Lot 16
  • 16

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)

30,000,000 - 50,000,000 HKD
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  • Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)
  • 16.5.66
  • oil on canvas
signed in Chinese and Pinyin; signed in Pinyin, titled and dated 16.5.66 on the reverse; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Charleroi label affixed to the stretcher on the reverse


Galerie de France, Paris
Private Collection, Europe, circa late 1960s
Private Collection, Europe, 1984
Thence by descent to the present owner in 2001


Paris, Galerie de France, Zao Wou-Ki, Solo Exhibition, 1967
Montréal, Musée d'art contemporain, Zao Wou-Ki Retrospective, 1969
Québec, Museum du Québec, Zao Wou-Ki Retrospective, 1969
Charleroi, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Belgium,  Zao Wou-Ki, 22 November - 27 December 1969


Zao Wou-Ki, Lion Art, Taipei, Issue 13, March, 1972, p. 31
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1978, pl. 117, p. 167
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Hier et Demain, Paris, 1978, pl. 117, p. 167
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-ki, Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1979, pl. 117, p. 167
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 1979, pl. 117, p. 167
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Cercle d'Art, Barcelona, 1986, pl. 117, p. 167
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Cercle d'Art, Paris, 1986, pl. 117, p. 167
Liu Shenguang & Huang Xiaogeng, ed., Overseas Chinese Artists Series - Zao Wou-Ki, Lingnan Art publishing house, Guangzhou and Joint Publishing Company Limited, Hong Kong, 1988, p.22


This work is in good condition. There is evidence of very slight hairline craquelure across the surface of the painting, predominantly in the upper part, an area 20 cm in length, 40 cm from the bottom and 25 cm from the left edge of the work, and in the lower left part of the painting, only visible under close inspection. There is one small accretion 1 cm in length, 50 cm from the top and 50 cm from the left edge of the work. Under UV: there is no evidence of restoration.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

16.5.66 and 3.4.60-1.2.69 by Zao Wou-Ki

In 1958, Zao Wou-Ki entered into an irreversible new stage of artistic production. During this period, he believed that he no longer needed to create symbols in his paintings, and put aside his artistic achievements with the previous Oracle Bone Series. He believed that although symbols acted as a guide for paintings, they also caused restrictions. He therefore worked to try and achieve a breakthrough. He tried to express his inner feelings merely through lines and colours and to depict the invisible vital essence of the universe and nature. During this period, he abandoned the round brush he often used in the early 1950s, and switched to a flat brush, a broad brush and painting knife. His style became more enthusiastic and confident, and his colours, more robust. He played with light, colours and lines, blending in elements from the Chinese culture that had nurtured him from childhood from the Taoist philosophy, the Chinese calligraphic aesthetics to the formation of views and space in the landscape painting of Song and Yuan Dynasty. The result was Western style expression through oil painting with Chinese elements, projecting a sense of grandeur and beauty that connects with its viewer. His works are not only artistic creations but also the fruits of his spirit and mind.

International Fame and Excellence

Zao’s artistic expression gradually matured in the 1960s. The unique features of his painting made him stand out against the tide of post-war abstract painting in Europe, and earned him global fame. From 1960 to 1965, he held his own exhibitions at the Galerie de France, the most influential gallery in Paris and New York City’s famous Kootz Gallery. His works were displayed at many international gallery exhibitions. Many historical critics have spoken highly of his works during this period. For example, Pierre Schneider, an authoritative French art history scholar said, “Zao Wou-Ki’s work from the 1960 is broader and more vivid than his previous work, and it pictures more cleverly his temperament and unique nature....” Famous French painter A. Manessier, who won the La Biennale di Venezia prize in the 1950s, remarked in 1960 that “The world, the past, race, scenery and light in the mind of Zao Wou-Ki are unfamiliar to me, but I am moved by some of the things that I know and I can recognize in the paintings. I feel his inner world is not far from mine… I think I can say that he has already gone beyond everything he painted before.” All this shows that Zao Wou-Ki had already been recognized by the first-class artists of his time and had broken into the centre of international art circles.

