The “Three Musketeers” of Chinese Modern Art

Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, and Wu Guanzhong form a trio that redefines the 20th-century modern art scene, not just in the East, but worldwide. Often hailed as the “Three Musketeers” of Chinese Modern Art, the three highly esteemed artists were the pioneers of their generation, to integrate traditional Chinese painting techniques into Western abstractionism.

As this year's autumn auctions are edging closer, and the market's enthusiasm for the three artists does not seem to sway, let's delve into their artistic arenas, as we eagerly welcome the painters' works highlighting Christie's two auctions, slated for December 2.


From right to left: Chu Teh-Chun, Zao Wou-Ki, and Wu Guanzhong


The three renowned artists all began their journey in their hometowns in China in the 1950s, as they went under the tutelage of Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), who was the director of the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou (now China Academy of Art), also crowned as the “father of Chinese modernism”.

As the three artists left for Paris in the 1940s to 1950s for their art training, they fell in love with the Western abstract arts, while at the same time, discovered their individual artistic temperaments along the way. As each of their individual journeys unfolded, they rediscovered their deep-rooted traditional Chinese heritage on the foreign soil of France.


Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)

With his name being Wou-Ki, literally translates to “no limits” in Chinese, a name that is as fitting as it is prescient, Zao Wou-Ki is often seen as an artist that sees no bound. 

Picasso and Matisse were among Zao’s early modernist influences. Yet it was the works of Paul Klee, a German-Swiss painter that he came across in a museum, that sparked his interest in the distinctive language of mystical symbols, which later gave rise to his Oracle Bone Period in the 1950s.


Zao Wou-Ki, Paysage boréal, 1953 | Oil on canvas | 46 × 55 cm

Collection of Zao Wou-Ki Foundation


Zao Wou-Ki, 09.03.65, 1965 | oil on canvas | 130 x 162 cm

Estimate: HK$ 60,000,000 - 80,000,000


During his time in Paris in the late 1940s, he witnessed the Art Informel in Europe and the Abstract Expressionist movement that took place in the United States. Deeply inspired by the spontaneity and sense of improvisation, Zao’s works from here onwards felt more unrestrained, as compared to the sophistication of his earlier works. 

One of the characteristics of his collection completed during his Hurricane Period in the 1960s - also considered the apex of his career - is a noticeable central axis running across the canvas. Burst with energetic, vigorous brushwork and bold, vivid colors, his works from this period carry an immense amount of intensity.


Zao Wou-Ki, 15.01.82 - Triptyque, 1982 | oil on canvas (triptych) | each: 195 x 130 cm, overall: 195 x 390 cm

Estimate: HK$ 70,000,000 - 120,000,000


Zao Wou-Ki, 27.01.86, 1986 | oil on canvas | 200 x 162 cm

Estimate: HK$ 35,000,000 - 55,000,000


A big turning point in Zao's career, was when his beloved second wife, Chan May-Kan, passed away in 1972. Zao's tremendous dispair resulted in a year-long break and brought about a drastic shift to the Infinite Period in the 1980s. Not only was his artistic output more explosive, with him going for substantially larger canvases, his works also became primitively raw and are filled with a majestic and rhythmic vitality.

The grandeur comes more from his artistic exploration of Chinese philosophy and energy - or qi, to capture a sense of ethereal serenity that is completely unrestrained and set free.


Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014)

Born in Jiangsu Province, China, Chu Teh-Chun is the son of a physician, also a keen collector of Chinese art. Chu began practicing calligraphy at a young age. He found delight in incorporating vivid self-expression and cultivation via an oriental approach of calligraphy - combining movement and flow.

Traversing Chinese calligraphy and figurative painting of landscapes, Chu’s oeuvre often elicits an almost contrasting sense of controlled spontaneity that is both poetic and rhythmic, that comes from his passion for western classical music too. 

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was one of his favorites and was what he had on as the painter created one art piece after another. The music enthusiast once said, "Music is color. The dancing rhythm of music, to me forms an inseparable link with painting." The intangible artform resonances with the artist and when that was combined with the abstract painting techniques under his belt, the result was out-of-this-world.


Chu Teh-Chun, No. 195, Avant Le Printemps (Before The Spring), 1965-1966 | oil on canvas | 146 x 114 cm

Estimate: HK$ 30,000,000 - 60,000,000


Chu Teh-Chun, L'espoir est né (Hope is Born), 1991 | oil on canvas | 180 x 230 cm

Estimate: HK$ 20,000,000 - 30,000,000


Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) 

Growing up in the rural wetlands of the Jiangsu Province in China, Wu Guanzhong was surrounded by the abundance of poetic landscapes, and the tranquil reflection of plateaus that manifested the mesmerizing beauty of changing seasons. Many of the most highly sought-after works he created depict the Jiangnan water villages in China. 

Wu was the only one among the three who returned to China, after his studies in 1950 and stayed until his passing. During 1966 to 1976, the Cultural Revolution of China encouraged mass propaganda to promote the Communist government. Art was more of a medium to serve the purpose, as supposed to entertain and express oneself. Instead of nudes and portraits, landscapes were the artist's way out. Wu's artistic expression, during this time, feels arguably more reserved. Nonetheless, the way that he was able to depict traditional Chinese landscapes through his oil painting techniques mastered in the west was undeniable.

It wasn't until the Chinese economic reform in the 1980s, that Wu was able to make his way to Hong Kong, where he was invited by the Hong Kong Museum of Art to host an exhibition and two years later, a local gallery commission, marking some of his greatest achievements in his career. His emotive landscapes as well as the ability to contribute to the global modernization of Chinese painting and the nationalization of oil painting in the east are unmatched.


Wu Guanzhong, The Garden (The Garden in Jiang-nan), 1978 | oil on board | 69 x 54 cm

Estimate: HK$ 15,000,000 - 25,000,000


Wu Guanzhong, Manners of the Hometown of Lu Xun, 1985 | oil on canvas | 61 x 72.5 cm

Estimate: HK$ 16,000,000 - 26,000,000


The time the “Three Musketeers” spent in Paris almost acted as a catalyst for the three phenomenal artists, to uncover and invent new realms of abstract art - that go beyond traditional oriental aesthetics as well as Western abstract expressionism - that give new definitions to the international art scene.


Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Auction House: Christie’s Hong Kong

Venue: Hall 3, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, No. 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong

Auction: December 2, 2020  (5:00pm)

Total no. of lots: 58


20th Century: Hong Kong to New York

Auction House: Christie’s

Auction: December 2, 2020  (9:30pm HKT | 8:30am EDT)

Total no. of lots: 49