ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)
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ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)

Sans titre (Bateaux au claire de la lune) (Untitled (Ships in the Moonlight)

ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920 - 2013)
Sans titre (Bateaux au claire de la lune) (Untitled (Ships in the Moonlight)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘ZAO’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
105 x 120 cm. (41 3⁄8 x 47 1⁄4 in.)
Painted in 1952
Patti Birch Gallery, New York
Harrold B. Cohen Collection, New York
Sotheby's New York, 18 January 1980
Private Collection
Pierre Hubert Gallery, Geneva
Private Collection, Switzerland
Sotheby's London, 10 February 2005, lot 27
Private Collection, Asia
Christie's Hong Kong, 24 May 2009, lot 530
Private Collection, Europe
Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2 April 2017, lot 1003
Private collection, Asia

This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki.
P. Daix (ed.), Ides et Calendes, Zao Wou-ki, Paris, 1994 (illustrated, p.78).
Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki, exh. cat., Paris, 2003 (illustrated, p. 68).
D. de Villepin, F. marquet, Y. Hendgen (ed.), Kwai Fung Art Publishing House, Zao Wou-Ki 1935-2008, Hong Kong, 2010 (illustarted, p.87).
F. Marquet-Zao & Y. Hendgen (ed.), Flammarion, Catalogue raisonne des peintures Zao Wou-Ki Volume 1 1935-1958, Paris, France, 2019 (illustrated, plate P-0269, p. 143 & p. 295).
Minneapolis, The Walker Art Center, School of Paris, 1959
Paris, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Zao Wou-Ki, October - December 2003.

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Lot Essay

Bateaux au claire de lune is a quintessential Zao Wou-Ki work from 1952, standing at the crossroads of techniques and aesthetics from both East and West that illustrated a multitude of sails among majestic landscape showered with moonlight, depicting the grand sweep and dreamlike mood of a poem by the female Song Dynasty poet Li Qingzhao, who wrote, “Billowing clouds in the heavens meet the morning mists; the River of Stars begins to shift as a thousand sails dance.”

In the early 1950s, Zao Wou-ki travelled to Europe and reflected his impressions of various scenes on canvas, creating classic works with his rendering of famous structures. In between 1951-1953, records show no more than five large-scale works of this type from that period. Bateaux au claire de lune was shown in the “School of Paris 1959: The Internationals” exhibition held by the Walker Art Center, one of the five major modern art museums in the US, where Zao Wouki was one of only eight artists selected for the exhibition. Bateaux was one of the ten Zao Wou-ki works shown there; others include his Untitled (Golden City).

A dense shroud of colour splashed across the center of Bateaux au claire de lune sets off the sharp, thin lines of the sails, which together blend and collide in a richly poetic jostle of movement and clamour. A canopy of mist, like a wash of ink, spreads through the foreground of the work, while fine black lines set out a landscape in multiple layers. The viewer’s gaze moves across the riverbank of the foreground and across the river, sweeping across the buildings on the other side, and rising up to admire the circle of the moon in the night sky. Even as a child Zao Wou-ki had admired the landscape paintings of the Song Dynasty; Zao endeavoured to infuse the entire landscape with a tranquil, poetic feeling that transformed and materialised the tr aditional Chinese poetic imagination.

Closer scrutiny reveals how Zao Wou-ki applies layers of colour with his subtle brushwork and beautifully refined technique, weaving together different elements within the painting and pushing toward the extremes of the viewer’s visual perception: diffuse daubs of bright red open up near the boats, and the boundary between land and sea seems to have vanished. Buildings on the far shore seem to float in the distance, while the hull shapes might be at anchor or afloat in the harbour. Colours flow smoothly as pure tones coalesce or expand in ways that mirror the characteristics of ink painting. Large areas of dry-brushed pigments mix with washes of colour in other regions, while each shows variations in the tones and the layering of its colour. These colour effects suggest the behaviour of ink on paper, spreading and penetrating, with related changes in intensity or wetness and dryness; all these effects produce the mixture of illusion and reality we find in the world of this painting. Areas of bronze yellow, inky blue, and bright red interweave to produce this richly layered and intriguing composition. As the veil of evening overtakes the setting sun, daylight and night-time mingle in a grand and romantic symphony of colour.

Dominique de Villepin accurately described Zao Wou-Ki’s unique style of expression: “The landscapes painted by Zao Wou- Ki are inhabited by a holistic conception of nature. There are no clear nationalities, and mankind is never completely separate or distinguishable from nature…. Man is always present in his landscapes, but only in the manner of a pendant that might have been lost…. Zao Wou-Ki brings a very Chinese intuition of the natural human into a European tradition that has learned to isolate nature to allow for more direct and dramatic confrontations.” If the subject of Bateaux au claire de lune is a typical European landscape, it nevertheless displays Zao’s Eastern training: Small human figures become part of a grand and eternal landscape, overshadowed by the misty colours that envelope the entire scene. Years after this, Zhang Daqian would replicate this kind of technique in his splashedink landscapes.

Following a European tradition that dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries, Zao Wou-ki in 1950 set out on a “grand tour” of his own, travelling through France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands. The art, architecture, and various harbours of Europe made a lasting impression on him, inspiring him to keep a visual diary of his tour and encouraging deeper exploration into the use of line and perspective.

Bateaux au claire de lune depicts the creative universe Zao entere d following his chance encounter with the work of Paul Klee at an exhibition in Switzerland in 1951. The inspiration provided by Klee thoroughly altered Zao’s handling of space, his understanding of semiotics, and his use of colour. He ultimately became fascinated with this new artistic vocabulary, forged in the meeting of East and West. This allowed him to escape from his early 1940s style and paved the way for what is known as his “Paul Klee period” (1951- 1954). His zig-zagging, fragmented lines and his pictographic mo tifs coalesced to form an unusual vocabulary of his own, through which he attempted to break free from traditional art and discover his own interpretation of modern, abstract aesthetics. On the twodimensional surfaces of his canvases, colour collides with lines and planes and with forms and empty spaces to produce artistic expression of great depth and richness. Zao’s intention was to construct an open webwork of lines, a webwork reaching out into the fabric of space and time so as to create the universe of his own imagining.

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