The record-setting HK$68.9m ($8.4m) paid in October at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction for a 1968 painting, 10.1.68, by Zao Wou-ki, emphasised the kind of “new” art that mainland Chinese today consider extremely desirable. From the favoured 1960s period, when Zao was a darling of collectors of abstract expressionist works in the US, the autumnal oil, shot with sky blue, sold to a collector from China. The previous record of $5.9m was set in 2008 for a 1956 work.
Although such abstract works have been popular with Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Southeast Asian collectors in the past decade, very recently big-spending mainland buyers have paid many of the top prices for pieces by Chinese painters who trained in France in the first half of the 20th century. On the cusp of great societal change at home, these artists left China to explore modernity in Europe, then the centre of progressive culture.
Mainland collectors have been voracious in spending millions of dollars on traditional Chinese ink paintings, but their participation in the abstract oils market is a new and significant development for the genre. “Affluent mainland Chinese collectors are hungry for these pieces,” says Sylvie Chen, head of Sotheby’s 20th-century Chinese art.
The French dealer Philippe Koutouzis, who has been selling the works of such artists for more than 20 years, says: “There will never again be a generation of artists like this. In Europe, they invented a new language. They trained in Chinese painting, but found a new voice in abstraction, which for [the] Chinese is visual, not philosophical, like in the West.”
Eric Chang, Christie’s international director of Asian contemporary and Chinese 20th-century art, says: “Modern Chinese art has one goal: how to merge western art and Chinese art. Now Chinese collectors recognise the value of these works.”
The romance of historical context certainly holds great appeal: the first generation, including Lin Fengmian and Xu Beihong, returned from France to establish China’s new art academies; the second generation, including Zao, Chu and T’ang Haywen, had to build careers in Europe after the 1949 communist victory on the mainland.
Currently at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris (until 31 December) is “Chinese Artists in Paris”, an exhibition of works by painters and sculptors from China who began to arrive in France in the 1920s. It is co-sponsored by Sotheby’s. Compared with contemporary Chinese oil painting, this earlier generation of European-trained abstractionists has closer aesthetic links with the artistic values of classical Chinese painting, which, in present-day China, remains the standard. Although a few important works from the early 1990s have fetched multi-million prices at auction, buy-ins at recent sales have topped 20% and mainland collector interest remains minimal. Experts estimate that around 80% of auction buyers for contemporary Chinese art are from the US, Europe or Hong Kong.
Zao and Chu, working in the 1950s and 1960s, “had a new way to express abstract painting, merging with Chinese landscape painting,” says Chang. “Chu, a calligrapher, used the line to describe landscape, while a western painter might use line to create space and depth. Zao said his colours were inspired by impressionists, but his format is like Song dynasty painting, where the artist picks part of a landscape and makes a [composition] to express feeling about landscape.”
Although these artists’ works now command world-class prices, non-Chinese collectors, scholars and museum curators remain unimpressed. Many look at the paintings, especially from the early days, and see the clear inspiration of Nicolas De Staël in Chu’s abstracts, or Matisse in Lin Fengmian’s figures.
Many in Asia believe it is just a matter of time before the real contributions of these Chinese painters are recognised. “Art history is not frozen,” says Koutouzis, who recently opened a gallery in Hong Kong with an exhibition of the 1980s calligraphies and 1970s paintings of Chu Teh-chun. “History is written by the winner. Today China is winning.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Records tumble as the mainland embraces its modernists'