Details & Cataloguing

Modern Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong

Zao Wou-Ki
1920 - 2013
signed in Chinese and Pinyin, dated 54; signed in Pinyin, titled in French and dated 54 on the reverse 
oil on masonite
44.2 by 53.5 cm; 17 ⅜ by 12 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)


Private American Collection
Christie's, Hong Kong, 29 May 2011, Lot 1128
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector 

Catalogue Note

Zao Wou-Ki roamed freely through the vast sweep of history, drawing aesthetic inspirations from oracle bone scripts. Living in Paris during the 1950s, Zao completed Ciel de Paris (Lot 1023) in 1954 at the beginning of the artist’s Oracle Bone Period. In the silvery-white background, strings of symbols resembling oracle bone text appear, like gigantic birds soaring through layers of clouds. Despite its relatively small size, this painting presents a boundless vision of the vast sky.  

Soaring in the Foreign Sky

Nature is a recurring motif in Zao’s abstract paintings, capturing the impression? of a diverse range of elemental forces, such as a sorrowful rainstorm, or a powerful thunderstorm. Zao’s emotional synergy with nature is evident in the organic quality of the colours, gestures and spiritual aura of each abstract painting. Easily discerned from the title, another source of inspiration for this piece was the Parisian sky, with each layer of dots and brushstrokes forming an abstracted aerial view of Paris. The canvas is lathered in silver oil paint, illustrating thick clouds, light strokes of rusty bronze envelop the symbols while delicate hints of blue blend into the edges of the clouds, heralding the imminent arrival of cerulean skies.

Closer examination of the arrangement of symbols reveals a busy composition towards the lower half of the painting. Architecture is simplified into linear imagery, becoming free from traditional objective representation. A combination of simplistic lines may represent the Notre-Dame, while another set become a bridge on the Seine. The Eastern characters grow the farther up the canvas it travels and extends outwards towards the edge of the image, spreading out like the wings of a majestic bird. The artistic development of Zao Wou-Ki is evident in this painting from his endless exploration of ideas and mediums. Through this masterpiece, Zao’s immense talent is undeniable, foretelling the pinnacle of his career.

Travelling a Thousand Miles to Find Own Roots 

In Ciel de Paris, the calligraphic lines are reminiscent of the early form of the Chinese character ‘天’, meaning sky. Traces of calligraphy had already appeared in Zao’s Paul Klee Period, the word "天" first appeared in his semi-abstract compositions in 1949, expressed in a style similar to Chinese ink paintings. During Zao’s Oracle Bone Period, his approach to abstract art matured and developed as the concept behind his pieces evolved. The ‘天’ character no longer possessed the fundamental meaning of the word but was incorporated into the composition to further express the idea of melding words and images together. The 1960s marked the peak of Zao’s next style, the Hurricane Period, where the meaning of ‘天’ was eradicated, though on the rare occasion appearing in the artist’s bold and expressive brushstrokes, reflecting his consistent interest in the shape of this particular character.

The Oracle Bone Series was born after the post-war abstract art movement when artists were liberated from depicting physical appearances and were given creative freedom to focus on philosophical and spiritual perceptions. Many Western artists became enamoured by calligraphy due to its tendency to be expressed in impulsive subconscious gestures and committed to understanding its spirit to incorporate into abstract art. Georges Mathieu was among the most influential in this group. In the same sale, Composition (Lot 1040) reflects Mathieu’s interpretation of Eastern calligraphy from a Western perspective, forming a visual and explicit connection with Ciel de Paris. Zao’s Oracle Bone Series uniquely connects artists of Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ciel de Paris is the earliest extant masterpiece that bears witness to the dawn of Zao Wou-Ki’s best years.

Modern Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong