HONG KONG - In 1910, Western Expressionist artist Wassily Kandinsky first introduced the concept of “abstractionism.” He investigated the basic elements of painting – colours, dots and lines – and meditated on how they could be applied upon the canvas to convey emotion and temperature. This investigation became the prologue to Western abstract painting. “Abstract” was a word inducted into Western art terminology only at the beginning of the 20th century. But to survey the development of art from a global context, it is worth noting the ubiquity, the ever-present concept of abstractionism in the history of art within the Eastern world. It was not always called “abstractionism”; instead, it was called xieyi, or “freehand and spontaneous expression” from the Song dynasty onward. As an aesthetic inclination, xieyi broadly reflects the ultimate aesthetic pursuit of Chinese culture and art. Its marrow has broadly suffused the works of artists across the generations. This season, Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art auction features the works of two of the great masters, remarkably successful in their investigation of xieyi: Zao Wou-ki and George Chann. Through their works, we experience the distinctive charm of their xieyi mastery, as well as the continuity and transformation generated by the arts as it breathes new life into ancient traditions.


Zao Wou-ki’s Deux nus (1952) will be offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April. Estimate: HK$8,000,000-12,000,000.

Zao Wou-ki completed Deux nus in 1952. This painting can be regarded as the artist’s first step from the world of realism onto xieyi, an important representation of the artist’s new conceptual exploration. In this painting, Zao has completely abandoned the techniques of three-dimensionality and the effects of light he learned from his Western art training. In the spirit of Bada Shanren’s Fish, he uses ink-black lines to create a minimalist sketch, depicting only the most basic profile and form. The women’s eyes are fixed firmly upon the viewer outside the canvas, as if consumed by thought, by words they want to say. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the two appear to be a support to each other, as though the artist is pointing to human support as a basic necessity for survival. This painting, then, in addition to highlighting the mutually supportive dynamic between the two subjects, can also be viewed as a declaration of a creative nature. The two women represent two cultural mothers: one is the China that gave birth to the artist, and the other is the Paris in which he resided. For him, these two figures were not in conflict, but rather, aided each other. Using Western oil paints, he conveyed the essence of Eastern aesthetics as well as his personal perspectives and feelings. From this starting point, the artist began striding toward a new life.


Zao Wou-ki’s Nuit-minuit (1954) will be offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April. Estimate: HK$10,000,000-16,000,000.

In 1954, Zao Wou-ki began attempting to transcend the concrete forms of his earlier years. And thus began his use of Chinese script in his paintings; he used oracle bone script, bronze inscriptions, and other metallic engravings as symbols in his paintings. Blending the script with his personal philosophy, and with relentless refinement, the artist successfully established a personally symbolic style of creation. Completed in 1955, Nuit-minuit is an important representative of the artist’s style during this era. In the rendezvous of deep black and indigo light, the scarlet red, billowing vermillion, and ink-black lines form characters, suspended upon the space of the canvas. Like a modern incarnation of a creator of written language, Zao uses the form of the ancient script, reconstructing the forms and giving them new life. In the painting, the text glitters under the coloured light. The artist poetically expresses his ponderings on this still, quiet night. In the deep boundlessness of space, they dramatically reveal the mysteries of the universe.


Zao Wou-ki’s <07.04.61> (1961) will be offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April. Estimate: HK$30,000,000-40,000,000.

In 1959, Zao’s meditations on painting advanced to yet a higher level. He gave himself a new challenge: expressing the “abstract” without using any figurative symbols, but through only colours and lines. And he found his answer in the brush and xieyi spirit of “wild cursive.” Upon the grand vertical canvas of <07.04.61>, Zao has chosen brown, grass green, and a dusty yellow as the dominant colours. Paired with the robust speed of the brush, the background is a space that conveys serenity and a sense of remoteness. In the centre, black lines that strongly invoke a calligraphic style cascade like an unbroken mountain ridge from the top to the bottom, starting from the centre and moving outward. Each stroke and each line possesses its own expression and effect. The calligraphic nature and the wild rhythm of the brush emphasized in Chinese xieyi landscape paintings are presented here, in a novel way, right before the viewer’s eyes.


Zao Wou-ki’s <02.04.59> (1959) will be offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April. Estimate: HK$28,000,000-48,000,000.

Zao once clearly stated that his interests lay not in concrete objects with form, but in formless, natural changes, like what comes from the leaping of light in space. In <02.04.59>, a painting pulsating with black lines, he applies simple colour and light in an abstract manner to portray his experience and realizations gained from gazing at the heavens and the earth. Not one line or colour stumbles or hesitates or conveys doubt. In their vigorous crisscrossing, different expressions are revealed. Some lines are slender and fine as silk, embedded with a gentle, pliant strength and tension. Others are wound together into a solid form, like a flying bird that can oppose the resistance of the wind, spreading its wings and soaring, dancing to the rhythm of nature. Zao Wou-ki here has attained what Tang dynasty Zhu Jingxian described in the book Famous Tang Paintings as “commanding the fine hairs of the brush, portraying the universe through the soul.” His union with nature and the natural manner in which he yields the brush lead the viewer to experience the image beyond the image, the scene beyond the scene.


George Chann’s Beyond Appearances (nonscribble-1) will be offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 April. Estimate: HK$900,000-1,200,000.

Beyond Appearances (nonscribble-1) is the epitome of George Chann’s work in the 1970s. He distils his various aesthetic perceptions of different eras of calligraphy. He magnifies, reorganizes and adapts the majesty of stone and bronze inscription, the unrestrained ease of cursive script, the fullness of Li script, the elegance of Song script, and the emotive rhythms of Yan script. Together they become dancing lines of colour that manifest the natural movements of Chann's hand, follow his intuition, and express a tangled scene of ceaseless, wild dancing. Centuries are compressed into the vivid beauty of the painting. As he begins a new period of self-expression, he also gives new life to the spirit of the calligraphy of the world's oldest civilization.

Tags:Auctions, Hong Kong, Contemporary Asian Art