In 1965, Michael Sullivan, art history professor at Oxford University listed him in his book “The World’s Greatest Art and Artists”, confirming Zao’s influence on and great contributions to Chinese artistic development. Zao Wou-Ki had already become an internationally recognised artist. Sotheby’s has had the honour of acquiring 16.5.66 and 3.4.60-1.2.69 from an important private collector. Of the two stunning classics of his, 3.4.60-1.2.69 took nine years to complete. Neither has been on the market before. Both have represented Zao Wou-Ki’s work at important exhibitions. For example, the former was part of his solo exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Charleroi in 1969, while the latter was an important work that Zao used to represent the French Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia. It was also part of his solo exhibition at Galerie de France in Paris. The richness of depth and sheer brilliance of the two works will become the focus for collectors in the autumn auction.

Swift as the Wind and Lifted by the Lightning: Integrating the Essence of Nature and Earth. Transforming the Light of the Universe

In 16.5.66, the background of the vertical canvas was dyed in amber, orange and apricot yellow. The brush, soaked in black, traversed at ease horizontally and vertically with the powerful spirit of cursive script and calligraphic lines, top down and from the centre moving outward is a vigourous whirl of air, bursting with the energy of Qi. A shaft of penetrating white light twisting and turning upward, pushing the space on the canvas further back. Upon a closer look, the white colour is not a pure one. Besides pure lead white, it has also been blended with light yellow, green and pink. The many changes in colour and saturation tell the story of the gradual evolution of time and space as well as the movement of the universe. Zao Wou-Ki once said, “I want to express dynamics with abstract colours and lines. They may be lingering or swift as the wind and lightning. Using contrast of colours and the multiple use of the same colour, I can bring the canvas to life.” This crucial sense of “liveliness” is successfully portrayed in 16.5.66.  In between the degrees of moisture and thickness of the colours as well as the strength of the brush strokes, Zao Wou-Ki created an epic masterpiece that penetrates the soul of viewers.

The Biggest Happiness and Eternal “Love”

16.5.66 was painted in a warm orange colour, a specific colour used for Chinese festivals. The black brush strokes are as powerful as a thunderbolt released with control. It is as if these strokes form the Chinese character for “Love”. Some of the black lines are as dry as the autumn wind, while others as wet as the spring rain. The black colour itself carries a sense of layers and contrast, exuberant with energy imparted by strokes. Zao Wou-Ki learnt calligraphy at an early age. This painting reveals his profound depth. If you compare the Chinese character for “Love” hidden in the painting with the one written in the Rhapsody on the Luo Goddess by Zhao Mengfu, the greatest calligrapher of the Yuan Dynasty and the one written in Er Xie Tie by Wang Xizhi, the Sage of Calligraphy, you will find an interesting echo among them. The Rhapsody on the Luo Goddess was written by Cao Zhi, a writer in the Three Kingdoms period. It describes his fruitless infatuation with his sister-in-law Zhen Shi. Zhen Shi died of depression and looking at the objects that belonged to her filled Cao Zhi with infinite melancholy. Cao Zhi reminisced the day they met along the Luo River and Zhen Shi walked along the river in the wind, looking as if she were the Goddess of the Luo River, therefore he wrote the poem. Zhao Mengfu’s calligraphic representation of the poem was completed with powerful and graceful brushstrokes, creating an ultimate masterpiece. No matter what the character in 16.5.66 is, the magnificent orange colour used by Zao Wou-Ki in this painting reflects, to some extent, his strong feelings towards art. This feeling must have been similar to that of Zhao Mengfu when he was working on the Rhapsody on the Luo Goddess. Zao Wou-Ki once said, “I paint romantic paintings, which make me tremendously happy. The biggest happiness lies in painting itself.” 16.5.66 undoubtedly expresses his passion and through the powerful lines, the viewer can imagine the breath, rhythm and vigorous energy of these two masters living in ancient and modern times.

