Hong Kong’s newly opened M+ museum has announced a significant donation of works by the preeminent Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki, who died in 2013 at the age of 93. The group was gifted by the artist’s stepdaughter, Sin-May Roy Zao.
According to a statement from the museum, the 12 works, most of them done on paper, represent an understudied period of Zao’s prolific career in which he departed from his grand gestural paintings in favor of printmaking. The gift also consists of early figurative paintings dating from the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the Beijing-born artist was living in Paris among artists like Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti.
“Few artists have achieved the acclaim of Zao Wou-Ki. The trailblazing modernist master earned fame in the Paris art world by integrating his Chinese aesthetic heritage with European artistic mediums,” the museum wrote on Instagram.
Zao is considered one of the greatest talents in recent Asian art history, and his paintings—which can easily fetch upwards of $65 million at auction—have grown difficult to acquire for public collection because they are so expensive. They have been prized because Zao was able to mingle styles taken from European modernism and Chinese visual culture.
Roy’s gift includes nine prints dating from between 1950 and 2000. Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Lesley Ma, the M+ museum’s curator of ink art, called the printmaking process a “wonderful playground” for Zao. She added, “You can see how he was trying to incorporate aspects of the calligraphic and ink landscape tradition. It was an interesting primary medium for him.”
The first of the two oil paintings, Open Air Theatre (1945), is one of Zao’s earliest forays into figuration, and the second, Piazza Siena (1951), was painted only a few years after but already carries the influence of the Parisian émigrés, in particular Paul Klee, whose work left a strong impact on Zao.
Zao left Paris in 1958 following a painful split from his first wife, Xie Jing-lan. For a brief period afterward, he went returned to Hong Kong, where he met his second wife, the actress Chan May-kan, who died in 1972. The two moved back to Paris with May’s daughter, Sin-May, and settled in a home close to Alberto Giacometti’s studio.
“Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China,” Zao once told Christie’s. “Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris that I owe this return to my deepest origins.”