ZAO, Wou-Ki (1921 – 2013)

ZAO Wou-Ki (1921-2013) in his studio

ZAO, Wou-Ki (1921 - 2013)

Biography

Zao Wou-Ki was born on February 13, 1920 and died on April 9, 2013; He was a Chinese-French painter and a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Zao was born in Beijing with family roots in Dantu, Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. In his childhood he was brought back to his hometown Dantu where he studied calligraphy. From 1935 to 1941, he studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

In 1948, he went with his wife Lan-lan, a composer, to Paris to live on the same block in Montparnasse where the classes of Émile Othon Friesz took place.

He arrived in Paris on April 1, Zao Wou-Ki settled in the Montparnasse district, in a small workshop on rue du Moulin-Vert close to that of Alberto Giacometti. He learned French at the Alliance française, attended the Grande Chaumière academy where he attended the lessons of Émile Othon Friesz. He said a few years later in 1976 that it was in Paris that he found his true personality. He chose to settle there because of impressionism, for which he experiences a particular tenderness. His friends were at that time Norman Bluhm, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Nicolas de Staël, Sam Francis, Pierre Soulages, Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, Hans Hartung artists from different geographical locations, Canada, the United States, the Portugal, and Germany, who meet at the Nina Dausset gallery, rue du Dragon.

His earliest exhibitions in France were met with praise from Joan Miró and Picasso.

At the Desjobert printing house he learned the techniques of lithography. In 1950, it was the gallery owner Pierre Loeb who came to visit the painter’s studio, brought by Henri Michaux who became a close friend. The painter worked for Loeb from that date until 1957.

That same year, Zao Wou-Ki participated in the May Salon where he exhibited until 1978 and presented his first lithographs at the La Hune gallery.

Zao and his wife pursued their own careers, their son having stayed in China with his Zao’s parents. In the mid-1950s, they were divorced. In 1957, Zao decided to visit the United States where his younger brother Chao Wu-Wai was living in Montclair, New Jersey, close to the art scene of New York City. He wanted to learn more about “pop art”. While in the US, he painted seven canvases at his brother’s house. There are relatively few items dating from that year, 1957.

Years later, the largest canvas was given by his brother, Chao Wu-Wai, to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Zao’s works are first influenced by Paul Klee and then they are orientated to the lyric abstraction. He names his works with the date in which he finishes them, masses of colors appear to materialize a creating world, like a big bang, where light structures the canvas. He preferred formats are triptychs and diptychs. While his work was stylistically similar to the Abstract Expressionists whom he met while travelling in New York, he was influenced by Impressionism. Zao Wou-ki stated that he had been influenced by the works of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne.

He left the U.S. after a six-week stay, traveling to Tokyo and then to Hong Kong, where he met his second wife Chan May-Kan, a film actress who with two children from her first marriage. Under the influence of Zao, she became a successful sculptor. In 1972, she committed suicide at age 41 due to mental illness.

In 1972, he also visited his family in China which he has not seen since 1948.

Zao’s works, influenced by Paul Klee, are orientated to abstraction. He names them with the date in which he finishes them, and in them, masses of colours appear to materialise a creating world, like a Big Bang, where light structures the canvas. He worked formats in triptychs and diptychs. While his work was stylistically similar to the Abstract Expressionists whom he met while travelling in New York, he was influenced by Impressionism. Zao Wou-Ki stated that he had been influenced by the works of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne.

His meetings with Henri Michaux pushed him to review his Indian ink techniques, always based in Chinese traditional drawings. Zao was a member of the Académie des beaux-arts, and was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime.

In 1982, he was invited to paint for the Fragrant Hills Hotel in Beijing, designed by I. M. Pei. In 1983, he returned to his alma mater, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou to give lectures.

Former French President Jacques Chirac was offered a painting by Zao Wou-Ki by his ministers during their last meeting.

In 1997, he married his third wife Françoise Marquet, who now serves as president of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation

His meetings with Henri Michaux pushed him to review his Indian ink techniques, always based in Chinese traditional drawings. Zao was a member of the Académie des beaux-arts, and was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime.

By the end of his life Zao had stopped producing new paintings due to health problems.

He died on 9 April 2013 at his home in Switzerland.

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