A major Zao Wou Ki exhibition in Paris


Just opened, the exhibition dedicated to Zao Wou Ki at the Paris Museum of Modern Art is called “Space is Silence” and is an invitation to meditation through a selection of large format paintings.


Paris had not hosted a major exhibition honouring Zao Wou Ki for 15 years. The new show (1 June through to 6 January 2019) is an exhibition of large canvases curated by François Michaud and Erik Verhagen with the support of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation. The Paris Museum of Modern Art has selected forty extra-large works, some of which (like a series of inks drawn in 2006), have never been shown in public before.

Zao arrived in France in 1948 and was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour by France’s President in 1993. Between those two dates Zao became a pillar of 20th century Abstract art in France but also an essential and progressive element in China’s Contemporary Art history. This dual impact resulted from his remarkable genius for fusing his native Chinese culture with his adopted European culture, producing powerful and timeless art that is highly appreciated in both the West and the East.

The lure of abstraction

Born in Beijing in 1920 to a family of intellectuals, Zao Wou-ki was a descendent of the Song Dynasty. In 1935 he started studying Western and Chinese painting techniques at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts for six years. After a first exhibition in Shanghai in 1947, he moved to Paris where he began attending workshops conducted by Othon Friesz at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière and the French capital’s famous école des Beaux-Arts. Inspired by Paris’s artistic effervescence at the time, Zao Wou ki became friends with lots of abstract artists including Sam FRANCIS, Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, Pierre SOULAGES, Hans HARTUNG and Maria Elena VIEIRA DA SILVA. In 1951, he was particularly impressed by the fundamental simplicity and poetry of the works he discovered at a Paul Klee exhibition in Bern. The vision seems to have added a vital link in the DNA of Zao’s personal form of abstraction, combining his oriental heritage with Western lyricism. It took another four years for him to abandon “those fine shorthand-like signs with which he represented a running animal, a woman lying naked in the landscape or a house among the trees” (as described by art historian Daniel Abadie in Le passage du vent, catalogue for the exhibition entitled Zao Wou-Ki – Hommage à Riopelle et peintures récentes at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, 2008).

In 1959, Zao Wou Ki stepped even closer to absolute simplicity but choosing to identify his works by date only; a way of allowing his paintings to speak for themselves and of fixing their completion in time.

Much admired in France, his work started to gain recognition in China during the early 80s. At that time, one could buy a canvas at auction for around $5,000. Twenty years later, the emergence of the Chinese art market massively impacted his prices. Nowadays, his works are sought after all over the world and his prices keep rising.

Bidding battles…

On the secondary market, Zao Wou Ki’s works fetch some of the best ever Fine Art results ever hammered in China and in France. Nowadays his primary market is Hong Kong; but it is by no means his only market; for over 10 years, collectors have engaged in increasingly competitive bidding battles to acquire his best paintings wherever they are offered. Since January 2008, nearly 260 of his works have crossed the million-dollar threshold.

Over the last past year, Zao’s auction record has been revised on four occasions. In 2017 with two oil paintings dated 1964 sold via Christie’s in Hong Kong; the first, 29/09/64, fetching $19.6 million on May 27 and the second, 29/01/64, reaching $25.9 million six months later. (Both works beat the existing record for a Chinese work on canvas held by Zeng Fanzhi). Then in the first half of 2018, two older paintings also crossed the $20 million threshold in Hong Kong, with Et la terre était sans forme (1956) fetching $23.3 million in March at Poly Auction and 14/12/59, doubling its estimate at Christie’s in late May to close at $22.5 million). Created in Europe, his best abstract works are being rapidly acquired by Asian collections.

As Zao’s prices have risen, his market has sharply refocused onto Hong Kong in recent years. Today 90% of his auction turnover is generated in Asia (over the last 12 nearly months, 70% in Hong Kong, nearly 10% in Taiwan and 9% in mainland China) versus just under 8% in France. Nevertheless, although the French market has been substantially outpaced by Hong Kong, its annual turnover on this hot signature has doubled in 10 years (from $9 million in 2007 to $18.5 million in 2017).

As time goes by, the development of the Hong Kong market and the globalisation of demand has made Zao Wou Ki’s market increasingly efficient. The result is one of the most impressive price increases in of our times… almost +1,000% since the year 2000.