The breath of life: two intimate paintings by Zao Wou-ki to be offered at Lyon & Turnbull in London

Two prime period oils by internationally renowned Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013) will be offered by UK fine art auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull in their next edition of MODERN MADE on 25 April at the Mall Galleries in London.  The works were acquired by the owner shortly after they were painted in 1967 and are estimated at £150,000-250,000 plus fees each.

The paintings 25.1.67 and 1.3.67, by Zao Wou-Ki, are intimate in scale yet majestic in scope. They embody the artist’s declaration, stated twenty-one years after they were created, that he “wanted to paint that which cannot be seen, the breath of life, the wind, movement, the life of forms.” (Zao Wou-Ki and Françoise Marquet, Autoportrait, Édition Fayard, Paris, 1988, p.117)

As was amply illustrated in the recent retrospective exhibition of his work, The Way is Infinite, mounted at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (September 2023- February 2024), Zao occupies a unique position within the history of post-war art. His fusion of Eastern and Western artistic traditions to create a universal, international language of abstraction transcends notions of cultural heritage, aesthetic techniques and creative arts genres.

Lot 17 | Zao Wou-ki (Chinese/French 1921-2013) | 25.1.67, Oil on canvas
Signed (lower right), signed and dated Zao Wou-Ki / 25.1.67 (to reverse)
22cm x 33 cm

  • Galerie Gerald Cramer, Geneva, December 1967, from whom acquired by the present owner
  • Private Collection, London


  • Hendgen, Yann and Marquet-Zao, Françoise, Zao Wou-Ki: Catalogue raisonné des Peintures - Volume II - 1959-1974, Flammarion, Paris, 2023, p.165, cat. no. P-0895, illustrated

The present work is registered in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki.

Estimate: £150,000-250,000

Lot 18 | Zao Wou-ki (Chinese/French 1921-2013) | 1.3.67, Oil on canvas
signed (lower right), signed and dated Zao Wou-Ki / 1, Mars 67 (to reverse), oil on canvas
22cm x 35cm

  • Galerie Gerald Cramer, Geneva, December 1967, from whom acquired by the present owner
  • Private Collection, London


  • Hendgen, Yann and Marquet-Zao, Françoise, Zao Wou-Ki: Catalogue raisonné des Peintures - Volume II - 1959-1974, Flammarion, Paris, 2023, p.166, cat. no. P-0902, illustrated

The present work is registered in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki.

Estimate: £150,000-250,000

Born in Beijing in 1920, Zao was steeped in traditional Chinese calligraphy from childhood and learnt to draw the characters of the Chinese alphabet under his grandfather’s tutelage. The training he received at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, between 1935 and 1941 (based in Chongqing from 1938) was provided by Eastern and Western teachers. Zao learnt the basics of brush and ink, as well as oil painting techniques and studied the work of European masters, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, from magazine reproductions. 

Zao’s work was first shown in Paris in 1946, as part of a group exhibition of contemporary Chinese painters. Two years later and with two solo exhibitions in his native country to his name, he moved to the French capital. Based in the artists’ quarter of Montparnasse, he enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and studied under Othon Friesz. He soon settled at no.51 bis on rue Moulin-Vert, where Alberto Giacometti was a neighbour. 

Zao Wou-ki

Already an English-speaker, Zao became fluent in French and quickly established himself as a central figure in the thriving art world of 1950s Paris. A heady international mix of artists, including North Americans and Europeans from Sam Francis, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, to Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages and Joan Mitchell, became friends, sources of stimulation and what Zao described as a “community of thought” (Gilles Chazal, Zao Wou-Ki: Watercolours and Ceramics, Memphis, 2023, p.21). He was nourished by friendship and also counted poets, writers and composers amongst his intimates, such as Henri Michaux, René Char and Edgard Varèse.

The 1950s was a decade of artistic evolution for Zao, not least via the example of the Swiss artist Paul Klee, whose symbolism encouraged him to make the decision, around 1954, to abandon figuration. He was emboldened in this path by a trip to New York in 1957, where he experienced American Expressionism at first hand and came into contact with some of its proponents, such as Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Adoph Gottlieb. Multiple solo exhibitions were staged, from Paris to Cincinnati and New York, whilst a warehouse in Paris in 1959 was purchased and renovated to create a top-lit, spacious studio which provided the solitude Zao required for his creative process.

