24 Feb The life of Zao Wou Ki is the journey of a Chinese artist who came to the West.
The adventure of this painter, discovered by Henri Michaux, is also the history of contemporary painting and its metamorphoses.
Born in Beijing in 1920 and inspired by more than 10 centuries of Chinese art, Zaou Wou Ki would become one of the greatest painters in the West.
All his interviews and speeches have been so many testimonies of what is happening between the painter and the canvas. It is a walk in painting, a sort of “psychoanalysis of the brush” and above all an incentive to better understand the mechanisms of creation.
Like Rembrandt, he had been asked to do his self portrait, on the air this time: he presented himself as born of a family of great bourgeois in Beijing, having received a very severe education, however emphasizing with a certain tenderness the support received from his banker father, passionate about painting, who rather than seeing him follow in his father’s footsteps to embrace “a dishonest profession consisting in profiting from the money of others”, encouraged him to live his passion and follow an artistic career.
At the traditional Chinese school they teach ancient classical literature and calligraphy which he will begin at the age of 6 and which, in his own words, instilled in him a real discipline – suffered certainly – but which will undoubtedly give him an advantage for the following.
He will enter the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 14 and will switch from calligraphy to charcoal and then to oil painting.
Arrived in Paris in 1946, he met painters and writers, such as Soulages, Miró, Vieira da Silva or even Claude Roy and André Malraux (to whom he will have to obtain French nationality).
It must be said that the times are rich in events.
Paris was then recognized as being the symbol of cultural internationalism and as a center of art: we speak of the School of Paris to designate the community of artists of all origins who work there and make the Ruche de Montparnasse vibrate.
This is where he will learn French and “discover his true artistic personality”
When he returned to Hangzhou in 1983, invited by the Ministry of Culture, he asked to see the students’ works on the sole condition of being able to express what he thought about it and the authorities would not be disappointed: He bitterly denounced a ” Chinese-style realistic socialist style”.
Charcoal seems to him to have been worked like a pencil, and he deplores the lack of personality of the works which all seem to have been made by one and the same person: for him it is an academic painting, fixed and uninteresting.
With this in mind, he will agree to stay at the Academy for a month to allow students to take in this criticism and give positive feedback to the results. His wife Françoise Marquet will even join him to teach a course on the evolution of painting.
Sensitive and aware of the fact that the unfailing support and encouragement of his father were the launching pad for the expression of his art and its subsequent consecration, he will take to heart a real moral duty of transmission!
To paint is not to recite a lesson! He intends to awaken the independence and freedom of future artists.
Painting is not about filling a surface: the brush is a vector of emotion, the choice of each color has a reason for being.
He will explain that from the start, abstract painting was a necessity of expression for him and amazed by the West he wanted to “get out” of Chinese art and get rid of this label. It was then enough for him to look at the others to decide to do differently and without limit. Beyond Paris, he became interested in American painting, which seemed to him more spontaneous than European painting.
Oil paintings, watercolors, prints, ceramics, Chinese inks, the work of Zao Wou Ki is today present in 150 collections and 20 countries and its price appears at its zenith: in 2019, a triptych of ten meters long – the Master’s largest piece – was sold for $ 65 million.
For my part, I am very sensitive – in addition to the beauty of his works – to the tireless curiosity of the artist established as a personal search engine, to the relentlessness put into the will to transmit, to the humility to recognize that without the confident and encouraging gaze of a father the path taken would have been different.
The Zao Wou Ki Foundation, created in Switzerland during the artist’s lifetime, pays tribute and invites us to know the extent and the treasure of his work in order to continue this work of transmission.
Committed to the Fine Arts in France through our own Foundation, my wife and I are also invested in it alongside the artist’s widow and I invite you to follow the news and discover the pieces left as an inheritance.
Zao Wou Ki passed away in 2013 in Nyon, Switzerland.
In February 2020, in the first days of the proven globalization of the pandemic born in China, he would have been 100 years old.
One wonders how he would have looked at all this, he who had built a real “bridge of the arts” between China and the West?