Lot 1015
  • 1015

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)

10,000,000 - 16,000,000 HKD
18,080,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)
  • Nuit-minuit
  • signed in Pinyin and Chinese
  • oil on canvas
  • 54.5 by 46.5 cm.;   21 1/2  by 18 1/4  in.
executed in 1955


Galerie Pierre, Paris
Acquire directly from the above by present owner


Dominique de Villepin, Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen, ed., Zao Wou-Ki 1935-2008, Kwai Fung Art Publishing House, Hong Kong, 2010, p. 39

Catalogue Note

Chromatic vibrancy, enchanting ambience
Zao Wou-Ki's Nuit-minuit

The beauty of Chinese xieyi, aside from being reflected in ink-wash paintings, has also been manifested in the composition of its written characters. The evolution of Chinese characters has been a process of continual development over a period of 5,000 years. During the Yin Shang dynasty, it was the oracle bone script and the inscriptions upon the bronze implements that were widely used; during the Han dynasty, an official calligraphic script was established, and during the Sui and Tang dynasties, a regular, standard script was used. The same language manifested in different forms over different eras. All of these scripts, however, originated from the basic human desire to possess written records, to describe the events and objects they saw, and to provide these records for future generations.

One of the main theoretical principles in inventing a written language is the principle of "resemblance in form", meaning that a word should be created using the least number of brushstrokes in a form that still resembles and sketches a picture of the object it is trying to represent. The Chinese character for "sun" (日), for example, was originally a circle with a dot in the centre, an image of the sun that resembled what people saw when they tilted their heads toward the sky. Similarly, "moon" (月),  is composed of an arc that resembles the curve of the moon. These are fundamentally close to the spirit of xieyi, and thus calligraphy as an art has continued expressing these characters and these concepts.

Transforming Chinese Written Characters into Symbols

In 1954, Zao Wou-Ki began attempting to transcend the concrete forms of his earlier years; the minimalist brushstrokes depicting landscapes, human subjects, and still lifes could no longer fulfill him. He wanted a breakthrough. At that time, Paris was being led along by the wave of Abstractionism, and perhaps Zao felt strongly that he needed to form a response to this trend, one in a language of his own. But what would set him apart from the others? It was then, standing in the West, that he gazed back upon the traditional Eastern culture from where he came, and felt a deep sense of the occult charm of the ancient characters, something that the Western world was unfamiliar with, and did not understand. 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. The two rows of text along both sides of the canvas appear vaguely like oracle bone script, but are stripped of their original meaning. Like a modern incarnation of a creator of written language, Zao uses the form of the ancient script while fusing it to his own ideas, reconstructing the forms and giving them new life, ones that embody his perspectives and emotions. In the painting, the text becomes symbols, glittering under the coloured light. The "words" are mostly arranged in a vertical, top-down fashion like lines of poetry in in a traditional Chinese painting, the artist poetically expressing his ponderings on this still, quiet night. The symbols, under the moonlight, spilling into the night, appear to have come out for a romp, like dancing spirits, rife with vitality and dynamism, and possessed of magic. In the deep boundlessness of space, they dramatically reveal the mysteries of the universe.