Zao Wou-ki on a trip to Hawaii with Pierre Soulages and his wife

25.1.67 and 1.3.67 date from the decade in which Zao established himself irrevocably as an international master of abstraction; international not only in the reach of his career but also in his vision. They exemplify his explanation that it was not until 1964 that he “really understood the concept of freedom in oil painting” (quoted by Ankeney Weitz, ‘Zao Wou-Ki and the Split-Space of Enunciation’, Melissa Walt et al. Zao Wou-Ki: No Limits, New York, 2016, pp.28-29).

Moreover, they are works in which the concerns of poetry and musical composition are at play as much as those of visual imagery. Their titles reference the date on which they were completed, thirty-five days apart, signalling the freedom of their content from established notions of subject matter, yet anchoring them to a specific moment in time and to a fixed point within his oeuvre. 

25.1.67 (left) and 1.3.67 (right) by Zao Wou-ki

Measuring 22 x 33 cm and 22 x 35 cm respectively and presented in a landscape format (itself a description laden with a reference to the natural world that the artist would have questioned) both paintings exemplify the extraordinary technique and visual language that Zao devised. As Ankeney Weitz has described:

The eye is continually drawn to recognise the materiality of the work and the three-dimensionality of the surface, so that it becomes an abstraction trying to resolve itself into a landscape, which then disintegrates again into an abstraction. The painting mesmerizes viewers as it draws them into a constantly changing cycle of perceptions; the overall calm of these paintings is belied by the perpetual movement of the surface.” (Ankeney Weitz, op.cit, p.29)

Details of 25.1.67

A central band of activity is offset by the relative calm above and below it. There is a suggestion of reading from right to left, as if to understand a progression of time and movement, yet the rhythm and variety of mark-making, from fine wash to delicate line and laden stroke, encourages a widening of mind beyond the linear and the representational, to a joining in a state of mind with the artist.

Layers, texture and a muted palette fuse into a sense of enigma which is profound, beautiful and infinite. A training in Chinese aesthetics and a deep understanding of Western Modernism is detectable, if not signalled specifically. By way of some explanation, in 1967 Zao exclaimed: “I like people to be able to stroll in my works, as I do when creating them.” (Interview by Jean-Jacques Leveque, ‘Promenez-vous dans le jardin de Zao Wou-Ki’, Arts Ioisir, Paris, no. 80, 11 April 1967, p. 19)

Details of 1.3.67

Not long after completing 1.3.67, Zao was represented in the French section of the World Fair in Montreal, Expo 67 (28 April-27 October 1967), having attained French citizenship three years earlier. Preparations were already underway for solo exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1968, to be followed by a touring retrospective in Canada in 1969. 

Zao continued to paint for a further almost forty years, becoming ever more esteemed and in 2006 was made a Grand Officier de l’Ordre de la Légion d’honneur. He died in Switzerland in 2013 and is buried in Montparnasse cemetery. The artist’s foundation promotes and protects his legacy, whilst the mounting of The Way is Infinite represents a post-humous recognition of his achievements by China and framing of him within that country’s cultural history. Zao Wou-Ki’s unique lyrical vision traversed Western and Eastern traditions and chimed with international audiences in a way which continues to evolve today.

As Adeney Weitz has written: “From the beginning Zao Wou-Ki’s goal was to transcend a binary view of world art in which East and West stood apart from each other. Early in his career he began looking for a path toward a more universal language that could express the conditions of the world, both his internal emotional experience and the environment around him.” (Adeney Weitz, ibid, p.29) 25.1.67 and 1.3.67 show that he very much succeeded in this aim.

Auction Details:

Auction House: Lyon & Turnbull
Sale: MODERN MADE: Modern, Post-War & Contemporary Art, Design, Craft and Studio Ceramics
Date and Time:

  • 25 April 2024 | 6:00 pm (London local time)
  • 26 April 2024 | 10:00 am (London local time)

Venue: Mall Galleries, London

Link to online catalogue