Zao Wou-Ki 趙無極 1920-2013


Zao Wou-Ki, one of the most celebrated Chinese modern artists in the world, was born in Beijing and trained at the National School of Arts in Hangzhou under the tutelage of the pioneering modern Chinese painter Lin Fengmian. Zao's move to Paris as a young artist led to the development of a singular style which moved freely between Chinese calligraphy techniques and Western-inspired abstract compositions, and the creation of works which demonstrated a profound affinity with both traditions. Enriched by his artistic encounters both in the East and West, Zao became the embodiment of his name, Wou-Ki - the artist with 'no limits'.


Zao Wou-Ki was born in Beijing in 1920 into an intellectual family who could trace their roots to the Song Dynasty. Instructed in calligraphy by his grandfather from a tender age, the young Zao drew and painted with the encouragement of his family. Aged fifteen, Zao passed the entrance exam for Hangzhou's famous National School of Arts. Over six years he learned to draw from casts and a model, then progressed to studying oil painting and traditional Ming and Qing Dynasty painting. Rebelling against slavish realism, he sought instead to capture essential compositional elements in his work.


After graduating in 1941, Zao was appointed assistant teacher at the school. By now he had found his own masters - Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso - in postcards brought back from Paris by one of his uncles and in popular American magazines circulating in China. He was convinced that answers to his questions about the nature of artistic creation were not to be found in traditional Chinese painting nor in European academic painting, but rather by studying Cézanne and Matisse.


With his father's approval, Zao Wou-Ki decided to travel to Paris with his wife Lalan to continue his artistic training. They celebrated their arrival in the city in 1948 by spending their first afternoon together in the Louvre. Settling in Montparnasse, with Alberto Giacometti as his neighbour, and befriending other Paris-based artists such as Pierre Soulages and Joan Miró, Paris proved to be the catalyst for Zao's meteoric rise to international recognition.


Reflecting upon the influence of Paris on his work, Zao explained in 1961, 'Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China as my deeper personality has affirmed itself. In my recent paintings, this is expressed in an innate manner. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins'.


Over sixty years, Zao's search for new avenues of personal expression in his work would develop into one of the greatest stories in modern art history, opening up an unprecedented dimension in the field of abstract painting which both unified and transcended the Chinese spirit and Western art traditions.


In 2013 Zao passed away in Switzerland.


Zao's artistic development was in a constant state of evolution throughout his life, with his oeuvre falling into three key phases:


Figuration in China and France (1935 - 1954)

Zao's understanding of Western art began with his studies at the Hangzhou National School of Arts. Although he underwent a somewhat typical Chinese art education covering oil painting and traditional Ming and Qing Dynasty painting, late 19th and early 20th century Western art movements - including Impressionism - were also part of the school's curriculum, as the majority of the school's lecturers had studied in Belgium and France. Inspired by Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, whose works he had discovered in postcards brought back from Paris by an uncle and popular American magazines circulating in China, Zao Wou-Ki made the fateful voyage to Paris in 1948 with his first wife Lalan.


To avoid his work being dismissed as 'chinoiserie', at first Zao eschewed traditional Chinese motifs and techniques. He was particularly taken by the work of Paul Klee, the Swiss-German avant-garde painter who explored the expressive potential of colour and its relationship to music, spirituality and folk art. Klee was fascinated by the mystical hieroglyphs and pictograms of north African languages, regarding them as pure forms of expression. Treating the canvas as a space for artistic meditation, Zao's Klee period manifested itself in a kaleidoscopic inner world of semi-abstract figures, landscapes, architecture and still lifes rendered with etched linear lines and a palette of vivid primary hues.


Between figuration and abstraction (1954 - 1957)

Zao's artistic style underwent a tremendous transformation in the mid-1950s. He recalled later: 'During this period my paintings were no longer recognisable, still lifes and flowers no longer existed. I yearned to develop a type of imaginative and incomprehensible artistic vocabulary.' Vent (1954) is considered to be Zao's first abstract painting. Pursuing the "window that had opened in his heart", Vent was the culmination of Zao's obsessive attempts to capture the wind's "breath of air on the calm of the water" in painted form.


