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Zao Wou-Ki (1921 – 2013), 26.12.2001. Estimation: 1,500,0002,000,000 HKD. Photo Sotheby’s.

This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Foundation Zao Wou-ki. signed in Pinyin and Chinese; signed and titled on the reverse. Executed in 2001. oil on canvas; 59.8 x 73 cm., 23 1/2  x 28 3/4  in.

Notes: In Zao Wou-ki’s definitive 26.12.2001, the elegant and subtle colours, rhythmic composition and warm spirituality inspired by ancient Chinese ink paintings fuse nature and abstraction into infinite depth of contemplation, propelling the artist to a new pinnacle late in his career. The early 2000s saw the artist’s visit to China accompanying then French President Jacque Chirac, his induction to the prestigious Académie des Beaux Arts society, and the bestowing of the Legion of Honour upon him… The present lot, painted at the onset of that lustrous decade by the 80-year-old Zao, is a resounding manifestation of the peak of his artistic achievement and a powerful rebuttal to certain prejudice that an artist’s late career output is a mere re-iteration of an earlier one.

By the end of 1957, having lived in Paris for a decade, Zao Wou-ki committed to abstraction in his art in ways which had from the beginning set him apart from his contemporaries – Vieira Da Silva, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu, Jean-Paul Riopelle. He bore the burdens of two cultural heritages and his search for an artistic identity would always be accompanied by the thrills and anxieties in his quest for a cultural identity. The artist’s conciliation of the language of modern Western abstraction and a Chinese sensibility rooted in his memories of the distant past – an overwhelming consensus on Zao’s achievement to the point of becoming a myth – was therefore not born instantly or without a struggle. The process began with Zao’s determined renunciation of the ‘chinoiserie’ label, and the passionate outpouring of gestural abstraction and intensely atmospheric works throughout his early career. Paradoxically, befriending and exhibiting alongside the Parisian circle of artists rekindled a light into Zao’s memory of his cultural past. As the artist said in 1961, “If the influence of Paris is undeniable in the whole of my artistic development, I must also say that I have been rediscovering China as my personality has become consolidated… Paradoxically, it is to Paris that I owe my return to my deepest roots.” (Zao Wou-ki, cited by Martine Contensou, ‘Life Into Work’, in Zao Wou-ki, Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1989, p.24)


Casper David Friedrich, Morning Mist in the Mountains, 1808.

The 1970s then marked Zao’s return to Chinese ink paintings, which in turn imbued his canvasses with renewed freedom. The artist started blending in copious amount of turpentine oil in order to form layering the sprinkling effects previously only achievable in the ink wash medium.  The technical innovation allowed the artist to achieve lighter, softer brushworks and subtler colours such as the ones shown in the present lot. Against a crepuscular sky, shrouded in misty, peachy clouds, a mountain-scape seems to burst forth and recede back at the same time. Swaths of slate gray gently envelope the rocky peak while blotches of dark olive green jostle vibrantly for attention, not unlike the unyielding Alpine spruces in the face of icy winds.


Dong Yuan, Residents on the Outskirts of Dragon Abode, 10th century, National Palace Museum, Taiwan

Bidding farewell to the clashing contrasts in many of his earlier works, Zao increasingly steered towards subdued colours and balanced compositions imbued with the warm spirituality often found in ancient Chinese landscape paintings.  In the present work, the imposing central composition echoes the monumental mountains in Northern Song paintings, through which recluse painters at the time sought solace and moral guidance from nature. Yet – this is where Zao’s genius conciliation of the East and West lies – the texturing techniques (rubbing, blotching, staining) inspired by ink paintings, combined with the minutely varied colours in oil, generate a spatial depth in constant flux, endowing the painting with a sense of infinite extension, both into the picture plane and beyond the frame.  The volcanic outburst of the olive green at the mountaintop is one such sign of a landscape escaping into abstraction, of substance turning into void, of the tangible longing for the intangible. It conveys at once the Taoist idea of vital energies and Romantic contemplation of nature. It is then apt to draw a comparison between our present work and Morning Mist in the Mountains (1808) by Casper David Friedrich. At the onset of their respective centuries, both artists succeeded in re-generating their vision of nature to the brink of becoming something else: one drew inspiration from a devotion to religion, the other from an ancient tradition deep in the artist’s mind. Indeed, in the eyes of art historian Jonathan Hay, Zao’s return to his roots produced the best of his oeuvre, “out of this shift came a decade of work that attains a state of grace: a quality of gesture that is stripped of all hurriedness and creates a more powerful “bone-structure”, a luminosity extending from infinite softness to enveloping darkness, a topography of form that opens itself to stillness and silence.” (“Zao Wou-ki, Lately’, in Zao Wou-ki Recent Works, Marlborough Gallery, New York, 2003, p.6)  Zao’s contribution to art history extends beyond just abstraction. The ultimate reward of seeing his art lies precisely in the delicate, emotive and unrelenting confrontation with the inbetweenness of his dual cultural heritage, of nature and abstraction, of art and life.


Zao Wou-Ki (1921 – 2013), 26.12.2001 (detail). Estimation: 1,500,0002,000,000 HKD. Photo Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s. Boundless: Contemporary Art. Hong Kong | 20 janv. 2015, 06:30 PM