ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)


ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘ZAO’ (lower right); signed, titled, inscribed and dated ‘ZAO WOU-KI 345 x 255 29.Sept.64. 254 x 344’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
230 x 345 cm. (90 1⁄2 x 135 7⁄8 in.)
Painted in 1964
Private collection, France (acquired directly from the artist by the previous owner in 1969, and thence by descent to the previous owner)
Christie’s Hong Kong, Contemporaries: Voices from East and West / Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale), 27 May 2017, lot 4
Acquired from the above by the present owner

This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki on 13 June 2017.
This work is 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).
Folkwang Museum, Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., Essen (listed, no. 62).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Documentation by Francoise Marquet , Hier et Demain Editions, Paris and Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, 1978 (illustrated in black & white, plate 116, p. 166).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 1979 (illustrated, plate 116, p. 166).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-ki, Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris, France and Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, 1986 (illustrated, plate 116, p. 166).
Bernard Noel, Zao Wou-Ki Grands formats - Au Bord Du Visible, Cercle d'Art, Paris, 2000 (illustrated, plate 15).
Jose Freches, Zao Wou-Ki: Works, Writings, Interviews, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, 2007 (illustrated in detail in black and white, p. 8).
Dominique de Villepin, Zao Wou-Ki. Oeuvres 1935 - 2008, Editions Flammarion, Paris, 2009 (illustrated, pp. 156-157).
Dominique de Villepin, Zao Wou-Ki. Works 1935-2008, Kwai Fung Art Publishing House, Hong Kong, 2010 (illustrated, pp. 156-157).
Dominique de Villepin, Zao Wou-Ki. Oeuvres 1935 - 2010, Editions Flammarion, Paris, 2012 and 2017 (illustrated, pp. 156-157).
Essen, Folkwang Museum, Zao Wou-Ki, 1965.
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Lot Essay

Surpassing Time and Cultures: The Art of Zao Wou-Ki

The greatest works of art invite us to delve into such deep and expansive realms that, as the tides of history pass, these masterpieces come to be recognized as transcending geographical limits and embodying a broader, richer cultural essence. Brilliant and lyrical with emotion resonance and divers meanings, these works impart new life and draw us into philosophical reflections about human life, history and the universe. Few works can radiate this highest level of creative achievement more than the 1960s Zao Wou-Ki's masterpieces.

29.09.64. is a masterful example of a Zao Wou-Ki painting from the intense period on both artistic and personal levels. Dominated by all shades of blue, from deep dark night blue to warm turquoise, the painting offers a dramatic battle of large dark brushstrokes structuring the composition together with splashes of brilliant white fighting an underneath rusty orange in the middle. Large ink-like washes of oil around the edges give place to a detailed intricate network of small lines acting as the turmoil of the universe. The vehement composition is a projection of the artist's inner emotional agitation, the action of painting occurring as a salutary relief of the enclosed energy, as the artist testifies in his Self-Portrait. Zao then takes the viewer into a timeless imaginative and highly-spiritual realm above our earthly reality only accessible through the vector of abstraction and the mastery of inner forces.

The Chinese-born French academician and writer Francois Cheng wrote of Zao Wou-Ki’s achievement, "The period of stagnation in Chinese painting, which has lasted for more than a century, is drawing to an end. The long-awaited, genuine symbiosis of Chinese and Western art has now appeared for the first time."

Zao Wou-Ki's artistic achievements lay not only in his style, his unique addition of Eastern aesthetic elements to the development of Western abstract art; they also involve the interpretation, through his art, of deep insights and creativity found in Chinese philosophy. His journey, exploring the union of Eastern and Western aesthetics, not only produced one of the finest chapters of world art history; it was, for the artist himself, a fulfilling opportunity to transcend time and space as he returned to his own inner origins.

Pilgrimage of Expression: A March Through the Spirit and Philosophy of East, West and Past, Present

As modernism began to thrive in the early 20th century, new ideas began to replace the old understanding, in the Western world, of how to present what the eye sees in nature. Artists in Europe and America explored new inner truths that lay just beyond direct representation and figuration, and invented a myriad of new vocabularies for the task. They transcended the constraints of realistic appearances to pursue instead a pure and independent spirit of free creation.

