This work will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Foundation Zao Wou-Ki).
Sotheby’s is proud to offer a series of outstanding works by Chinese modern master Zao Wou-ki from various periods between 1950 and 1995 in its Beijing Spring Sale. The five oil paintings and two watercolours offered in this auction are all of reliable provenance and originate from one of Asia’s most important collectors. Combined, they fully embody the artist’s stunning artistic expression by period, his merging of East and West, and his outstandingly creative aesthetic accomplishments. One of the celebrated favourites is undoubtedly Sous Bois Dans La Nuit (Lot 4), completed in 1955 at the peak of Zao’s artistic maturity, and considered a classic representation of the artist’s Oracle Bone Period. Formerly displayed at Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art in Kansas, the piece passed between several collectors before it was acquired by the current owner. The work has been treasured over the past sixty years, finally to appear on the market in this auction, marking a rare and precious opportunity to acquire an exceptional work that is completely fresh to the market.
The Realm of the Infinite, Overflowing Mysticism
Sous Bois Dans La Nuit is rich with connotation. Upon the indigo canvas, a mysterious halo of light shines down from above, spreading softly with a moonlit vitality, igniting the serene, secluded forest at night. Simultaneously, ancient Chinese language symbols formed by dark black lines seemingly metamorphose into spirits, leaping, running in the forest, exchanging whispers, and pulling each other into play and adventure, infusing the artwork with boundless animation. As former Prime Minister of France, Dominique de Villepin, once said, “in Zao Wou-ki’s artworks live symbols, torn from their skins and from their flesh… Here, the symbols reveal the traces and imprints of the world’s far-reaching roots, communicating an understanding of the world. In China, symbols are the creator’s footsteps, marking a path towards the universe.” The current work is rich in symbolism, and its portrayed environment evoke the careful viewer’s limitless imagination. The contrast created at the piece’s centre with the perfect addition of red, similar to flashes from a campfire, adds further mysticism. Through this piece, what we perceive is the artist’s rich imaginary world as he opens-up a view of the universe right for our eyes.
The most outstanding works from Zao’s Oracle Bone Period have been widely collected by various important international art museums, including the Guggenheim in New York City, which holds Mistral and the National Gallery of Canada in Quebec, which holds Hommage à Qu Yuan (Homage to Qu Yuan). Zao’s paintings have also become objects of desire fro major collectors, such as Abstraction, 1958 which sold after vigorous competition at Sotheby’s Beijing for RMB 89.68 million, setting the record for the highest price achieved for an artwork by the artist. The offering of Sous Bois Dans La Nuit in this auction is expection to generate similar interest.
Emerging from the Collection of Pierre Matisse
After moving to Paris in 1958, Zao befriended a group of local artists, including poet Henri Michaux, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso, with whom he became lifelong friends. Between 1960 and 1980, Zao’s reputation and achievements reached their zenith, his works were exhibited at various leading galleries and museums, including the famed New York gallery of Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse. Since his youth, the younger Matisse possessed a strong interest and passion in the art market, and later became known for his sharp and keen eye. In 1931, he opened his own gallery in the Fuller Building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where he developed a successful career, to the extent that by 1989 when he passed away, he was one of the most influential people in the art world. Over his career, he held several avant-garde contemporary art exhibitions, featuring many of the most accomplished artists in the West, such as Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Jean Dubuffet, and Alberto Giacometti. In 1979, when Matisse visited Zao’s studio in Paris, he immediately fell in love with the work of the artist. He immediately arranged to hold a large scale solo exhibition for Zao the following year in New York. Another of the highly-anticipated pieces currently on offer, 31.10.79 (Lot 25), was exhibited in the 1980 show at Matisse’s gallery in New York and came from Pierre Matisse’s personal collection.
Peace and Equanimity
Celebrating the Beauty of the World
Zao’s artistic odyssey resembles a brilliant piece of music – with rises and falls in key, pitches high and low, crisp rhythmic changes, sometimes intense, sometimes silent. If the artist’s Oracle Bone Period is considered to contain a sort of mysticism, the 1960s were a decade of the artist’s passion in its prime, and the 1970s – the later years – a decade representing a more leisurely mood of contentment. In 31.10.79, for example, through the simple and elegant application of soft colours, a magnificent landscape emerges in the top half of the canvas. Using a broad flatbrush, the artist applies black and grey to form a mountainous landscape, an emerald green hue evokes springtime, and an orange and blue interacts with and reflects each other. Under the changing light, the sense of space expands further.
In the lower half of the painting, the meticulous layers and treatment of texture create the effect of waves, the shading technique heavily reminiscent of Chinese literati landscapes and Eastern aesthetics, expressed through sophisticated abstract form and line. During Zao’s early art education in Hangzhou, he was particularly affected by the beauty of the city’s West Lake, often visiting the lake to linger, gaze, and stroll along its shores. He once said, “over the evolution of time and the changing of seasons, nature transforms again and again; the tossing of waves, the clever light, the mist in the space between sky and water all have me captured in a fascinated trance. I often sit for hours next to the lake, watching the wind ripple across the calm surface of the water, and the swaying of the birch trees…I have witnessed the expansion and twisting of space.” This painting combines Zao’s nostalgia and wistfulness for the natural beauty of his hometown with his simple, contented mood. With his confident and free brushstrokes, the canvas provides the artist’s impression of the beauty of nature.
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