Sotheby’s Hong Kong to Host 20th Century Chinese Art Autumn Auction

Sotheby’s 20th Century Chinese Art Autumn Sale will be held in Hong Kong on 4 October, offering a meticulous selection of more than 120 lots estimated at HK$130 million. Apart from a number of outstanding works passed down by celebrated Chinese painters active in French art circles from the early 20th Century, the auction will also feature a collection of exceptionally rare paintings scheduled to debut in the art market for the first time.

Taking place from 2 to 7 October alongside the 20th Century Chinese Art pre-sale exhibition is Treasures of the Century, an educational non–selling exhibition that provides academic insight on 20th Century Chinese art. Over 20 seminal works by masters and pioneers from Xu Beihong to Chen Yifei will be on view. Please refer to a separate press release for details

Sylvie Chen, Head of Sotheby’s 20th-Century Chinese Art Department, said: “In the selection of artworks for the upcoming sale, significant emphasis has been placed on the accomplishments of the artist in the broader context of modern Chinese art history, rather than on commercial considerations. In light of this, we are proud to present the magnificent works of the genre’s great masters – Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun, Wu Guanzhong and Chao Chung-hsiang – all hailing from the cradle of modern Chinese art, the National Arts Academy of Hangzhou. Although traditional Chinese culture has been revered by the western world for its breadth and depth, its development was hindered during the era of political turbulence in the 1960s and 70s when numerous works of veteran masters in modern Chinese art were destroyed. As such, the works of virtuoso painters featured at our auction will present clear evidence of the artists’ pursuit of progress and of the fusion of Chinese and Western arts. This moving spirit of the early 20th century is brought to vivid life in their works.”

Two paintings by abstract art master Zao Wou-ki (b. 1921), executed during his prime years from the 1960s to the 1970s, will be presented. The first is 18-10-60 (est. HK$12 – 18 million), a work of monumental grandeur undertaken in 1960. In the central part of the composition, a mass depicting a mountain ridge is set against a crimson background. Radiating from the centre, its brushstrokes appear to throb with a forceful dynamism. Breaking free of Paul Klee’s influence, which is often characterised by the use of mysterious Chinese symbols and written scripts, Zao Wou-ki instead depicts his inner world entirely through colours and blank spaces filled with poetic nuances. The colour red, as used in the painting to convey passion and the vibrancy of life, also alludes to the joy and warmth in Zao’s relationship with his new bride, Chen Meiqin, from his second marriage. The painting has been kept in a private collection in the United States for many decades now, by a collector who is a close friend of Zao Wou-ki. It is a rare occasion indeed that the work is only now being introduced to the art market for the first time.

Zao Wou-ki’s second painting is inspired by another phase of his artistic expression, which was triggered by the death of his loved one in 1972. Traumatized, he channeled his experience into his creativity and marked his return to the genre of Chinese ink paintings in 1973. Once again, he injected elements of Chinese landscape art into his oil paintings, taking the latter to a whole new level of artistic expression. One such representative work is 5.3.71-28.11.74 (est. HK$9 – 15 million). Heavily influenced by the traditional Chinese painting styles, it is rendered with the sombre and melancholic emotions typically felt by artists of that generation. Zao’s feelings of dejection, perhaps morphing into hope, is suggested by the descending mass on the left side of the canvas gravitating towards light portrayed on the right like shadows of death. Spaces on the canvas are deliberately left vacant to complement the delineations of motion, not unlike the layout of a Chinese landscape painting.

Also showcased are two outstanding works of Paris-based abstract art master Chu Teh-chun (b.1920), painted in the 1950s and 1980s respectively. One of them is No. 19 (left; est. HK$5 – 6 million). Chu flawlessly blends in the spirit of Chinese calligraphy using abstract lines and multilayered shades of robust colours, akin to a stirring musical score. Measuring 128 X 79.5cm, this composition is one of the largest ever by Chu from his early days as a student in Paris (1955-1959) and therefore, very rare.

Another impressive work is L’air Embrasé (est. HK$3.5 – 4.5 million), which was produced in 1990 when the artist was sixty years old and at the height of his intellectual and artistic maturity. This is evident in the warm colours which he used to unveil his zest for life. While demonstrating unfettered self-expression, L’air Embrasé also appeals to collectors in its rarity.

Another important name honoured at the auction is Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), a close friend of Chu Teh-chun from their early days at the National Arts Academy of Hangzhou, and a pioneer of the modernisation of Chinese art in the 20th century. A Mountain Village in the North (est. HK$ 5 – 7 million), one of Wu’s significant works from the 1970s, will be presented at the sale. Throughout his life, Wu was adamant about creating art with a nationalistic and modern spirit. Embodying this approach, the work portrays a landscape scene from his motherland. The composition is infused with a bucolic simplicity, with its towering green trees reaching for the heavens and pink clouds floating in the sky. The painting attests to Wu Guanzhong’s mastery of colours and patriotic sentiments for his motherland. This masterpiece has not been seen in the art market in the past decade.

A Blue Star in the Moonlit Night (est. HK$5 – 6 million), a seminal work by the master of abstract expressionism Chao Chung-hsiang, is another highlight at the auction. It is also one of the artist’s most representative works to emerge from his lifelong career. Executed during his residence in Sichuan, the composition is split into two parts. Depicted on the right are two birds with large beaks. A fledgling is seen leaning against the larger mother bird for intimacy and support, with its tiny wings safely protected – a reflection of the painter’s own yearnings for the love of his parents. On the left was painted blue circular lines with remarkable force to convey motion and the images of swirling stars. The strength of Chao’s brushstrokes recalls Vincent van Gogh’s portrayal of celestial bodies in Starry Night. Both artists used similar techniques to delve into their inner worlds of passion and intricate feelings to uncover their enthusiasm for life.

Chair and Chair (est. HK$ 8 – 12 million), painted by Wang Huaiqing (b. 1944) during the mature phase of his career, deserves equal mention. Exuding an air of classical elegance, the painting features a delicate array of Ming Dynasty chairs to depict the state of displacement and oblivion felt by Chinese intellectuals of his time. Set against a stark, monochrome background, the overlapping structures of classical furniture suggest the passage of time and vestiges of ages past that seemingly linger; this work is Wang Huaiqing’s deep contemplation on traditional Chinese culture and the collective wisdom of its lineage.

Sanyu’s (1901-1966) Pink Nude on Floral Sheet (est. HK$12 – 18 million) is a highly acclaimed work from the “pink” phase of his career and is highly anticipated at the auction. Sanyu’s most spectacular creations are centred on the subject of the nude figure. The centrepiece of this panting is the pink anatomy of a naked woman with blonde hair. Employing his customary clean brushstrokes and condensed colours, the artist covertly projects his feelings of pleasure. The depiction of flowers on a sheet, which appears to be an Oriental-style composition, hints at the nostalgia he feels for his hometown.

Image: Zao Wou-ki’s 18-10-60. Est. HK$12 – 18 million. Photo: Sotheby’s.

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