Auction | China Guardian (HK) Auctions Co., Ltd.
2019 Autumn Auctions
Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art

Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013)
24.01.73(Painted in 1973)

Oil on canvas

96 x 106 cm. 37 3/4 x 41 3/4 in.

Signed in English and Chinese on bottom right; signed in English and dated on the reverse
28 May 1999, Lempertz Cologne Spring Auction, Lot 560
24 Apr 2001, China Guardian Spring Auction, Lot 879
Important Private Collection, Asia

This work is accompanied by a photo of the painting in 2002 signed by the artist
Note: This work will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Foundation Zao Wou-Ki)

A Chinese Path that Brings Together the Vibrant Energy of Heaven and Earth
Zao Wou-Ki's 24.01.73 - A Life Turning Point Work

The art capital of Paris is like a huge casino of international art. When I arrived there in 1948, I did so with all the determination in the world. Over the past few decades, I have not rested on my laurels at having worked my way into the international art world and joined the ranks of Paris Art School painters. I am just fortunate that traditional art thinking in China over the past few centuries sustained me ... I have Chinese blood flowing through my veins and that is the single most important thing.
—Zao Wou-Ki

In 1941, Zao graduated from Hangzhou National Academy of Fine Arts and based on his recollections at that time often asked friends returning from the US to bring him copies of Life magazine. It was in the pages of that magazine the aspiring artist read about Picasso, Modigliani and others, in an attempt to learn how Western artists painted. It is unlikely at such a young age that Zao ever thought that he would feature in the magazine himself, but it 1957 the Kootz Gallery in New York held his first solo exhibition and Life ran an article on the event under the headline “A Rising Star from China,” praising him as “a painter from the East stood on the peaks of the West.”

Perhaps the eventualities of life are inherently wonderful, but Zao was always hard working and refused to rest on his successes in the art world. Whether his initial exploration of Klee Period on arriving in France, the Oracle Bones period in which he sought to breathe new life into something ancient, or his Hurricane Period, Zao was always looking to transcend, exploring the nature of painting and creating art, as he resolved numerous difficulties. He once commented: “I started to paint in oils in 1935, but it was not until 1963 - 30 years later - that I truly came to understand the method to oil painting freedom,” using the materials and tool in ones hands to “freely say whatever it is I want to say.” In his early years as an artist, Zao deliberately put his Chinese identity to one side and chose not to use traditional ink and colors to paint, only later “rediscovering China” while overseas. He was then able to take nourishment from traditional Eastern aesthetics which, added to his own understanding and innovativeness, enabled him to refine his painting language and later establish a reputation in the post-war Western world of abstract art. An overview of the work of Zao Wou-ki makes it clear that he did not travel a straight line “from China to the West and back again.” Indeed, it is in his evolution as an artist that Zao made such an iconic contribution to the development of Chinese art. On this occasion, the work on auction is 24.01.73 - a painting that came into being at a critical turning point in the artist's life and art as he “traversed the road to China.”

Refined Morality: Rare Masterpiece at a Life Turning Point
In the early 1970s, Zao Wou-ki's works were shown at the Galerie de France and Kootz Gallery, enabling him to scale the heights of the art world, but it was also in this period that his life and creative work encountered an important turning point. At this time his beloved wife, Chen Meiqi, was afflicted with mental illness and in March 1972 died. Consumed with sorrow, Zao completed a painting titled 10.09.72 - En mémoire de May in September. This piece used minimal colors: ochre and deep dark black and a spiraling composition to record the couple's love. In 1973, Zao Wou-ki donated this work to Centre Pompidou in Paris, an act that was akin to saying goodbye to his love. The death of his wife had a dramatic impact on Zao and much writing about the incident has suggested he was unable to produce oil paintings for 18 months afterwards, but this is not the case. Indeed, textual research indicates that in those 18 months Zao completed 12 oil paintings, three of which were finished in 1972. Moreover, his focus improved in 1973 when he produced another nine paintings, three of which are currently part of the collections of the Ingres Museum in France, Osaka City Museum of Art and Hong Kong Museum of Art. This not only reflects Zao's determination in the face of such trying circumstances, the relatively few works also highlight the invaluable nature of paintings from this period, particularly the nine completed in 1973. It was the first time Zao had to deal with death in his life and the paintings were produced at a turning point in life, as he extricated himself from the depths of despair. In addition, they are also a testament to his durability and determination to keep going, restored creativity and passion for life and art. Against this backdrop, the first painting 24.01.73 was completed in early 1973.

Great Music has the Faintest Notes, Great Form has No Shape:
Between Harmony and Dreams Lies the Luster of Life
I am aware that beginning in 1973 my painting style changed. Perhaps at that time I matured, the accumulated efforts of the past bore fruit and everything was much easier. I also know my love of painting became even greater, that I had even more to say ... I painted my life, but I also painted a space that cannot be seen with the eyes, a dream space, a place where people always feels in harmony
— Zao Wou-Ki

In 24.01.73, the powerful clamor and intense juxtaposed colors of Zao's wild cursive hand period in the 1960s takes a backseat, as he instead showcases harmonious poetry and a perfect balance between silence and tumult. The main color tone of the canvas is light yellow, marked with deep black brushstrokes that are sometimes thick and heavy, sometimes mixed with linseed oil and displaying a light magic like touch. The energetic brushwork moves up and down with the movements of the artist's wrist, to create the surging magnificence of the work's image structure. The painting also employs the scattered perspective commonly adopted in traditional Chinese ink painting and despite not offering a representational depiction of nature, every aspect of the piece is related to nature. Taking the left of the painting as our starting point, it is as if Zao Wou-Ki takes us on a journey to a towering cliff shrouded in cloud and then flies over a deep valley, as we watch the orange light from the setting sun slowly rise from low on the horizon to bathe the lush green grass and layered mountains in warm light and life affirming hues. Propelled by the energy at the bottom of the work, the swirling wave-like blue-gray clouds in the center slowly move right to left, while the circling, twirling, dancing black and white lines in the lower part of the work resemble an overflowing mountain stream, its tremors depicting the trajectory of momentum, indicating an upward moving force with the power to touch viewers.

In the space of the diametrically opposite corners of the canvas, Zao mixes different hues of yellow with white, sky-blue and peach, refining the oil colors into ink painting intermediate tones. Moreover, the different direction of the brushstrokes highlights the layering, creating a background space that can breathe and rest, thereby imbuing the work with tranquility. This also creates a dramatic contrast with the bubbling dynamism in the lower part of the painting. If we look carefully, the work is replete with rich appealing detail and by viewing it we follow the artist into a “dreamlike space” wherein we stop and linger with no thought of time or place.

Zao Wou-Ki uses an abstract approach and freehand style to make viewers reflect on the cosmos and nature in a way that echoes Chinese Taoist philosophy and Laozi's assertion that: “Great Form has No Shape.” At the same time, it is also a reflection of Zao's understanding and reflections on the Universe and reflects his escape from the shadow of death, through a ray of Genesis that brings light to the darkness. In the two months after Meiqin died, Zao Wou-Ki returned to China for the first time in 24 years where he traveled with his mother and visited the hometown where he was born, went to school and grew up. Being immersed in the beauty of the Chinese landscape and the soil of home soothed the turmoil in the heart and mind of this returning traveler, giving him the strength to set out on his journey anew in 1973. This mindset is particularly well reflected in 24.01.73, a fact that imbues the piece with greater depth and meaning.

The Calligraphy of ZaoWou-ki: Creating Dynamism and Space
As a young boy, Zao was taught calligraphy by his grandfather and after growing up greatly admired the calligraphy and painting of Mi Fu. The literal meaning of calligraphy is “way of writing,” but it evolved into an art form that combines lines, structure, artistic conception and brushwork. Indeed, despite the divergent character types and styles of calligraphists from different dynasties, such works are invariably vehicles for realizing the emotions and state of mind of the artist. In terms of the creative path followed by Zao Wou-ki, this refers both to his long standing background in calligraphy and his reinvention of the essence of calligraphy in oil painting. One example we can see in 24.01.73 is the way he transforms thick black oil painting pigment into the five shades of ink “thick, light, moist, thirsty and white.” Through Zao's mastery of shade and creation of texture, the simple black color is infused with rich changes which are used to lay the foundation of the work's spatial structure.

Zao Wou-ki's brushwork also transforms the focus of calligraphic strokes on balance, sustaining, roundness, heaviness and change. For example, the dark black brushwork at the left and right extremes of the painting resembles rocks that have fallen down a mountain and have boundless weight. In contrast, the seething black lines at the center spiraling upwards are replete with flexibility, while the momentum created by the interplay of unbroken round strokes and balanced strokes like drawing sand with an awl combine to create the richly beautiful depiction in the painting. Writer Feng Yu points out: “Zao Wou-ki's use of calligraphic brushwork displays strength, speed and melodious rhythm, enabling viewers to feel the vitality of life from their own inner world.” At the same time, it is this new life transformation that makes Zao a peerless Chinese artist and one of the very best post-war abstract artists in the West.
Three months after completing 24.01.73, Zao finished Homage to René Char, a work with a very similar composition on a smaller canvas (54x65) in grey-blue and purple hues, which he presented to his poet friend Rene Char to commemorate their friendship. The two works are closely related, even though 24.01.73 is full of passion for life and the second piece showcases his praise of a good friend's romantic poetry. However, both have their own distinctive strong features and Zao rarely produced two such different works so close together in his long artistic career. 24.01.73 has been well preserved as part of an art collection for the past 18 years or more and its availability now is a rare and invaluable opportunity that no serious art collector will want to miss.

Price estimate:
HKD: 15,000,000 – 20,000,000
USD: 1,912,500 – 2,550,000

Auction Result:
HKD: 17,400,000



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