Zao found a new artistic language inspired by his cultural roots in his Oracle Bone series. He was inspired by the spirituality of ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions that recorded Shang Dynasty divinations and formed the basis of Han Chinese writing (in his own childhood, Zao had been taught to write Chinese by his parents who drew ancient pictograms for him). Zao believed that these "mysterious symbols" expressed the universe's "invisible natural phenomena". He incorporated oracle bone scripts and Chinese influences more boldly into his work, at times substituting calligraphy for his previously loose and winding brushstrokes. 


Embracing Lyrical Abstraction - a harmonious, painterly form of Abstract Expressionism favoured by Hans Hartung and Georges Mathieu - provided new avenues for personal expression in Zao's work, and the imagery in Zao's works saw an increasingly liberated use of colour and light. His work conveyed a new universe birthed in the artist's mind - one that incorporated elements of traditional Oriental culture with the aesthetics of Western abstraction.


Abstraction unbound (1958 onwards)

Energised by his travels to New York in 1957, Zao recognised that he had reached the end of a cycle in his painting: 'I wanted to paint the unseen, the breath of life, the wind, movement, the life of forms, the birth of colours and their fusion'. In a symbolic break with representation, Zao decided in 1958 that he would no longer give a title to his works, marking them only with their date of creation. Seized by a 'hunger for creation', he painted without stopping even at night.


Hurricane Period (1959 - 1972)

The onset of Zao's Hurricane Period was precipitated by the ill-health of his second wife. For the next decade, until May's untimely death aged 41 in 1972, Zao was plunged into 'a veritable nightmare'. The Hurricane Period paintings reflect this turmoil which had upended Zao's life, and a simultaneous yearning for peace. Explosive lines, resembling the kuang cao ('wild cursive') brushstrokes of Tang Dynasty calligraphers Zhang Xu and Su Huai, burst forth and fill the atmosphere of his monumental canvases, battling the elemental and chaotic. The Hurricane Period marked the culmination of Zao's transition towards a more grand and majestic form of abstraction that synthesised Chinese literati forms of expression, rhythm, light and space, with the power and colour of Western art.


Revisiting ink (early 1970s)

Amidst ongoing tragedy in his personal life, Zao set aside oil painting and began focusing on smaller traditional Chinese ink paintings in the early 1970s. Distraught by May's passing the following year, he travelled to Shanghai to visit his family for the first time in over two decades. Having once denounced ink painting for its restrictive traditionalism, Zao found himself drawn back to his cultural roots, and was spurred to develop a monochromatic brush-and-ink technique that wedded motifs from traditional Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting with gestural cues from his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Ink afforded Zao a speed of execution surpassing heavier oils: the freedom and lightness of his brushwork contrasted with the flattening of spatial depth and introspective use of empty space. These works depict a raw and intimate side of Zao's spiritual creativity, with inky black strokes and soft washes spontaneously unfurling in a symphonic landscape.


Towards the sublime (1970s onwards)

From the 1970s onwards, it was clear that the youthful energy of Zao's earlier abstract works had evolved into an existential search for a more profound, nuanced inner landscape, the same kind eulogised by Chinese literati painters throughout the ages. Zao's large-scale abstract landscape paintings became less focused on line and gesture, instead channelling an otherworldly atmosphere dominated by light and space. "Maybe I have matured at this time, I paint my life, but I also want to paint a space that is invisible to the eyes, a space of dreams", explained Zao. Focusing on portraying areas of empty space, Zao laid down sweeping layers of wash-like colours conveying a purity and rhythmic fluidity using a unique mixture of Western oils and traditional Chinese ink painting techniques. By the mid-1980s the gestural atmospheric landscapes had loosened into sublime, poetic universes with fields of pure, unadulterated colour. Enriched by his artistic encounters in both the East and West, in this season of his life Zao had come to embody the meaning of his given name, Wou-Ki - an artist with 'no limits'.

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