How Zao Wou-Ki’s Abstract Painting Made Olympic Games History

How Zao Wou-Ki’s Abstract Painting Made Olympic Games History

A closer look at Zao Wou-Ki’s masterpiece 04.10.85 and its connection to the Seoul 1988 Olympics.
A closer look at Zao Wou-Ki’s masterpiece 04.10.85 and its connection to the Seoul 1988 Olympics.

S ince the early 20th century, each edition of the Olympic Games has been commemorated with high-profile poster art commissions that celebrate the spirit of the Games. Most recently, the official posters for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games by the Parisian illustrator Ugo Gattoni were unveiled at the Musée d'Orsay. “It's a new, key moment in the Paris 2024 story," explained the Paris 2024 president Tony Estanguet. “We've tried to be different and imagine posters that look like us, posters that go beyond a mere logo.” Over the years, many distinguished international artists have been invited to create iconic images for posterity. Among them, Robert Rauschenberg (Los Angeles 1984), Antoni Tàpies (Barcelona 1992), Beatriz Milhazes (Rio 2016), Rachel Whiteread, Bridget Riley and Chris Ofili (London 2012), just to name a few.

Official poster of The Seoul 1988 Olympic Games

The Seoul 1988 Olympic Games carried the motto “Harmony and Progress”. The year was not just a new dawn for South Korea; it was a pivotal moment in world history, coming 35 years after the Korean War and at the close of the Cold War. Now in the prime of his artistic life, Zao Wou-Ki was one of an exclusive coterie of contemporary art legends invited to create a work that exemplified the unified esprit of the new age and mankind’s march towards a brighter future. Invited artists hailed from all around the world. Zao’s poster held esteem alongside designs by Japanese artist and Gutai member Kazuo Shiraga, the Hungarian-French Op artist Victor Vasarely, German Neo-Expressionist A.R. Penck, and the Mexican folk painter Rufino Tamayo. 

Zao’s Seoul 1988 poster design was adapted from 04.10.85, a painting created just three years earlier. Life came full circle for artist in the 1980s, a time which is now considered the pinnacle of Zao’s artistic career. No longer the uncertain ingenu who had arrived on French shores in 1948 in search of his own artistic language and cultural identity, Zao was a bona fide art world giant who had found a way to unify the innovations, traditions and cultures of the East and West, and continued to find ways to transcend them. Zao had spent the 1950s in Paris, and roamed Europe and the Americas in the 1960s and 1970s, experimenting with oracle bone scripts and the mystical imagery of Paul Klee along the way before dedicating himself fully to abstraction. His first solo museum exhibition, which opened in 1981 at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, toured Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea to critical acclaim. Crucially, it also brought Zao back to Mainland China after many years away. Warmly embraced by his motherland, Zao made stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Xi’an. The Chinese Minister of Culture invited Zao to mount his first solo exhibition in Mainland China in 1983 at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, as well as at his old school in Hangzhou, now the China Academy of Art. This was followed by an invitation in 1985 for Zao to teach painting at his alma mater. Where he had once hesitated over incorporating traditional Chinese motifs and techniques, fearing as a young émigré in Paris that his art might be mistaken for “chinoiserie”, Zao now fully embraced his Chinese heritage, and his abstract paintings of the 1980s emphatically proclaimed their Chinese roots.

Zao Wou-Ki, 04.10.85, 1985 | estimate: 35,000,000 - 45,000,000 HKD

04.10.85 unites aspects of traditional Chinese calligraphy and shanshui painting with gestural cues from his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Inky black strokes and layers of soft washes executed using a unique mixture of Western oil and traditional Chinese ink painting techniques convey the rose pink light of the dawn breaking through the shadowy coiled branches, dispersing the fog of the past. Here Zao found the profound inner landscape eulogised by Chinese literati painters throughout the ages. “Maybe I have matured at this time, I paint my life, but I also want to paint a space that is invisible to the eyes, a space of dreams,” explained Zao. Articulated by light and space, 04.10.85 evolved from the frenetic energy of Zao’s Hurricane Period to arrive at a sublime, poetic view of the universe in which “form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form,” according to the Heart Sūtra, the famous scripture studied by disciples of East Asian Buddhism. A raw and intimate side of spiritual creativity manifests itself in 04.10.85, endowing it with a captivating and timeless universal appeal that reverberates beyond cultural identifiers.


“As a painter, one must be skilled not only with lines and colours, but there must be some sincere emotion, buried in the depths of the heart. A good painting must be unified in form and content. The painter is merely using lines and colour to express his inner feelings. The ‘universe’ he creates should be his own, one that evolves along with his personal feelings. This ‘evolution’ is also a constant ‘reinvention.’”
Zao Wou-Ki


04.10.85 had come to represent something altogether greater than just the fascinating origin story of its creator. It marked the transition between old and new worlds, and pointed the way forward to a new and stirring universality of hope in the future.

Modern Art | Asia The Hong Kong Sales

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