Lot 1020
  • 1020

ZAO WOU-KI | Ville engloutie

15,000,000 - 25,000,000 HKD
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  • Zao Wou-Ki
  • Ville engloutie
  • signed in Pinyin and Chinese; signed in Pinyin, titled in French and dated 54 on the reverse 
  • oil on canvas
  • 59.5 by 73 cm; 23 ½ by 28 ¾ in. 


Private American Collection
Christie's, Taipei, 20 April 1997, Lot 347
Private Asian Collection
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 31 October 2004, Lot 326
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector 


Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona / Editions Hier et Demain, Paris, 1978, plate 258, p. 278
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 1979, plate 258, p. 278
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Cercle d'Art, Barcelona / Paris, 1986, plate 290, p. 318


The painting surface has recently been cleaned, and the work is overall in very good and its original condition. Conservation report is available upon request.
"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

At the beginning of the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki’s star was rising in the international art world.  He was invited to hold solo exhibitions in several cities around Europe, and so he took this opportunity to travel across the continent, observing the natural scenery and savouring his encounters with European culture. These experiences were great source of inspiration, offering new insight and ideas. During these travels, Zao encountered for the first time the free and dynamic line-drawn symbols of Paul Klee. This introduction, in particular, broke open the gates of abstract painting for Zao. Once the artist returned to his studio, he created a series of landscapes echoing the sights he had seen—Notre-Dame, Bourges Cathedral, Venice, all captured under his brush in the form of landscape paintings. He took a cue from the Western modernists who had shook the art world by breaking free of conventional aesthetic language—for example, Monet who captured light and shadow in his lily ponds and haystacks, Van Gogh who unleashed torrents of emotion in his starry sky, or Matisse who created of an internal universe in his deep oceanic swaths colour. Similarly, Zao Wou-Ki worked to refine what later would become the artist’s iconic rhythmic lines. Within two or three years, the concrete and representational elements in his paintings nearly disappeared entirely, replaced by abstract symbols and boundless colour. The unique expressive technique blended elements of the East and West. This accomplishment heralded the artist’s Oracle Bone Period. Ville engloutie (Lot 1020), deeply imbued with a misty atmosphere that invokes an Eastern artistic concept yijing, was completed in 1954. The work represents his first step into the infinite and richly layered space of abstract art. Moreover, it expresses the artist’s profound ideas on the natural universe and the meaning of existence.  

Flowing Currents of Colour Striking at the Spiritual Universe

Music provides clues to Zao Wou-Ki’s creative journey. He and his first wife, the musician and artist Lalan, were both deeply interested in Western classical music as well as the avant-garde music of the 20th century. During early visits to France, Zao became acquainted with composers Pierre Boulez and Edgard Varèse, and also underwent a rigorous study of music theory and vocal music. The artist was in the habit of painting to music, sounds that would open up mysterious colours and dynamic spatial compositions. Ville engloutie possesses a compact and powerful colour structure, with a dominant hue of indigo saturating the canvas like the marvellous depths of the night sky. In addition to the indigo, gorgeous light peach hues, greens, and deep blacks intertwine and embellish the tableau like enchanting stardust, adding to the painting’s aura of mystery and profundity. In the painting’s centre, Zao introduces lines in a calligraphic manner, the uninhibited brushstrokes creating layers of time and space. At times scattered and at times densely layered, they draw out the movement of colour, allowing it to pour forth, resulting in a plane of colour that possesses a certain “chaotic order.” In this way, an infinite and boundless space is created, radiating with a life and vitality that extends beyond the boundaries of the canvas, striking the viewer with sensory impact. Indigo is one of Zao Wou-Ki’s abiding colours. The lot on offer is one of the few works in indigo completed during the artist’s stylistic transition in the 1950s, and stands out in its exquisite melding of colour and musical influences. It is as though the artist has captured the flash of a single instant amid the riotous activity of all living things, manifesting Zhuangzi’s observation in The Equality of Things: “The heavens and the earth are born as I am; the myriad things and I are one.” This rare masterpiece is a significant resource in the interpretation of the artist’s spiritual universe.


Uniting Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting; An Expression of Spiritual Profundity

During this period, Zao Wou-Ki often chose titles for his paintings that refer to concrete objects, yet these objects are not the true subject matter. With a language unconstrained by subject matter, the artist creates a kind of emotional atmosphere with brushstrokes that seem carelessly and haphazardly applied. The painting Ville engloutie is thus not primarily interpreted as having a concrete subject, yet the image of the submerged city can still be detected faintly beneath the attenuating mist and curling clouds. Painting and poetry originate from the same source, as Zao Wou-Ki once said, “I believe that fundamentally, the essence in the expressive manifestations of the two art forms is the same. Whether the brush is sweeping across the canvas or the hand is writing upon a piece of paper, both are revealing the breath of life. Even without physical or concrete forms, they can still reveal a hidden meaning, one that is intertwined with the universe… The poems that attract me the most are the ones that have, drifting between the lines, a feeling of freedom.” Zao Wou-Ki’s painting is a visual manifestation of his poetry. The imagery of title is a prodigious element of the universe that moves across the painting, setting free the brilliant inner fire.

Abstract painting is deeply imbued with emotion as well as the artist’s philosophy. It can transcend barriers of time, and root itself deeply in the world. It is able to withstand the ravages of history with no diminution of its restorative powers, emotional intensity or resonance. For any great artist, there will always be a unity between the work and the life. During different stages in the artist’s life, their works featuring even the same subject may take on different meanings. In his memoir, Zao Wou-Ki mentions having created a painting in the 1950s by the same title of Ville engloutie to commemorate his relationship with Lalan soon after the disintegration of their marriage (Zao Wou-Ki, Autoportrait, Chapter 6). The image and idea of “the city” is a recurring motif in Zao’s work. From the artist’s representational lithograph completed in 1953 to the painting that signified the end of his marriage in the 1950s, “the city” for the artist became something that grew in energy and force, becoming richer and more fertile with time. Ville engloutie is the earliest exploration into the artist’s Oracle Bone Period, combining poetry, calligraphy, and painting in a single body, representing the height of the artist’s works created during that period. Of even greater significance than the painting’s artistic expression, is the boundless and free spirit that Zao Wou-Ki has set loose upon the canvas. Only this can bestow us with a spiritual energy that transcends form, allowing us fully to appreciate the limitless power of art. Here, on the wings of the artist’s soaring imagination, we are invited to reflect on the past and be guided into the future.

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)