Lot 1019
  • 1019

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)

8,000,000 - 12,000,000 HKD
16,280,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)
  • Deux nus
  • signed in Pinyin and Chinese; signed in Pinyin, titled and dated 8. 1952 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 45.5 by 55 cm.;   17 7/8  by 21 5/8  in.


Main Street Gallery, Chicago 
Important Private American Collection
Important Private American Collection
Acquire from the above by the present owner

Catalogue Note

Wielding the Complex with the Simple, Conveying Meaning Beyond Language
Zao Wou-Ki's Deux nus 

Zao Wou-Ki completed Deux nus in 1952. At the time, the artist had been in Paris for five years, and as he later said, he had still been searching for a form of expression that belonged solely to himself. One can imagine the uncertainty that must have accompanied the young artist, newly to Paris as a Chinese graduate of the Hangzhou School of Fine Art, thrown into the furnace of the European art world and surrounded by the great works of the Western masters. How was he to carve out a piece of the sky for himself, establish an artistic language of his own? In 1951, he came upon the work of Paul Klee, witnessing the meticulous linear symbols that covered the Swiss artist’s canvases. A new understanding toward painting sprang up in Zao. Zao said, "Klee’s world is distinct; it is full of poetry. He is a bridge that led to a world I had been searching for, but I used it as a shortcut to another path." And this other path was Zao Wou-Ki’s own world, in which the artist said, "I saw myself, I saw the East, I saw China!" As if struck by a flash of realization, he concluded that an artist’s painting must return to one’s roots, that "the way need not be sought elsewhere". And thus, thousands of years of Eastern traditional culture – the aesthetic essence of its poetry, its writing, its painting – now all served as inspiration for him, sources from which he could extract and make refinements. His journey had only just begun. This painting, then, 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.

Although Deux nus also features human subjects, it is strikingly different from Zao Wou-Ki’s realist painting My Wife, completed in 1949, not long after Zao had arrived in Paris. Now, Zao was portraying subjects through his mind’s eye, dispensing with the elaborate garments and accessories, the makeup and coiffed hair of his earlier works. 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, seemingly returning the two women to an original stage of purity. 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. A strong, resolute force emits from the canvas. Additionally, in this painting, Zao has completely abandoned the techniques of three-dimensionality and the effects of light he learned from his Western art training, utilizing only the Eastern essence of xieyi, using simple brushstrokes to capture the pith of the subjects, with ever powerful charm, conveying a meditation and imagination that exists beyond language. In this way, Deux nus, for the artist, was representative of a great leap, a moment of transcendence along the track of his own development as an artist.

The artist’s treatment of the background is again similar to that of Bada Shanren’s Fish, with not a brushstroke devoted to constructing a concrete object. Yet within the hazy colours, a world is born. The arrangement of colours itself is of high symbolic meaning; the swath of blue toward the top of the canvas, for example, seemingly represents the horizon of the sky, setting the human subjects out in nature, rather than within the confines of manmade structures. This resonates with the concept of the "intended blank" of traditional Chinese ink-wash painting, in which the space between the solid and the empty is where the artist’s ideas and personal emotions reside.

In the early 1950s, the artist’s paintings primarily featured still lifes and landscapes, the human subjects occupying secondary roles, and very rarely featured as main subjects. 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, 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.