Details & Cataloguing

Modern Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong

Zao Wou-Ki
1920 - 2013
signed in Chinese and Pinyin, dated 55; sign in Pinyin, titled in French and dated 1955 on the reverse
oil on canvas
73 by 92 cm; 28 ¾ by 36 ¼ in. 
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This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné currently being prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki)


Acquired directly from the artist by a private collector
Sotheby’s, New York, 17 March 2008, Lot 78
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector

Catalogue Note

In the early 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki received numerous invitations to hold solo exhibitions at galleries in Europe and the United States, and in 1954, the Cincinnati Art Museum held the first retrospective of his work. The same year, New York's Life magazine devoted several pages to his artwork and described him as an Eastern painter making a stir in Western art circles. As Zao Wou-Ki continued to rise in stature in the art world, his creative work was undergoing a process of transformation. Previously, he had largely used concise lines to sketch still lifes and scenery. These earlier works, influenced by Paul Klee, incorporated both figurative and abstract elements, and stylistically, they were filled with poetry and childlike wonder. However, as these patterns gradually came to limit his creativity, Zao once again made a decisive transition in his work. Figurative portrayals disappeared completely, replaced by character-like yet indecipherable symbols. The result was an all-new type of artistic expression that incorporated elements of Eastern calligraphy. This was the origin of Zao's Oracle Bone period, and Quand il fait beau (Lot 1033), painted in 1955, is a representative early work from this phase of his career.

Unlike other works from this period, which tend towards gloomy and restrained palettes, this painting features bold use of colour, corresponding to its title, which Zao inscribed on the back of the canvas in French: "Quand Il Fait Beau", or "when it is sunny". The dots and crosses of bright, magnificent colours resemble the brilliant scatterings of sunlight on a clear, bright day, and the layers of gold-yellow paint fill the viewer with irresistible inspiration, lending the tableau an extraordinarily magnificent visual appeal. Quand il fait beau is an early work from Zao's Oracle Bone series, and his lines retain the calligraphic rhythms that were always a central element of his style, but the forms expressed on this canvas are no longer imitations of Klee's work or emulations of other Western styles. Rather, they resemble pictographic characters with abstract elements, harking back to the cosmic perspective and creative concepts of the origins of Chinese culture. Zao Wou-Ki did not stop at appropriating the forms of traditional Chinese writing; he also adapted their aesthetics and implications into a new and richly modern abstract vocabulary. This distinctive artistic expression allowed Zao to stand out amidst the crowd of Western artists who were also inspired by Chinese calligraphy. In Quand il fait beau, Zao reinterprets the rudimentary and mystical oracle-bone script, infusing it with a touch of clever wit in a style that recalls the metaphoric and humorous expressive technique of the Surrealist master Joan Miró. Indeed, according to documentary records, the two artists became friends in the 1950s, and so the correspondence between their creative innovations is not completely coincidental.

Zao Wou-Ki was also an accomplished musician, and he often listened to music while painting. Quand il fait beau is rich in musical texture, and, in keeping with the artist's Klee period, the painting lacks a singular focal point. Forms resembling musical notes stretch and flow outwards in space, rising and falling in rhythms on the canvas like a carefree melody that expresses the artist's positive mood during its composition. Zao uses colour, harmony, and the distribution of his symbols to explore the sensory possibilities of painting beyond the visual. In this way he stimulates the viewer's imagination, as described by the Chinese-French author François Cheng: "When Zao Wou-Ki paints, in addition to assembling and intertwining various elements, he also leaves room to breathe in a few latent areas of the canvas. Outlined in fine brushstrokes and skilful lines, he shows the viewer where, amid one hundred competing sounds, one might hear the clear cry of a single string or a solitary horn." Though the title Quand il fait beau contains a clear narrative element, the meaning suggested by the canvas goes beyond a purely figurative understanding. Its creative combination of painting, poetry, and music is exemplary of the artist's work from this period, making it an outstanding and representative choice for any collector of Zao Wou-Ki's Oracle Bone series.

Modern Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong