signed in Chinese; signed and dated ‘ZAO 56-57’ (lower right); signed, titled and dated ‘ZAO Wou-Ki Water Music 1956-1957’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
160.5 x 128.5 cm. (63 1/8 x 50 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1956-1957
Hanover Gallery, London, UK
Acquired from the above by the previous owner in 1957
Private Collection, Europe
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 25 May 2013, Lot 3
Private Collection, Asia (acquired from the above sale by the present owner)
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).

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

Zao Wou-Ki has taken in greatelements of Western art... and has also discovered brilliant aspects from the culture of the East. - Chinese-French member of the Académie Française, François Cheng


Zhou Wou-ki was born in an affluent family with good education in 1921. His grandfather a xiucai scholar of the Qing dynasty, his father a banker and art aficionado. Zou immersed in a world of traditional aesthetics from a tender age, he was tutored by his grandfather on the classics and the arts of calligraphy and painting. After gaining admission to the National Academy of Arts, Hangzhou, Zou started to receive formal academic trainings in painting under Lin Fengmian, who recently returned from his study in France. It was also at that time that Zou came into contact with Lin’s innovative ideas on painting. Zou graduated in 1941 and remained to teach as a faculty. After the second world war, Zou travelled to Paris in 1947, where he befriended fellow artists like Alberto Giacometti. He then started to study the abstracts in western art and made sharp changes in terms of style into the avant-garde. From 1952 onwards, Zou’s works were exhibited regularly in Paris’ galleries and touring in the United States, Switzerland and London. He befriended with artists like Franz Kline of the New York School and started to re-examine the foundations of Chinese painting, finding the notion of the void from the traditional liubai (blank-leaving) technique and lyrical abstraction from nature and ink painting. Following the solo exhibition in the Grand Palais in the 80s, important art institutions around the world, for example, The National Art Museum of China, Kyoto National Museum, Japan and Galerie de France invited Zou to hold retrospective exhibitions. Zou’s highly idiosyncratic art provided an unprecedented link between the arts of the East and West. With a spirit that transcends the artist and the depicted subject, a creative method that is both skilful and mindful, together with his pursuit of the ultimate, Zou who had a commanding excellence of arts both east and west, traditional and modern, came to represent not only one of the most important pioneers in Chinese modern and contemporary art, but also a great master of the twentieth century international art world. Zao Wou-Ki created two artworks in the mid-1950s that were both titled, Water Music. This piece (Lot 2506) was executed between 1956 and 1957; the other piece (Fig.1), created in late 1957, is about half the size and executed with a cooler colour tone consisting predominately of Prussian blue.

Water Music is the definitive work of Zou’s transition into lyrical abstraction, a consummation of his deep understandings of the core cultures of east and west. The abstract symbols of Chinese bronze inscriptions traversed among a mysterious void of colours, rendering tension into harmony, attaining a sophisticated state of infinity.


The two years from 1956 to 1957 were a time of transition in Zao Wou-Ki's personal life and artistic career, and it was during this time that he created several works, such as Fleuve (Fig.2) and Marais, depicting floating water and his circumstances. Marais, or swamp, signifies a low point in Zao's career in the 50s and also his dissolving marriage. The floating water represents the fleeting time, insinuating the minuteness and impermanence of all things in life under the steady grandeur of nature. The artworks also encompass the artist's anticipation for the future and eagerness for creative inspiration. Zao split from his first wife Xie Jinglan (Lalan) in 1957, and he then visited the United States with Pierre Soulages. It was there that Zao met Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and saw Jackson Pollock's art in person for the first time. Though his contact with abstract expressionism was brief, but it spared a great impact, with the balance of dynamism and tranquillity in the midst of free flowing brushwork casting a particularly great influence on him. Zao recorded in his journal the visual and conceptual impact he felt during this period. “The physical side of the gesture which throws materials on the canvas, as if there is neither past nor tradition”, Zao once wrote in his diary. The impact would prove to be long lasting as seen in his later art that fuses together Western abstractionism with traditional Chinese aesthetics.