Ascending to the Mountain Peak and Gazing Proudly at all the Mountains Below

The scene in the painting reminds one of the poem Gazing on Mount Tai. The poem was written by Du Fu, a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty, on his appreciation of the grandeur and beauty of the nature after he ascended the crest of Mount Tai. The poem goes, “what shall I say of the great peak? The ancient dukedoms are everywhere green, endowed with beauty and magic, split into day and night by the peak. Layers of clouds stir my thoughts, I strain my sight after birds flying home. When I reach the top to behold them all, other mountain peaks look pretty small.” Mount Tai, described in the poem, lies between the states of Qi and Lu. The green mountains stretch to the horizon. It seems that God really favours Mount Tai and endowed it with all the mystery and beauty on the earth. The peaks tower into the clouds and cover the sunlight, so the south side of the mountain is bright while the north side is dark, just like dawn and dusk. The mountains are surrounded by floating clouds. The sight of them fills one with excitement. In front of 16.5.66, we wander in the visual world. We travel with Zao Wou-Ki to experience the magic and beauty of nature, displayed in his painting. He transformed the towering and dynamic natural essence into something eternal. He delivered a sense of intimacy as well as impact, leaving a lasting impression.

Exploding into Heaven

In 1960s, Zao Wou-Ki mostly made simultaneous use of the horizontal, vertical and diagonal axis. This produced infinite combinations of rythem and flavour. The sister work of the 16.5.66 and up for auction this time, the vertical 3.4.60-1.2.69 took him nine years to complete. Although of different sentiment, they are representative of each other.

On the vertical canvas of 3.4.60-1.2.69, the ivory white, light yellow and lemon yellow brushstrokes burst out in the centre of the dark background, as if there is an explosion into heaven. The strokes carrying the energy of oriental calligraphy fly around and upward, overfowing with vitality. It’s breathtaking. The work draws upon the layout used in Chinese landscape paintings and brushstrokes used to portray high mountains and broad rivers in the paintings of the Song and Yuan Dynasty. Zao interchanged the real and virtual worlds through details. When viewers admire the painting, they sense the fusion of Eastern and Western artistic essence through transformation and innovation. For example, the layout and the design of blank space in 3.4.60-1.2.69 is similar in clever ways to the Traveller on Guanshan Mountain by Guan Tong, a famous painter during the Five Dynasties. The secluded valleys and forests in the Chinese ink painting were replaced by vertically whirling lines and colours. Both Zao Wou-Ki and Guan Tong use their brush simply, maturely and confidently. The staggering magnificance created grabs its viewers. However, the dynamism in 3.4.60-1.2.69 reminds people of Walking Man I by Alberto Giacometti, a modern Western sculptor (sold for GBP 65 million in 2010, Although one is a two-dimensional painting and the other is a three-dimensional sculpture, both condensed and transformed elapsing time into their works.

The Ink with a Divine Essence

Speaking from his own inspiration, Zao Wou-Ki said in 1961, “I cannot deny the influence of Paris on me on my way to becoming an artist. As my personality has come into being, I have also gradually rediscovered China. My recent paintings all reveal my inherent Chinese nature. Paradoxically, all thanks to Paris, I have been able to rediscover my deep-rooted nature.” During the early period after he arrived in France, Zao Wou-Ki deliberately gave up the oriental brush and ink techniques he had used so skillfully before, because he did not want to be given the title ‘Chinese artist.’ He strove to stand out, exploring unfamiliar oil painting techniques. However, as he matured, he gained a clear understanding of the essence of traditional Chinese culture and his own position. He rediscovered China and the immortal beauty of oriental traditions such as the use of space and light in the paintings of Tang and Song Dynasty, the simple yet generous shapes of the bronze antiques as well as the Chinese characters and calligraphy which evolved and were passed down over thousands of years. He then returned to embrace and accept the oriental aesthetic elements flowing in his blood. This helped his works scale new heights. In 1967, he even co-published a book with his friend Claude Roy on rubbings in the Han Dynasty to promote oriental culture.

The ink rubbings of tablet inscriptions are powerful and refined and these features naturally permeate 3.4.60-1.2.69. In this painting, Zao Wou-Ki frequently drew upon the characteristics of the ink and used thin lines seen in stone and metal inscriptions and the sense of vicissitude shown in ink rubbings. The foreground is prominent against the dark and dramatic background, which tells the story of the respect for ancient cultures and a pursuit of the lost time. Using his paintbrush, Zao Wou-Ki turned his inspiration and emotions into eternity. This painting was included not only in many important artist chronicles but also in A Self-Portrait of Zao Wou-Ki, co-written and published by him and his wife Françoise Marquet in 1992. As a representative work selected by the artist in his autobiography to represent his work in a certain period, it is particularly significant. It is now up for auction. This is the chance of a lifetime.