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Neige Danse (Swirling Snow)

Neige Danse (Swirling Snow)
signed in Chinese, signed and dated ‘ZAO 55’ (lower right); signed, titled and dated ‘ZAO WOU-KI neige danse 1955’ (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
73 x 60 cm. (28 3/4 x 23 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1955
Galerie Pierre Loeb, Paris, France
Acquired from the above by the previous owner
Private Collection, Germany
Acquired from the above by the present owner
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki.
This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonne prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki).
Yves Bonnefoy & Gérard de Cortanze, Zao Wou-Ki, La Différence,Galerie Enrico Navarra ,Paris, France, 1998 (illustrated, p. 96).
Patrick-Gilles Persin, Michel Ragon & Pierre Descargues, L’envolée lyrique, Paris 1945-1956 (exh. cat), Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, France, 2006 (illustrated, plate 98, p. 225).
Paris, France, Musée du Luxembourg, L’envolée lyrique, Paris 1945-1956, 2006.

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Lot Essay

"My painting became illegible. Still lives and flowers did not exist anymore. I aim to create an imaginary and indecipherable writing."
Zao Wou-Ki cited in Zao Wou-Ki, exhibition catalogue, Fondation Gianadda, Martigny, Switzerland, 2015, p. 163


1954 marks the beginning of the period when Zao starts to consciously insert core elements of Chinese culture into his works, while bringing into play his own knowledge of Chinese painting. The oracle bone series show Zao’s first direct integration of calligraphy into his paintings with symbols evocative of the earliest known form of Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty called oracle bones script on ox bones and turtle plastrons (Fig 1). This old practice of engraving characters on the animal material had the religious purpose to ask deities questions relating to the weather and fortune. Therefore, Zao takes up the spiritual component in relation to natural elements, which was already embedded in this tradition, while returning to the origins of scripture. The years 1954-1955 constitute the breakthrough of his artistic career when Zao finds the way to merge Eastern and Western cultures into abstraction in what he describes as "imaginary and indecipherable writing ", a universal language, beyond the boundaries of civilisations. Although Zao has deconstructed the Chinese characters into disorderly lines, they retain the essential nature and form of calligraphy. His strong knowledge of Chinese calligraphy, which he learned with his grandfather when he was a child, nurtures the artist’s reflection on abstraction, at a time when, similarly, major Western artists aim for alternative expressions to fuel their abstract practice by investigating Eastern calligraphy. Alain Jouffroy writes in Arts in 1955, the year Neige Danse (Swirling Snow) (Lot 4) was completed: "Zao Wou-Ki’s painting demonstrates how the Chinese vision of the Universe, where the blurry and distance express the spirit of contemplation rather than the contemplated object, became a universal modern vision. Painters so different as Paul Klee, Mark Tobey or Henri Michaux relate to the same vision. " (in Zao Wou- Ki, exhibition catalogue, Fondation Gianadda, Martigny, Switzerland, 2015, p. 163). As Jouffroy had identified, a group of Western artists, both in New York (Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline) and in Paris (Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu) looked into Chinese calligraphy art and the splashing of ink and paint. With a strong interest in abstract beauty, ambiguity, and mystery in calligraphy and abstract pictographs, they merged the Eastern spirit, as they viewed it, with the dynamics of abstract expressionism and the spontaneity of free handwriting, reconciling into abstraction the gestural movement and the artist’s interiority inherent to calligraphy. In New Crescent (Fig 2), a beautiful example of his "white writing " series, painted in 1953, the already-established American artist Mark Tobey uses calligraphic lines and ideograms to convey the rhythms of the city, and thus activates the picture surface with dynamic and spiritual power. Neige Danse (Swirling Snow) conveys the same idea as Tobey’s; the calling of calligraphy’s spirituality to express the intangible of a landscape into a universal language. The international movement which aims to reconcile writing and painting is one of the most important developments of the 20th Century which brings together artists in America, Europe and Asia. Zao Wou-Ki holding strong ties with the three continents, has a privileged position in this movement.


Many of Zao’s works from this period illustrate his ambition to utilize abstract forms to grasp the power of Nature. This is evident in the painting’s titles referencing to natural phenomenon with an attention towards the ephemeral creation and the expression of energy. "I wanted to paint what cannot be seen, the breath of life, the wind, the movement, the life of forms, the colours’ outbreak and their fusion" (Zao Wou-Ki in Autoportrait, Fayard, Paris, 1988, p. 117). Vent (Wind ) (Fig 3) painted in 1954, one year before Neige Danse (Swirling Snow) , in the collection of Centre Georges- Pompidou in Paris is considered to be the very first abstract painting by Zao Wou-Ki. The painting, which appears in a photograph of the artist in his Parisian studio together with Neige Danse (Swirling Snow) , is a milestone in the history of abstraction, as the artist sets the notion of rendering the invisible visible in a highly subjective and sensory manner.

Neige Danse (Swirling Snow) offers the same mastery in rendering, a rare example of the origins of Zao Wou-Ki’s abstraction. Therefore, one feels the breath of the wind sweeping on the surface of the canvas (Wind) as well as the weightless and fragility of snowflakes (Neige danse) falling down on an imaginary space in a poetic vision. Whereas previous paintings show abstract signs painted over a monochromic background, Neige Danse (Swirling Snow ) is a unique example where Zao Wou-Ki masterfully incorporates the oracle-bone-script-inspired signs into a highly-modulated background with hues of pink, green, blue, ochre, orange and purple, rendering a rare depth into a silent and solemn elegance. Neige Danse (Swirling Snow) is undeniably a masterpiece from the period. as Zao expresses: "There was no boundaries between the sign and colour, and revealed to me the problem of depth by the conjunction of various shades. "(Zao Wou-Ki in Autoportrait, Fayard, Paris, 1988, p. 119).

The Catalan artist Joan Miro took a first step towards abstraction thirty years before Zao. While not completely cutting ties with the representation of reality, Miro, with the Portrait de Mme. K (Fig 4) painted in 1924, reduces the drawing to the dominance of the line, conveying the essence of the artist’s feeling for the portrayed person, a first approach flirting with abstraction, that he will further develop with the notion of the "sign" later. As he writes in a letter to Michel Leiris in 1924 , "my last canvases, I conceive them as thunders completely freed from the external world." (Joan Miro letter to Michel Leiris on 10 August 1924, Montroig). Zao Wou-Ki takes up Miro's abstraction ideology and brought it to the extreme territories of spirituality.

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