Zao Wou-ki

Before the Storm


In Tate Modern

Zao Wou-ki 1921–2013
Original title
Avant l'orage
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 724 × 537 mm
frame: 755 × 566 × 35 mm
Purchased 1958


Before the Storm 1955 is rectangular, vertically oriented oil painting by the Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki. The painting’s overall appearance is dark and murky, with a colour palette that appears to be restricted to black, white and earth tones. In the background of the work the paint is thinly applied and flatly blended. A large, dark form resembling a storm cloud appears to emerge from the uppermost section of the work and descend toward the bottom. The cloud projects outward into an uneven circular mass touching the painting’s left and right margins at the work’s horizontal midpoint and occupies over one third of the composition. In the centre of the cloud are two small highlighted dots with a circular trace around them in light-coloured paint; these give the impression of puncturing the larger form. There are four areas in the painting – top left and right and bottom left and right – where the oil paint is applied more thickly. These areas consists of clusters of light brown and white paint are positioned facing each other with a textured overlay of thin black lines executed in a fluid style that bears resemblance to ancient Chinese calligraphy. The painting is inscribed ‘Zao Wou-Ki | 55’ on the bottom right in Chinese characters and ‘ZAO WOU-KI | Avant l’orage | 55’ on the back of the canvas.

In 1948 Zao moved from China to Paris and established a studio in the artists’ district of Montparnasse close to that of sculptor Alberto Giacometti. As a student in Hangchow, Zao had studied the works of the European modernist painters Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. Rejecting the traditions of Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy that were taught at his art school, Zao instead produced imitations of the paintings of these Western artists. It was not until Zao moved to Paris and encountered abstract expressionism and action painting – specifically the works of Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Helena Vieira da Silva, all of whom were living and working in the city at the time – that he began to recognise the potential parallels between Eastern and Western art practices and consider how his future works might draw on both traditions.

The group of abstract paintings produced by Zao between 1953 and 1957 that includes Before the Storm are often referred to as the Oracle Bone series due to their incorporation of characters from a particularly pictographic form of ancient Chinese calligraphy known as oracle script. Oracle script was used by diviners mainly during the latter part of the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC) to ask questions of the deities regarding the future prosperity of their crops and the wellbeing of their communities. These questions were inscribed onto animal bones and then burnt in a ceremonial fire. The cracks that appeared in the script after burning were read as the responses of the gods. Zao acknowledged the influence of ancient Chinese signs on his work from this period (see Alley 1981, p.769) and discussing the change that occurred in his paintings in 1953 he observed that: ‘My painting becomes unreadable. Still life and flowers are gone. I tend to write an imaginary, indecipherable’ (‘Biographie (1920–2013)’, trans. by the author, no date, accessed 8 June 2016).

The work was first exhibited in Collections d’un Amateur et de son Fils at the Henri Creuzevault Gallery in Paris in September–October 1957.

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.769–70, reproduced p.769.
‘Biographie (1920–2013)’, Fondation Zao Wou-Ki, no date,, accessed 8 June 2016.

Judith Wilkinson
June 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

As a student in Hangzhou, China, Zao became interested in the European art scene. He moved to Paris in 1948 and immersed himself in the work of the artists who lived there. His own distinctive style emerged in the mid-1950s, drawing upon both Eastern and Western artistic practices. Before the Storm belongs to a group of artworks by Zao, often referred to as the Oracle Bone series. The pieces include characters from an ancient form of Chinese calligraphy known as ‘oracle bone script’. Zao reconciled this tradition with contemporary artistic concerns to establish a personal language of abstraction. 

Gallery label, January 2022

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Catalogue entry

Zao Wou-Ki born 1921

T00182 Avant l'Orage (Before the Storm) 1955

Inscribed 'Zao Wou-Ki [in Chinese characters] | 55' b.r. and 'ZAO WOU-KI | Avant l'orage | 55' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 21 1/8 (72.5 x 53.5)
Purchased from Henri Creuzevault (Grant-in-Aid) 1958
Prov: M. de Monbrison, Paris (purchased from the artist); with Henri Creuzevault, Paris
Exh: Collections d'un Amateur et de son Fils, Henri Creuzevault, Paris, September-October 1957 (no catalogue)

The artist writes (letter of 23 January 1974): 'During the period 1953-1956, I gave titles to my pictures, but only after they were finished. I find that they are no longer justified by my conception of creation and since 1967 I have only given my pictures the date as reference.

'As for the motifs of my paintings, during the period between 1953-1956 I was influenced by archaic Chinese signs, then at the end of 1956 I began to abandon this procedure for a freer method. I can say that I have never had any intention to make a Chinese landscape or painting; if my painting looks like a landscape, this is completely accidental, as for the Chinese influence, it is, I think, in spite of myself.'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.769-70, reproduced p.769

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