Even as the bubble in prices for mainland art made in the last 20 years burst along with the global financial markets, Zao’s works have continued to be in high demand among collectors. During last winter’s auction season for Chinese art, a Zao painting sold in Hong Kong for 45.5 million Hong Kong dollars, or $5.89 million, a record for the artist.
“Zao is part of a coterie of Chinese artists that came of aesthetic age in the 1950s, an intriguing period of time that saw a wide range of Chinese artists practicing in the most diverse circumstance imaginable,” said Joan Kee, a University of Michigan art historian who is a specialist on postwar and contemporary Asian painting. “On the one hand there was Zao, living in Paris and represented by important New York galleries like Samuel Kootz,” she said. “Then you had artists like Lin Fengmian, working under the Communist regime on the eve of the anti-rightist campaign.”
Zao moved to France a year before Mao Zedong took control of China, and by the 1950s the painter’s career was thriving thanks to a following among European and American collectors. He was acquainted with Paul Klee, whose style influenced Zao’s 1952 work “Les poires vertes” (Green Pears), which will be auctioned at Christie’s on Monday. Pierre Matisse was his dealer at one point.
“Zao was one of the few Chinese artists to reach a level of commercial success that anticipated the present market for contemporary Chinese art,” Dr. Kee said. “He was very good at framing his paintings in terms that audiences of the time could understand. Recall that this is the 1950s, when Asian philosophy and aesthetics drew substantial interest from artists like Henri Michaux, Mark Tobey, and Yves Klein.”