orange and purple. The canvas is ‘infused with light, and his texts float, drift and swirl slowly’, creating what Chang describes as an almost ‘infinite visual effect’.

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 10.11.58-30.12.70, 1958-1970. 130 x 195 cm (51¼ x 76¾ in). Estimate HK$50,000,000-70,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 10.11.58-30.12.70, 1958-1970. 130 x 195 cm (51¼ x 76¾ in). Estimate: HK$50,000,000-70,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

In 1959, Zao stopped naming his works, claiming that he no longer wanted his creations to be confined by preconceived ideas. His paintings took on a new energy, evolving to incorporate sweeping brushstrokes and greater use of impasto. Zao would continue to experiment with colour, light, space and movement well into the 1960s.

‘Zao Wou-Ki once said that colour was light that could express a sense of space’

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 02.11.59, 1959. 130 x 97 cm (51⅛ x 38 in). Estimate HK$50,000,000-60,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 02.11.59, 1959. 130 x 97 cm (51⅛ x 38 in). Estimate: HK$50,000,000-60,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

His confident transition is clearly demonstrated in 2.11.59  (above), also offered on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong. In this electrifying piece, an intense bright yellow is set against a surrounding blackness, like a burst of light spreading outwards into a dark, unfathomable space. Yet the work also reflects the descriptive brushwork found in traditional Chinese painting. ‘Zao alludes to a natural landscape in this yellow abstract painting,’ says Chang. ‘As if from a cave-like space or between cliffs, we see a ray of light.’

In 14.12.59  (below), also executed in that key transitional year, Zao evokes the power of primeval forces. The colour red is associated with life, fire, blood and passion — the energetic forces regarded as fundamental elements of both nature and human civilisation. The white starburst that dominates the centre of the canvas, meanwhile, may be read as representing hope and possibility.


Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013),14.12.59, 1959. 130 x 162 cm (51¼ x 63⅞ in). Estimate HK$68,000,000-88,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013),14.12.59, 1959. 130 x 162 cm (51¼ x 63⅞ in). Estimate: HK$68,000,000-88,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘Zao has created a visual shock to the senses,’ says Chang. ‘It can be read as depicting a sunrise; we feel heat, as well as a sense of movement and instability.’


Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 05.10.91, 1991. 81 x 100 cm (31⅞ x 39⅜ in). Estimate HK$8,000,000-12,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 05.10.91, 1991. 81 x 100 cm (31⅞ x 39⅜ in). Estimate: HK$8,000,000-12,000,000. Offered in Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

From the 1980s on, Zao’s exploration of colour became even more adventurous and unrestricted. Painted in 1991, 05.10.91  (above) is marked by a fresh, vibrant palette of violet, rose, emerald green, phthalo green and deep green. An organic, splash-like motif, executed in dark linear brushstrokes that are simultaneously delicate and bold, takes up the central plane. In Zao’s work, this motif can be read as an expression of strong emotion, or even a sense of holiness.