Lot 1001
  • 1001

ZAO WOU-KI | Spirits

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Zao Wou-ki
  • Spirits
  • signed in Chinese and Pinyin, dated 56
  • watercolour on paper 
  • 16.5 by 32.5 cm; 6 ½ by 12 ¾ in. 
Kleemann Galleries label affixed to the reverse


Kleemann Galleries, New York
Private American Collection
Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 November 2011, Lot 1233
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector 


The work is overall in good and its original condition.
"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

Asian Spirit: A Global Mission  For the spring sale this year, Sotheby’s Modern Asian Art department curated “Postwar Asian Art”, systematically introducing the background of how postwar art was developed from the end of World War II up until the end of 1970s. Following the outstanding results from the spring sale, Sotheby’s will present this autumn a series of masterpieces of even higher calibre under the theme of “Asian Spirit: A Global Mission”, providing a detailed analysis of the inheritance relationship between modern and postwar Asian art.

Modern Asian art began to thrive in the 1920s, when modern pioneers who travelled from China and Japan to the West, predominantly Paris, to further their studies started returning to their native countries, where they were actively involved in modern art education and creativity. Yet the eruption of WWII forced this golden period to last only for a dozen of years. By the time peace was restored, most of them were already in an advanced age, and their roles in society and the art scene had changed from avant-garde pioneers to veteran artists revered by many. Some of these artists included Wu Dayu, Li Chun-Shan and Guan Liang, who once taught at the National School of Fine Art, as well as Sanyu and Tsuguharu Foujita who were active in Paris between the two World Wars. They were however replaced by a new generation of postwar artists whom they taught before WWII. Among them were Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Wu Guanzhong and Lalan, who were taught by Wu Dayu, as well as Hsiao Chin and Li Yuan-Chia, who were profoundly influenced by their mentor Li Chun-Shan. Their areas as well as times of international activities far exceeded their teachers, and they eventually became a major force behind Asian art’s journey towards the international art scene in the 20th century.

Throughout the course of development of modern and postwar Asian art, Wu Dayu and Li Chun-Shan were two important masters who revitalised Eastern art at the tumultuous war times and created an international artistic language that was representative of Asia, establishing its own significance alongside the development of Europe and America. In 1941, Wu Dayu developed his Dynamic Expressionism theory, which he taught via letters his students from the National School of Fine Art including Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Wu Guanzhong and Lalan, who later travelled overseas and developed into global icons of Chinese abstract art. In the 1930s, Li Chun-Shan studied in Tokyo under Tsuguharu Foujita, from whom he acquired a modern spirit of freedom and openness. Li applied Foujita’s inspirational approach of teaching when he moved to Taiwan and had his own students, including Hsiao Chin and Li Yuan-Chia, who then went on to lead the Ton-Fan Group (Eastern Painting Group). It was a pioneering group that gave rise to the 1960s Movimento Punto, the first avant-garde artistic movement focusing on the “spirit of contemplation” of the East in postwar art history. This showed that the artistic developments in Mainland China, Taiwan and overseas Chinese were truly three faces of the same entity. When the two shores were open again in the 1980s, postwar Asian artists who had been active in the West for three decades returned one by one, and became catalytic towards the development of contemporary Asian art which has thrived ever since.

As Asian artists became more active in the West after the war, mutual exchanges between Eastern and Western art became more prolific, and even entered into the core of development of postwar art. In the upcoming modern art evening sale, Sotheby’s presents outstanding masterpieces by five artists who had been inducted into Académie des Beaux-Arts, de l'Institut de France. In addition to Chinese artists who travelled to France including familiar names such as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong, the works by French masters Bernard Buffet and Georges Mathieu are also presented. Georges Mathieu was among the artists who founded French lyrical abstractionism. He took inspirations from Eastern calligraphy and philosophy, and became a Western icon of artistic exchanges between Asia and Europe after the war.  Bernard Buffet was against abstractionist art his whole life, yet his achievements were well renowned. This showed that although abstract art was the mainstream in postwar art, it was by no means its entirety.

In this evening sale, there is another extremely important international master – Wifredo Lam. The mixed-race artist, whose father was Cuban Chinese, was based in Latin America his whole life and made a name for himself in the West. The artist never managed to fulfil his wish to return to the East, yet he had always been mindful of his distant cultural roots. Lam was undoubtedly the strongest mix between the Chinese race and Latin American art, he was very active in Paris before and after the war, and formed a deep connection with Picasso in the early years. Subsequently, he and Zao Wou-Ki were both represented in Paris by Pierre Loeb and in New York by Pierre Matisse (son of Henri Matisse).  Stylistically, Wifredo Lam’s works were strongly Latin American, and the first appearance of his masterpiece in an evening sale by Sotheby’s Hong Kong symbolises the completion of the most distant yet greatly important chapter in the modern and postwar Asian art scene, forming a global picture spanning Asia, Europe, North America and South America.