In Water Music, bronze and oracle-bone inscriptions reminiscent of those on archaic bronze ware dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties fill the canvas (Fig.3), and incorporating these symbols in colour field shows Zao's intense interest and innovation in bringing together Chinese and Western art. The integration of calligraphy and painting is a tradition practiced in Chinese painting, and also a style that was historically innovative. The long cursive-script hand-scroll, Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru, by Huang Ting-Jian of the Northern Song dynasty showcased a simplified treatment of the scripts and even mutated them in a primal manner. His endeavour broke the barrier between pictographic characters and expressionistic painting through the use of different brushstrokes and with the scripts compositionally arranged like a painting. A vast world of multiple dimensions was opened up for expressing thoughts and emotions. There have also been many examples of incorporating text in painting in Western contemporary art, such as the abstract paintings by Franz Kline in the 50s and 60s which were influenced by Japanese calligraphy; the earlier work of minimalist artist Brice Marden (Fig.4) was influenced by the clean, simple outlines of Chinese Ming dynasty furniture, and in the late 80s to early 90s, he was fascinated by Asian calligraphy and glyphs. The “blackboard” paintings by Cy Twombly from the years between 1966 and 1971 consisted of repetitive circular lines set against a greyish black backdrop, resulting in a dynamic sense of modernity that allows the consciousness to wonder under a controlled state of disorder. Water Music was executed almost a decade earlier before incorporating scripts in art caught on in the West, with Zao a trailblazer amongst his Western art counterparts. The combination of pictographic characters and lyrical abstract expressionism has made this an important artwork from this particular transitional period in the artist's career. Culturally, great Western artists incorporated texts in paintings as a pursuit of form and also a way of integrating philosophical context in their work. Their efforts unfolded into a developmental axis extended from Western art's critiques on the figurative and the redefinition of what is art and what is non-art. Comparatively speaking, Zao stood on the peaks of both Eastern and Western cultures, and incorporated his in-depth understanding of different cultures in his paintings. He paid special attention to the Chinese heritage of combining calligraphy with painting, and transformed something regional into a global phenomenon. This defines Zao's unique position and significance in both Eastern and Western art history. Pure abstraction was originally non-existent in Asian art, only abstraction of the mind and spirit was observed; however, Zao was able to give this kind of metaphysical abstraction a form, allowing the inner grand mindscape to be expressed.


Zao Wou-Ki's Water Music makes an allusion to George Frideric Handel 's Water Music through its title. The music composition was commissioned by King George I in 1717 for a festive event held on the River Thames. The enthusiastic melody was intended to proclaim the royal position, and that the prince, who was only capable of throwing lavish parties, should back down and wait. The brownish-yellow tones employed by Zao in the painting calls to mind the extensive use of brass instruments in the performance piece, especially evoking the warm musical tones of the French horn, played with an overpowering momentum in open air over a river. Green and white emerge in between the thinly layered bronze colours, reminiscent of clear yet deep and graceful sounds of the oboe, bassoon and strings in the melody.

Using the Western medium of oil paint, Zao reinterprets Laozi's teaching in the Chinese classic text Tao Te Ching and elevated his art to the highest state of empty void: “Great Music has faint sound; a great symbol has no form.” Water Music is a continuation and extension of Eastern artistic traditions, which reveals his unique starting point from other Western abstract artists, and in essence, shows his observation of ancient Chinese literati values. This work chronicles the artistic achievement during Zao's oracle bone period, and acts as a precursor for his later success with abstract paintings.


Water Music also treats light sources with ingenuity, and is reminiscent of J. M. W. Turner's depiction (Fig. 5) that breaks away from the figurative and paves the way for abstraction by using elements of light, air, vapours, and dispersing mists to create an ambiance of airiness. With dramatic colours and grand, powerful brushwork, Turner was able to bring together landscape painting and historical painting and transcended them. Zao, on the other hand, incorporated abstract light sources in Water Music, with the rays of light subtly moving and flowing. Along with the depiction of water, Zao's profound understanding for the unison of the elusive and the tangible seen in traditional Chinese paintings is showcased. Zao once expressed that, “There are many empty spaces in my paintings, but wash effects are not as easily created with oil compared with ink and water, which is why I pay more attention on the empty areas than the tangible aspects. The rhythm composed with elusiveness and tangibility in Chinese paintings is something that greatly inspires me.” He then further articulated that, “Colours do not exist, only reverberations exist.” From the perspective of traditional Chinese aestheticism, Mi Fu and his son Mi Youren of the Southern Song dynasty (Fig. 6) created interesting ink scrolls by crisscrossing the elusive and the tangible, resulting in obscure, misty images of poetic, lyrical qualities. This aesthetical approach of combining expressionism with poetry, calligraphy, and painting is fully demonstrated in Zao's art. Zao's close friend and art critic, Chinese-French member of the Académie française François Cheng, puts it, “(Zao Wou-Ki's paintings) have a cosmic dimension… it is through these forms that the artist shows a meeting… between him, a transformed version of nature, and his interior universe, between the works and the spectator.” Water Music places Zao Wou-Ki's inner emotions for nature on a canvas in an abstract way, and if appreciated wholeheartedly, a symphony, an epic saga, a visual feast can be experienced.

More from The Pioneers

View All
View All