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    ZAO WOUKI (1921-2013)

    Lovers on a Boat


    Oil on Canvas
    46.3 x 55.2 cm

    Signed Wou KI in Chinese and ZAO in English Signed on the reverse: Signed ZAO WOU-KI in English, dated 1950.11

    Estimate TWD 23,000,000-32,000,000
    USD 751,100-1,045,100
    HKD 0-0

    Hammer Price TWD 29,600,000
    USD 972,724
    HKD 7,668,394

With a certificate of authenticity from the Zao Wou Ki Foundation




Exposition:This following work has been registered in the Archive of the Zao Wou-Ki foundation, Francois Marquet is currently preparation for the "Zao Wou-Ki Chronological Collection" (Information provided by

I thought all painters construe their works as being realistic. To others, however, they are construed as being abstract.
- Zao Wou-Ki

There is a passage in Zao Wou-Ki’s memoir about setting sail from Shanghai and arriving in France for study on April 1, 1948. The moment he arrived in Paris, he headed straight to the Louvre, taking in the masterpieces with exhilaration. He saw art like never before. For a long while, Zao hardly painted. He spent most of his time learning French, and visiting museums, galleries, and concerts. In order to reinvent his techniques, he intentionally gave up ink painting, which he had mastered in China. Paris, the capital of art at the time, was where Zao tried to learn from all schools and styles. In particular, he preferred Rembrandt, who upheld the renaissance tradition, and the Spanish Romantic painter, Goya. Zao often visited Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he made acquaintances with many who went on to become master painters themselves, including Hans Hartung, Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, Vieira da Silva and Sam Francis. Zao’s mindset changed during this time. 

In 1949, Zao made his first attempt at lithograph. Blessed by fate, he met Godet, the publisher of Picasso’s work who referred Zao’s work to poet Henri Michaux. Micheaux even wrote eight poems titled, Lecture par Henri Michaux de huit lithographies de Zao Wou-Ki. The romantic yet concise poems spoke Zao’s heart. Zao once mentioned how Henri Micheaux inspired him, “Knowing Michaux was a decisive moment for me. His attention to my work gave me confidence. Whenever I am in doubt, his words enable me to conquer, to continue and to restart.” Meanwhile, Zao continued to travel in France and other European countries. He developed a unique oil painting style with line art, line carving, and flat wash, in which abstraction and symbolism seep. With perspective and scattered point perspective, his colors diverge beyond the form. Zao once commented on this, “I spent a lot of time in churches viewing the frescoes, wanting to know how to capture a three-dimensional world in two dimensions with perspective. I also analyzed the relation among figures in the composition. I painted a lot of landscape, architecture and nature containing humans and animals. However, they are no longer the subjects, but a structural and integral element of the universe.” Lovers on a Boat was completed in 1950, marking Zao’s gradual departure from figurative painting, and initiating the clash between Chinese modern art and Western art in the mid-20th century, a journey where the two collided, sparked, diverged and fused, ultimately reborn. His abstract fully exemplifies Xieyi, foretelling the arrival of the Oracle Bone Series in the mid-1950s, where emotions are rooted in a series of symbolic motifs.

Lyrical and Splendid Symbiosis between East and West

Zao Wou-Ki talked about his creative philosophy in 1950 in Self-Portrait of Zao Wou-Ki, “My paintings had not yet been born. They were still taking shape in my brain. I had only my unshakeable conviction that I wanted to get them down on canvas, and I really wasn’t sure what form they would take there.” Zao had basked in Chinese calligraphy and painting since childhood. The transformation of such influence on his inner world and self-reflection is evident in his works during this period. When he created Lovers on a Boat, he had not seen Paul Klee’s painting. The composition may not possess the same poetic profoundness and sophistication, nor was the abstraction mature like his Klee-influenced period. However, his personal style, evident in the lines and symbols, was taking shape, and so was his determination to return to and renovate upon the root of Chinese painting. His friend, Henri Michaux, witnessed and profoundly understood such transformation. He said, “Zao Wou-Ki’s painting is formless, but still connected with nature in essence. Its tenacity is neither bizarre nor aloof. The warm and fluid colors are colors no more, but light that gushes out like rapids.” His words are insightful and touching. 

Seemingly without effort, Zao depicted a couple cruising along the river on a boat in Lovers on a Boat. Set against a unique brown tone, the color contrast is vivid and yet placid, warm and supple, like the orange red found in sunset. He created layers upon layers of colors that penetrate the heart of the visual perspective. The heaving mountains and endless woods afar create the visual dynamic that is vast, distant, rich and lonesome. His brushstrokes are concise and unimpeded, gently depicting two lovers’ outing on a boat with the moon shining above, and giving the piece a natural and unpretentious air. Zao cleverly connected to the style of the eight lithographs from 1949 with the spritely lines, simplistic form and leisurely image, a strong personal style. Zao said to his students later, “When you begin a new painting, ideally you should not start in the middle of the canvas, because that will make it almost impossible to determine the center's relationship to the rest of the composition. Colors, too, can never be used on their own; every hue and shade is connected to all other tones. The fact is that every single brushstroke has far-reaching implications for the entire painting, and you should not apply a single fleck of paint without keeping in mind the organic whole that you are about to create. Within the momentum that connects the entire painting, seek variations in the most succinct manner.”

When Zao was invited to show his work at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in 1981, the Chinese French literary critic, François Cheng said "Zao Wou-Ki's artistic fate is not merely that of the individual. It is intimately tethered to the many thousand years of evolution of Chinese painting. This fact does not diminish the value of the artist’s personal exploration, but rather, enhances the emotional force of his accomplishments. In reality, when talking about what has been gained from his works, it can be said that the century-long anticipation in Chinese painting can now be put to rest. The symbiosis between East and West that should have occurred long ago has finally appeared for the first time. When critics look back on that decisive moment in the middle of the century, when Zao Wou-ki travelled from his distant home country to live in Paris, we will appropriately refer to it as a miracle. Miraculously, he found himself immediately, and gave himself fully to his work. The depths which he has plumbed and which he has expressed even today still astonish us.”

An Artistic Giant Surging with Brilliance

French art historian, Daniel Marchesseau once remarked on Zao, “Zao Wou-Ki places nature as the central idea of his art, enabling ancient traditions to confront the art of masters from the past and present in the West. While influenced by two drastically different visualities, he was fortunate in bringing harmonious synergy between Chinese–style composition and the rich colors of the West.” He embodies the poetic soul of Eastern and Western classics. Not only did he extract the essence of Chinese culture and art, he painted Chinese artistic conception with the abstract of romance. With lyrical magnificence, he guided viewers to roam freely in the vast and primitive universe. His art is literary and poetic. His works are among the collections of prominent art museums around the world. Highly regarded in the West and in the history of modern art, where numerous talents emerged, he also enjoyed prestige in the East, which is truly well deserved.

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