Zao's first educative period runs until the mid-1950s, where the then young Beijing-born and Shanghairaised artist who studied oil painting at the Hangzhou academy masters the figurative modernist style, positioning himself in the Paris trends of the time. The first French phase from 1948 to 1954 translates a relentless obstinacy to understand the Western latest thinking of representation where figurative painters start to loosen the ties of strict rendering and seek a more emotional philosophical interpretation of reality. Zao fuels his art with references to Cézanne, Klee, Matisse and Goya whose paintings he studies for hours at the Louvres Museum in Paris. As often when one investigates unknown foreign territories one feels the need to go back to its origins.

The more deeply Zao explored Western art, the more he was impelled towards a new recognition of expressive values of traditional Chinese landscapes and their deep concepts. While investing the very contemporary realm of abstraction, the Oracle-Bone series, dating from 1955 towards the end of the decade, testifies of a return to the artist's Chinese culture with a direct reference to the most ancient roots of China; a first, literal still, step towards reconciling the Eastern and Western traditions, artistic explorations and cultures.

The year 1960 opens up to the first decade of artistic maturity, after a forward movement into Western modern art in the early 1950s and a backward movement to his Chinese heritage in the closing years of the decade, the artist then finds the right distance between China and France. He seeks to purify his paintings of any narrative element to capture the sole feeling of wind, smell of a season or memory of a far mountain and lay only its impression onto the canvas. He starts exploring nature and the universe in an ambitious painting apprehending its unique essence. While materializing a new form of abstraction and pushing to its extreme the emotional interpretation of reality, Zao positions himself in a revolutionary style as the heir of a long Chinese tradition of literati painting stemming its inspiration from nature and of the European Impressionists who had triggered the movement of subjective painting in the West.

The 1960s crystallized a very turbulent time with at once highly euphoric joys and phases of difficulty, a series of contrary emotions as indispensable components to nurture his painterly practice, along with a new artistic technical maturity and recent material ease. As Zao would describe the decade: ' I spent ten years at full speed, like driving a fast car ' (Zao Wou- Ki & Françoise Marquet, Self-Portrait, Editions Fayard, Paris, 1988, p. 142). The 1960s witness the birth of Zao as he bears no comparison to any of his predecessors finally freed from the recurrent reference to Paul Klee. The compositions of the decade typically transpire of a sense of speed, dramatically staged.

While Western abstract art tends to focus on specific ideas regarding colour or shape, everything in Zao Wou-Ki's painting is sublimated into the rich and multi-layered extensions of his artistic conception — in his compositions, we find majestic landscapes; in his lines, a full expression of calligraphic rhythm and grace; and in his spaces, the construction of poetic realms. Abstract painting having already developed for a century, Zao Wou-Ki injected the entire world of the Chinese humanistic spirit into it, including both the freedom and the restraint of its millennia-old tradition of landscape painting. As he powerfully integrated the best aspects of both Eastern and Western aesthetics, his uniquely significant work established an important milestone in the history of art.

A World of Free Flowing Brushwork

29.09.64. perfectly reflects the essence of Zao Wou-Ki's matchless, highly innovative abstract painting during the last century, which integrated classical Eastern painting and calligraphy with Western abstraction. Its style fuses aspects of both ancient and modern aesthetics, and brings together the humanistic thought of both the Eastern and Western regions. The viewer experiences the depth and profundity of the artist's creative world, and gains insight into his philosophical attitudes toward life, history, natural landscapes, and the universe, and how he presents them within his poetic visual forms. 29.09.64. is a work that could be called the most representative abstract painting in modern Asian art.

Freehand Brushwork: Calligraphic Lines and The Harmonious Rhythms of Landscape

29.09.64.’s surging, criss-crossing black lines, some heavy and dense, others slender and graceful, bring together the sophisticated layers and expansive splash of oil in this exuberant work. Zao's handling of the brush reveals signs of strong pressure that flattens the brush against the painting's surface. In each turn of the brush, in the uptake, continuation, turning, and completion of each stroke, Zao reveals the solid calligraphy skills he began acquiring in childhood. The profusion of powerful, energetic lines in inky black, running both vertically and horizontally across the pictorial space, guides the viewer’s eye through a composition whose visual focus runs along several different axes. The result is a work that from a modern perspective, in the medium of oil, recreates anew the vast and majestic space of Song Dynasty landscapes. With each assured brushstroke, Zao builds up forms and spaces that blend and converge, floating in an ambience where they seem on the verge of disappearing at any moment— not unlike Zhao Fu’s Ten Thousand Li of the Yangtze Rive, whose rocks and mountains rise proudly in the midst of vast and hazy spaces.

Limited Colours, Unlimited Vistas

In the 1960s, Zao Wou-Ki liberated himself further in his art-making. As he said, "It's not necessary to depict objects and symbols in the space in a painting, or impose any limits on symbols and colours like I did in the past. The different colour combinations also lead me to the question of spatial depth." He preferred using a small range of colours, while employing different approaches to executing colours of the same colour scheme. With versatile brushwork, he merged the colours into a rich, vibrant spatial structure, illuminating the texture of space with the perfect balance of colours. It calls to mind the tremendous swirl of energy that filled the dawning of the universe. This momentum is a force of nature, as it embodies Zao's use of abstraction to transform the universe and nature, the momentum of life, and the passage of time into a highly abstract and philosophical space.

Journey of Abstraction: The Spark of Abstract Expressionism

Amidst the post-World War II chaos in Europe, a growing number of artists sought to break free from the Formalist ideology that dominated the pre-war years, and expand the frontiers of avant-garde art with a humanistic approach. French art critic Michel Tapie made many visits to the US and Japan in a quest to promote international artistic exchange. He called this movement "un artautre" and noted that abstract art, with its focus on nongeometrical forms, was a mode of self-discovery and a channel for artists to express their intuitive understanding of the real world. Zao quickly immersed himself in this art trend, as he overcame the language barrier shortly after his arrival in Paris. In Paris, Zao Wou-Ki met and became close friends with Pierre Soulages, Alfred Manessier, Hans Hartung and Georges Mathieu.

The Struggle with the Canvas: An Infinite Universe Between Form and Power

Unlike the American Abstract Expressionists who borrowed from the rhythm of Eastern graphology, or the artists of Action Painting who emphasized the traces of movement, Zao Wou-Ki pursued a profound and transcendent realm. Employing calligraphy as his medium of his creative act, the artist captured the dynamic of the brush, the pulsations of imagination and the painter's feelings in a cyclic flow. Apart from thick and rigorous lines, the artist added extremely fine, wild and shifting lines in the composition, which enriches the ever-changing brushwork and the rhythm of the washes between different colours. It propels the more complex colour brushstrokes in the depth of the composition structure to clash and echo one another, conveying an incredible sense of visual tension. With marvellous intensity, the paintings evoke the boundless perception that fills and flows through the Chaos. Between serenity and intensity in Zao's brushwork, the paintings are perfect manifestations of the ancient Chinese concept of "the spirit flows before the brushstroke in the unison of the self and the world."

Monumental Masterpiece: One of the Largest 1960s Zao Wou-Ki oils

29.09.64. remains, together with Hommage à Edgar Varèse 15.10.64, the largest known Zao Wou-Ki canvas from the 1960s, and is the most important Zao Wou-Ki work from that decade remaining in private hands today. 29.09.64. was painted the same year as Hommage à Edgar Varèse 15.10.64, an iconic work dedicated to the French-born composer; it was donated by the artist's widow, Françoise Marquet, to the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland. Originally, 29.09.64. measured 255 x 345 cm, the same as his Hommage à Edgar Varèse 15.10.64. It was specially commissioned from Zao Wou-Ki by the former collector's father, who hoped for a imposing, powerful work that would resonate within clean, modern architectural spaces.

Later, in the 1970s, the collector moved to a new house in Paris, but the painting's dimensions did not fit with that interior. After consulting with the artist, it was sent back to Zao Wou-Ki's studio for revision. The artist personally cut 25cm from its lower edge, and rearranged the painting and its composition. It was hoped that by reworking the painting for this more compact space, it would emerge in its new setting as a new kind of image. The artist then placed a new signature in the lower right, and when it was returned, the architect was overjoyed. Both parties had gotten exactly what they wanted!

Zao Wou-Ki always strove to further refine his paintings. The existing records show how in the 1960s, and on into the '70s and 80s, he continued to re-examine his works. In the 1960s, he added new elements to his works from the late 1950s, continuing to innovate and combine the styles of the two periods, generating new ideas in his search for perfection. Often, after several years or even a decade, he would make improvements or further perfect a work, challenging himself in every way to break free from his own previous stereotypes. He refused to stick to his own original sense of form as he constantly sought the ideal.

