Lot 1001
  • 1001

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)

600,000 - 800,000 HKD
1,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji)
  • Untitled
  • inscribed, signed in Chinese and Pinyin, and dated 1948
  • watercolour on paper 


Important Private Asian Collection 

Catalogue Note

Spirits Enthralled

Not to convince the hearer, but to enthrall him.
- On Sublime, Pseudo-Longinus

The concept of the Sublime originated in the writings of Pseudo-Longinus (1st century CE). He used the term to describe aesthetic experiences that cause the viewer to reach a state of immense inner freedom and poetic imaginativeness, as opposed to direct perceptions of natural phenomena. Such expansive experiences leave behind unforgettable pleasures. The concept of the Sublime fell into obscurity until the 18th century, when Edmund Burke theorised that amorphous and ambiguous phenomena, such as emptiness and silence, had the potential to cause the greatest passions. J.M.W. Turner's stormy skies and seas, at once terrifying and alluring, are held to be pictures of the Sublime. Thereupon the Sublime became articulated as a category of aesthetic experience distinct from the beautiful, and artists—including composers and writers as well as painters—began to pursue the Sublime self-consciously in their art.

Aesthetic pleasure can be inspired by uncanny phenomena in nature. It does not have to be about elegance and harmony, but can encompass a certain terror and melancholy. It can come about in infinite desolation, in facing a silent and solemn sky, or the terror of dashing clouds and crashing waves. The terror of infinitude is also aesthetic. Zao Wou-ki yearned for the Sublime early in his career, titling many works in his Oracle Bone series after natural phenomena like wind and rain, thunder and lightning, the blazing sun, or moonlight to evoke in the viewer the experiences of being confronted with them. His later, even more abstract works crystallized his lifelong aspirations. Zao transformed human feelings towards nature into feelings towards art, and convey to us the insignificance of human existence in the universe. As Hegel wrote, things in the phenomenal world cannot express the infinite, hence the experience of the Sublime.

Entitled The Sublime - Wou-Ki Zao, the present auction of sixteen works on paper by Zao Wou-ki is a summary of his entire career and a crystallization of the essence of his art. It encompasses works Zao created soon after his arrival in Paris, works from his Klee and Oracle Bone periods, examples of his cursive calligraphy, returns to the ink medium in the 1970's after a thirty-year absence, as well as his evocations of resonant emptiness after 2000. This auction is unprecedented in its comprehensiveness and quality.

A dark black air hovers above our heads,
but from the milky depths of the ocean something bright arises,
following the sides of our canoe.
We are almost scared by the white raindrops falling on us and our canoe,
but the rain dissolves in the sea immediately.
Vague and distant, the waterfall’s source fades from view,
but we are obviously approaching it with terrifying speed.

The Haunting, Edgar Allan Poe

Arrival in Paris

In 1948, Zao Wou-ki left Hangzhou with his wife Xie Linglan. Arriving in Paris by sea on 1st April, they stayed at a small hotel. During spring and summer of that year, Zao studied French diligently and spent a lot of time at the Louvre. Untitled (Lot 1001) of 1948 is an exceptionally rare watercolour sketch by Zao from this early period. Here he uses layers of different greens to render trees in a lively manner. The Chinese literati’s notion that spiritual resemblance is more important than formal resemblance is evident already in this freely and fluently executed landscape. In early 1949, Zao Wou-ki had not settled on oil painting as his primary medium. At the Atelier Desjobert, he created eight lithographs, including one of fish described in a poem by Henri Michaux as follows:

The yearning for a contented, quiet life,
Amidst water droplets, in a circle—a crowded circle
Is fulfilled.

According to Zao Wou-ki’s recollections, in 1950 he began to feel truly at home in French society, but he was still mentally gestating his art at this time. All he had was an unshakable will. During this exploratory stage, he created Untitled (Lot 1002), incorporating ink-like washes. The two fish are freely rendered in different colours, and evoke a fairy tale-like mood that anticipates his later stylistic turn. This work was in the collection of the Swiss publisher and art critic Nesto Jacometti, who organized two exhibitions of Zao Wou-ki’s prints respectively in Bern and Geneva in 1951-2. It was because of Jacometti that Zao visited Switzerland for the first time, which inspired his Klee period.