Zao Wou-ki

1920 (China) - 2013 (Switzerland)

Portrait du peintre Zao Wou-Ki


Zao Wou-Ki was born on February 1, 1920 in Beijing into a cultured Chinese family, his family belonging to the ancient Song dynasty. He studied at the Hantsgshou School of Fine Arts from the age of 15, first learning drawing, then painting. In the morning, he studied western academic art and in the afternoon, traditional Chinese painting. He became a teacher in the same establishment and exhibited his works in Shanghai in 1946.

In 1949, he emigrated to Paris in the Montparnasse district. He immediately visited museums, notably the Louvre, and took part for the first time in an exhibition of Chinese painters in Paris. He attended Othon Friesz’s studio at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the École des Beaux-Arts. Much admired by the poet Henri Michaux, Bexhibited his paintings at the Cernuschi Museum while Picasso, Miro, Giacometti, Soulages, Léger and Villon congratulated him for his talent. “I was very lucky,” he recounts, “because in 1949 I met Henri Michaux who encouraged me and introduced me to art dealers.”

Leaving aside the influence of Matisse and Picasso, Zao adopted an original model based on his own Chinese roots adjusting calligraphic signs to the poetic lines of Paul Klee. Abandoning the figurative art of landscapes and still lifes, small figures began to appear, drawn on flat surfaces. In 1951, during a stay in Venice, his figurative work will shift towards abstraction. “I wanted to escape the limits of the choice of subject. In abstraction, my freedom is greater. Giacometti who was my neighbor regretted my decision.”

He then worked on form, starting in 1954-55, and chose to express nature in its fullness, and in a true Chinese vision of the world. Form, color, light, everything is abstracted to transform into clouds, waves, landscapes. “It is from 1954 that I became, as they say, an abstract painter. I did not seek to be. The problem of abstracting my painting from the influence of reality imposed itself as a necessity,” he says.

Since the 1960s, the artist has gained international recognition through multiple exhibitions in major museums and galleries around the world, particularly in the USA and Japan. His exhibitions allowed him to widely disseminate his work and to reach a varied public. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1964.

His painting is curious, both soft and tormented, sometimes cold and sometimes comforting depending on the colors used. As with Turner, there is often a large dominant color, which can be blue-gray, yellow or red. Most often there is a swirling pattern that seems to move this mass of color, which has irregularities, elements that complement it, give it relief or break it up by touches. The elements, meticulous, are quite frankly reminiscent of Paul Klee; and this is not a mystery, since we know that he knew him very well and that he was inspired by him.

Zao Wou-ki no longer produces but his work continues to be exhibited (2003 Retrospective at the Jeu de Paume Gallery and in 2008 Exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch in Issoudun). Zao Wou-Ki is today one of the favorite painters of the French.

Considered a great master of abstraction, Zao Wou Ki said he was mainly interested in the unity of all things impregnated nevertheless with deep poetry. Through his work, he achieves a synthesis between the technical means of his Far Eastern heritage, and the plastic and poetic ambition of Western lyrical abstraction.

“I always start on a blank canvas. It takes me a long time. I work slowly. I make myself happy. I never make a sketch, always preferring to start from nothing and advance little by little. Then I go back to judge the result, scratch, add, lighten, continue, deepen always and always. I am never satisfied with myself… I love to paint. My wife always tells me that I am married to painting and not to her.” Zao Wou-Ki.