The Story of Lalan: From Zao Wou-Ki's First Wife to Female Pioneer of Chinese Abstract Art

Lalan- a name that not many may have heard of. Lalan (Xie Jinglan) is actually the first wife of Zao Wou-Ki whom he moved to France with. Does her name sound more familiar to you now? Perhaps all these years her talent has been overshadowed by Zao Wou-Ki’s fame, but in fact, she is one of the most influential female artists of the 20th century.

Lalan is one of the first artists to infuse her profound understanding from music and dance to her oeuvre, breaking the boundaries between different domains. During Le French May, Sotheby’s presents an exhibition titled Lalan: Endless Dance. We have invited Sotheby’s Gallery Director, Jonathan Wong, to introduce to us this woman who had made major influences on abstract master Zao Wou-Ki.

Sotheby's Gsllery Director Jonathan Wong

Lalan's Untitled|1992

Journey to France with Zao Wou-Ki

Lalan was born in 1921 in Guizhou, a province in south-west China, into an intellectually engaged family. Music was Lalan’s first love so she enrolled in the music department at Hangzhou School of Art in the late 1930s. She met Zao Wou-Ki there and they got married in 1941.

After the end of the Second World War, the couple moved to Paris. During the post-war period, art informel was getting increasingly popular in the art world and the idea of abstractionism deeply influenced the couple. They set up an atelier in Montparnasse and spent much time with artists like Giacometti and Sanyu. Lalan had not started to paint yet but was pursuing her music and dance studies, both at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and the American Cultural Centre.

According to the couple’s son Jia-Ling Zhao, many of Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings were created with the help of Lalan. Not only did she give opinions, she also named many of the works. Jia-Ling recalls the time when his parents had a strong dispute over a painting’s composition, but a week later, he discovered that his father had made changes according to his mother’s comments. Jia-Ling believes that Lalan was the person who influenced Zao Wou-Ki’s oeuvres, and not the other way around.

Zao Wou-Ki (left), Lalan (right) and their son Jia-Ling Zhao

Lalan pictured in front of Zao Wou-Ki's work

Divorce and First Oeuvres

The couple divorced in 1957 and Lalan subsequently married the French sculptor Marcel Van Thienen. She then began her life as a painter, creating her works from the “first period”. These paintings are mostly abstract, composed of simple lines and colours.

Lalan choreographed her “first period” paintings like her performances – paint pirouettes, slides and sweeps over the canvas. Although these works share similarities with Zao Wou-Ki’s early ones, Lalan’s use of lines are more intricate and fluid, unlike powerful strokes that you would see in a Zao Wou-Ki painting.

Lalan's Extended Figure | 1963 - 1967

Lines in her paintings dance in mid-air

Lalan's Untitled|1967

Zao Wou-Ki's works are more vigorous, shown above is 15.02.65

Lalan's Sleeping Sphinx | 1969

Second Period Paintings

Between 1970 and 1983, Lalan experienced a change in her perception of beauty in art. She hoped to find peace and to bring peace into her artworks. Having read books of Laozi’s and Zhuang Zhou’s, the ancient Chinese philosophers, she discovered a sense of calm that is reflected in her oeuvres.

This exhibit- Lalan’s Dawn (Triptych), is significantly different from her earlier works. Its composition is more apparent and radiates tranquility.

Lalan's Dawn (Triptych) | 1972

Third Period- Abstractionism

Lalan’s “third period” works are combinations of oeuvre styles from her first two periods. For instance, her Untitled (1986 - 1988), shares similar compositions and colours of pieces from the second period whereas the strokes she employed are from her first period.

The third period comprises abstract paintings. Taking Untitled (created in 1990) as an example, we can see that Lalan used splashing techniques yet strokes from what could have been seen in the first period are also visible.

Lalan's Untitled | 1986 - 1988

Lalan's Untitled | 1990

Details of the painting

Jia-Ling also said that unlike Zao Wou-Ki who solely put his focus on painting, Lalan assimilated dance, music with her artworks, particularly in her exhibitions. She was one of the few Chinese artists who adopted this method of presentation, bringing the avant-garde spirit to life.

Lalan combined dance, music and art in her exhibitions

Lalan combined dance, music and art in her exhibitions

Breakthrough in the Auction World

Lalan’s work was first sold at auction back in April 2008 when a large triple-screen painting sold for HK$600,000 (US$76,443) only. The value of her painting has steadily increased over the past decade. One of her paintings was recently sold for HK$6m (US$764,436), ten times the price fetched when her painting first appeared at auction.

In the past decade, people have started to explore some of the more important 20th century artists, particularly female artists. And in the last few years, even heavier emphasis is put on female artists. For instance, the series of 20th century female artist exhibitions at Asia Society, as well as the exhibition for the Chinese artist Pan Yuliang that it held last year.

On the other hand, collectors have developed an interest in female artists. Like the Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama whose work is widely recognised by people around the world, a recognition that is beyond her identity as a female artist. Another example is the French artist Louise Bourgeois whose artworks are getting increasingly popular amongst collectors. Perhaps the trend of collecting artworks by female artists and the rising numbers of female collectors are the reason why so many of female artists are brought in the limelight.

Lalan's work that sold for over HK$6.7m 

Asia Society's exhibition for Pan Yulian

Popular with Taiwanese Collectors

Lalan's work has attracted great interest from collectors in Greater China, especially those from Taiwan. The Taiwanese have a love for Chinese artists overseas, like Zao Wou-Ki. Therefore, when they are looking for 20th century artists, Lalan becomes an obvious choice.

Lalan's Go with the Wind|1968

Lalan's Untitled|1969 - 1970

Lalan's Untitled|1970 - 1975

Lalan's Untitled|1990

Lalan's Untitled|1992

Jonathan Wong pointed out that prices cannot be determnined by periods

Different periods, different prices?

As mentioned, Lalan’s paintings are divided into three periods and each period has very different styles of work. However, it is not easy to generalise the prices of her works according to these periods as size also matters. In Sotheby’s current selling exhibition, the prices of paintings range from HK$200,000 to HK$2.6m (US$25,482 - US$331,266).

Most people are interested in Lalan’s works from the first and second periods. That’s why it is very hard to find an occasion like this exhibition where you can see all of her oeuvres in one go.

Exhibition Details

Lalan: Endless Dance

Location: Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery
Address: 5/F, One Pacific Place, Admiralty
Date: 3-18 May 2019