In 1948, when Wu Dayu learned that his students at the National School of Fine Art were going overseas one by one, he touchingly wrote: “I am sweeping my front yard, waiting, for a day, when the new models of heroes return!” (To Wu Guanzhong, March 1948). His heroic spirit remained undeterred even in his elderly years. Li Chun-Shan was famous for his ability to inspire his students, yet he stressed that “the most important thing about modern art is that it cannot imitate nature, or copy one’s teachers.” It was indeed thanks to them, that Asian art in the 21st century can display such glamour and strength. With this special-curated feature of outstanding pieces, we pay tribute to the great modern and postwar Asian artists.

Sotheby’s Modern Asian Art Department
September 2018

 “I want to paint invisible things: the breath of life, wind, movement, the vitality of forms, the unfolding and intermingling of colours.”
Zao Wou-Ki

Zao Wou-Ki's Watercolour Treasures

Sketches are important academic specimens which can be extremely helpful for understanding an artist’s individual techniques, development of a series, and sources of inspiration. Chu Teh-Chun made gouache-on-paper versions of his large oil paintings for his own orderly records, and Tsuguharu Foujita always did first drafts with charcoal or pencil sketches on parchment paper, refining and perfecting his compositions with basic studies for future oil or watercolour paintings. In contrast, Zao Wou-Ki’s watercolour paintings were not preparatory or transitional, nor were they subordinate to another medium. These paintings represent an independent creative genre that spans the various phases of Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic career. Their academic and collection value is equivalent to that of his oil paintings, and they possess immeasurable market potential.

The colour characteristics of oil and watercolour paints evince similarly high degrees of plasticity. The strengths of the former lie in expressing deep colours and the texture of brushwork, whereas the latter allows the artist to capture the fluidity of water and blend layers of colour. Because watercolour paints permeate paper, they create a transparent effect, yielding a visual quality that is bright, limpid, and gentle. An avid student of classical Chinese painting and poetry from a young age, Zao Wou-Ki learned from ink landscapes how water and pigment can interact with paper. Though he eschewed ink painting during his initial years in Paris, he demonstrated a natural facility for Western watercolour painting, creating poetic compositions with a bright, agile, and rhythmic hand, and developing an innovative artistic vocabulary.

For this season’s evening sale, we have assembled four rare and exquisite watercolour pieces from Zao Wou-Ki’s early periods, including Two Pots (Lot 1018) and Vase and Cup (Lot 1019) from his Klee Period and Spirits (Lot 1001) and Festival (Lot 1002)  from his Oracle Bone Period. The juxtaposition of works from these two periods perfectly demonstrates Zao Wou-Ki’s gradual transition from figurative and semi-figurative styles to complete abstraction during the 1950s.

Festival and Spirits:  Poetry Inscribed in Paint

In 1954, Zao Wou-Ki set aside narrative paintings of still lifes, animals, and landscapes. His transition to abstraction was rapid and enthusiastic. The childlike, poetic spaces and expressive elements of his previous paintings evolved into spiritual, mystical forms. This was the beginning of his Oracle Bone Period. Figurative depictions disappeared completely, replaced by symbols that resembled characters but could not be pronounced or understood. In his own words: “My paintings became indecipherable. Still lifes and flower petals no longer existed as I moved toward an imaginary, unidentifiable form of writing.” In traditional Chinese aesthetics, painting and calligraphy were considered a unified field: two interrelated genres that possessed a unique capacity to fascinate. In contrast, in the West, painting and calligraphy are separate disciplines. During his Oracle Bone Period, Zao Wou-Ki subverted the pre-existing separation between these categories of art in the West, combining painting with primeval characters that resembled ancient oracle bone inscriptions. Pictographic characters are symbols based on natural forms, and Zao Wou-Ki’s oracle bone paintings returned written Chinese characters to their origins in painted symbols: series of strokes forming inscriptions in metal and wood, revealing symbolic significances beyond their textual connotations.

Zao Wou-Ki harkened back to ancient Chinese civilization, drawing inspiration from oracle bone and bronzeware inscriptions, and incorporating the lines of such engravings into his compositions. In his own words: “These symbols have no meaning. I only seek to infuse these characters with suggestive power in order to pay homage to Chinese writing. The form of a painting is similar to that of a stone tablet, and the intricate brushstrokes of characters are black and textured. These characteristics accentuate the dramatic power that I hope to capture.” In the transition from Two Pots and Vase and Cup to Festival and Spirits, Zao began to deconstruct and blend his compositions. The character-like forms fly towards the edges of the picture plane or gather in the centre, weaving together melody and rhythm in a rising, falling, and free-flowing visual song. The paintings masterfully contrast the fluid charm of the watercolour medium with the historical gravitas of the calligraphic elements, yielding a mesmerizing and ethereal creative gestalt.

Most of the oil paintings from Zao Wou-Ki’s Oracle Bone period rely on a monochromatic palette, but the bright and transparent qualities of watercolours allowed Zao to add more colour to these paintings, yielding a visual effect quite different from that of his oil paintings. The large swath of warm coral tones in the middle of Festival resembles a lively flame that subtly emits a jubilant atmosphere, whereas patches of lake-blue, lavender, and gold fill the centre of Spirits, like sunlight shimmering on rippling blue water. These overlapping layers of watercolour paint create effects completely different from the dense and rich qualities of oil paints, demonstrating how the artist skilfully exploits the potential of each medium and infuses each painting with extraordinary knowledge and deft technique.

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)