Zao Wou-Ki (Chinese/French, 1921-2013) Untitled 1949

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Lot 4AR
Zao Wou-Ki
(Chinese/French, 1921-2013)

Sold for £ 542,500 (US$ 745,537) inc. premium
Zao Wou-Ki (Chinese/French, 1921-2013)

oil on board laid on panel

38.2 by 55 cm.
15 1/16 by 21 5/8 in.

This work was executed circa 1949.


  • This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of the artist currently being prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen and is accompanied by a photo-certificate of authenticity.

    Sale: Sotheby's, London, Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours and Sculpture, 3 July 1975, Lot 363
    Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    Untitled from circa 1949 offers an important glimpse of Zao Wou-Ki's emerging style in its earliest form, as the contrasting influences of Chinese tradition and European avant-garde collided in his work with dramatic results. It is a particularly rare work and has been in the same family collection since 1976. Its subject matter, a wide and bucolic landscape, may be the stuff of tradition, both Chinese and European, but its handling is startlingly novel. This is painting pared down almost to its bare bones, sparse, delicate and beautiful. Forms are portrayed in just a few fragile lines, and space presented as a vague, coloured mist. The influence of Paul Klee's landscapes is palpable, and it is clear Zao Wou-Ki employed the same poetic lens as the Swiss master in his view of the world. Pierre Daix poetically sums up Zao Wou-Ki's technique when describing the landscapes he produced at this time: "Wou-ki rediscovers that reduction, so clear in Chinese painting, of the narrative aspect of landscape which is generally present to act as a springboard into the infinity of the world" (Pierre Daix, Zao Wou-Ki: L'Oeuvre 1935-1993, Neuchâtel 1994, pp. 23-26). Although the present painting can clearly be read as a landscape, with its houses, animals and trees, this is an almost hieroglyphic rendering of a scene, evidence of Zao Wou-Ki's experimentation with visual language. It harks back to the stylised landscapes of China, but as the artist himself was to later explain, for it was his arrival in Paris which seems to have reignited the Chinese elements of his practice: a paradox perhaps, but one that, as we can see the present work, was to produce a vision like no other, a new way of looking at the world which was to have a profound impact on painting throughout the late Twentieth Century.

    The art of Zao Wou-Ki presents us with an intriguing fusion of disparate societies, drawing together two diverse traditions to create one new, unique artistic style. Whilst we now take concepts such as globalism and multiculturalism for granted, his paintings remind us of a time when such ideas were relatively unknown, even revolutionary. A true pioneer both in his life and his art, Zao Wou-Ki was undoubtedly one of the figures who helped us to understand the true potential of art by undermining its very foundations. Never afraid of breaking boundaries or challenging norms, he was a visionary who has inspired and influenced many of the greatest artists of the modern age. As a result, his work is admired and collected around the globe, appealing to audiences of varying cultures, tastes and backgrounds. Crucially, his is an art which is both reassuringly familiar and unexpectedly daring.

    Born in Beijing, China in 1921, Zao Wou-Ki's upbringing was one of wealth, learning and sophistication. He began training in the art of calligraphy while aged only fourteen, and between 1935 and 1941 he studied at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Art in Hangzhou, afterwards becoming a teacher at the same institution. It was here that he became aware, largely through reproductions in books and magazines, of recent avant-garde artistic developments in Europe. Over the years, Zao Wou-Ki developed an extensive knowledge of Chinese traditional techniques, including landscape painting using ink and brush, and learned much about the philosophical approaches inherent in Chinese art. Unusually for a Chinese artist at this date, he also began experimenting with canvases, producing a series of figurative works which displayed the clear influence of European aesthetics. Inspired by reports of innovation emanating from the West, Zao Wou-Ki was ready for new challenges. By 1948 he was on his way to Europe, leaving China and heading for a new life in Paris.

    Following a journey that lasted several weeks, including thirty six days at sea, Zao Wou-Ki spent his first afternoon in the French capital exploring the galleries of the Louvre. Anxious to immerse himself in European life, he began French lessons, and moved into a small hotel at 51 rue du Chemin Vert. In the hotel next door lived Alberto Giacometti, and the two quickly became firm friends. Zao Wou-Ki soon found himself fraternising with a vast array of artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, Sam Francis and Hans Hartung. His own work inevitably developed in exciting new directions, influenced by the challenging and provocative styles of his new circle; indeed, the influence that Giacometti was to have on Zao Wou-Ki can be witnessed in the skeletal animal figures present in this work. Harnessing his Chinese heritage, and embracing an increasingly avant-garde approach, Zao Wou-Ki began the long artistic journey which was to end in international acclaim as one of the most important painters of his generation.
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