29.09.64. is also one of Zao Wou-Ki's earliest experiments with working on a large-scale canvas. After successive trips to New York, where he came to appreciate the American Abstract Expressionists, and with the support of his dealer Samuel Kootz, he began working with larger formats; this gave him greater freedom of movement and produced a strong underlying tension as he confronted the canvas. 29.09.64. possesses a powerful, infectious appeal that seizes the viewer immediately with its grand dimensions and the kind of distinctive, dramatic composition characteristic of Zao during the 1960s. While he did continue to experiment with larger formats, his later compositions, often in a more placid and tranquil vein, have little of the powerful drama and tension seen here. Art historian Jean Leymarie noted that Zao Wou-Ki "feels more naturally at ease with the freshness of movement and the freedom of improvisation on large surfaces" (Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris 1986, p. 38). The artist himself explained that "Painting is a battle between myself and the canvas, a physical battle. Especially on large canvases, which allow more physical movement, I can truly project myself into the painting." 29.09.64. represents a stormy disruption within a complex and yet always beautiful universe, a perfect example of the art produced through Zao's bodily struggles with the canvas. In these large-scale works, the artist became one with his creations in a manner reflecting the Taoist ideal, of man and nature in perfect harmony.

Exceptional Provenance: The Friendship between the Previous Owner's Father, Mr. M, and Zao Wou-Ki

Mr. M, father of the painting's former owner, commissioned this work directly from Zao Wou-Ki. An outstanding French architectural engineer, he participated after the war in various national projects, which led to a flourishing career and reputation. During the years between 1945 and 1975, known as France's "Glorious Thirty Years," modernization and industrialization rapidly changed the face of its society. Mr. M built hospitals, scientific research centres, and administrative buildings throughout France and its colony of Algeria. He made important contributions to technological development and scientific research, while also promoting new, modern aesthetics in architecture, art and design. In the process, he developed a fine, discriminating eye for art and form. Mr. M's collection also included works by the French painter Frédéric Benrath, where one can see certain similarities with Zao's approach to abstraction in his treatment of landscapes and their fluid movement. Mr M. had gathered a highly consistent collection of abstract paintings, all exhibiting a close spiritual connection with natural forms, in which this monumental Zao Wou-Ki painting stood out as its finest gem.

Architecture and Space: Changing Perspectives

Zao Wou-Ki took note of the architecture in European cities when he first arrived on the continent, and he believed that "viewing urban architecture helps me think about the handling of space in my paintings." His interest in architecture deepened after becoming acquainted with I.M. Pei and his wife. He enjoyed working with architects, and he and Pei cooperated in planning three different spaces together. The result was that Zao produced two ink paintings for the Fragrant Hills Hotel, a triptych for the Raffles City complex in Singapore, and six prints for the new Suzhou Museum.

The unconventional spatial treatment seen everywhere in these works strongly suggests that he took his cues from their architectural dimensions, and the works achieve greater impact through his novel experiments with the presentation of space. At the same time, he was reflecting on the theories of space in classical Chinese painting. In contrast to the single point perspective used in Western paintings since the Renaissance, multipoint perspective was often employed in traditional Chinese paintings. There is no single, static focal point, but one that varies with the shifts in the artist's gaze, and paintings would integrate multiple perspectives from low, horizontal and high vantage points. This kind of perspective often led to multiple vanishing points as the artist attempted to project depth, and naturally reflected multiple viewing angles as well; the results achieved an effect in which multiple layers of space are superimposed. Zao introduced this ancient concept of perspective into his compositions in order to reorganize space, which produced endless new possibilities for the rendering of space. He once noted, "I seek freedom in spatial relationships. My perspective is similar to the dynamic, multi-point perspective seen in classical Chinese paintings." And, as Zong Bing (375-444), an artist from the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties period wrote in his "Preface to Landscape Painting": "In just a few ink strokes in a painting a several feet wide, one can sense distances of hundreds of miles."

By capturing the harmonious movements of ' Qi ', the source of life and the universe, Zao Wou-Ki forged a pioneering style and achieved an expressive depths that stands in marked contrast to many other abstract artists of his time.

Over the course of Zao Wou-Ki's lifetime, he continually sought to surpass himself and achieve new breakthroughs in his work, refusing to be satisfied with achievements of the past. His early work was largely figurative; however, upon moving to Paris in 1948, Zao Wou-Ki began to immerse himself entirely in the pursuit of abstraction. Whether working in oils or with ink on paper, Zao's stylistic evolution traces his creative journey between East and West, a journey that began the moment he stepped aboard a ship bound for Paris.

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