Chao Chung-hsiang’s Racing II, 1990.

HONG KONG - When looking at the work of Chao Chung-hsiang, I am always mesmerised by the power and freedom he demonstrated with his brushstrokes – the flashing circles and drippings of florescent paint on the most traditional of Chinese mediums: ink and paper. Not only is it a visual exhilaration, his work also conceals and embodies human sentiments. Chao pushed the boundaries and brought together the quintessential philosophies and techniques of both Chinese and Western cultures. 

Originating from Henan, China, Chao began studying painting under his father at the age of ten, and graduated from the National Institute of Art, Hangzhou, in 1939 under the tutelage of modern masters Lin Fengmian and Pan Tianshou. Other Chinese contemporary masters Zao Wou-ki, Chu Tah-chun and Wu Guanzhong were also students of Lin Fengmian. 

Chao moved to Taiwan in 1948 and served as associate professor at the National Normal University and College of Politics and Combat in Taipei until 1955, when he received a scholarship from the Spanish Government and relocated to Madrid. The artist settled in New York in 1958 where he lived a lonely and solitary life. In 1989, he returned to the motherland, mostly active in Chengdu and Hong Kong, in pursuit of his roots again. The artist passed away in Taiwan in 1991.

Chao Chung-hsiang’s Springtime for the Birds, 1984.

Having found stimuli and nourishment for his art in the West, Chao created his unique and groundbreaking technique in which he superimposed fluorescent concentric circles and lines in the modern medium of acrylic paints on the Chinese traditional medium of ink. These colourful circles and drippings were often compared with motifs of other modern American Abstract Expressionists, such as Franz Kline, Sam Francis and Jackson Pollock. He became friends with Kline and Francis, both of whom he met shortly after arriving in New York. Having strong ties with Europe, the influence of continental European art, such as Picasso's cubism, Braque's collages, Matisse's sketches and Ernst’s Dadaist floating motifs, were also reflected in his works. 

Having spent half of his life overseas, Chao’s nostalgia for his family and motherland was embodied in and expressed throughout his work, especially from the 1970s onwards. With his free brushstrokes he rendered his recurring themes of traditional Chinese motifs such as birds and fish, lotus and bamboo and the blazing sun. Through these philosophical symbols, the artist expressed his nostalgia for his family and motherland and his humanistic view of life. His work also communicates the solitude and hardship he experienced as an overseas Chinese artist during that time. 

Chao Chung-hsiang’s Five Blessings II, circa 1973.

Chao has devoted his entire life to art and his aspiration was to place contemporary Chinese painting in the mainstream on the international platform so as to prove that good art should not be bound by nationalities. In the recent decade, Chinese contemporary art has achieved immense attention on the global art scenes and ink art has become increasingly appreciated. Chao had evidently played a significant role and planted a seed in the foundation of the development of Chinese contemporary art.

To celebrate the artistic contributions of this master, Sotheby’s will present a retrospective of 20 works in the selling exhibition The Odyssey of a Master: Chao Chung-hsiang and a series of opening events including a lecture and a musical performance. Our honourable guest speakers, Professor Zhou Jin and Professor Pedith Chan discuss with us the art and life of Chao in a talk, The Free Spirit Journey: The Art of Chao Chung-hsiang, while contemporary music composer Steve Hui will debut his musical piece Beyond the Times as a tribute to the master. We are all very grateful for the support and participation of the art communities. We hope this selling exhibition will help heighten our understanding and appreciation of the work by this remarkable artist.