Zao Wou Ki

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Zao Wou Ki was a notable twentieth century Chinese-French artist. He was known for his abstract art and non-representational paintings that juxtaposed Eastern and Western styles. In his own words, “Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two.” He was highly inspired by abstract works of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock.

Born on February 13, 1921, Zao Wou Ki grew up in Peking, China. Few later he was brought back to his hometown Dantu. He studied calligraphy at an early age. Later on he received his formal education in arts from China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1935. He studied at the academy for six years, where work of Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne made a huge impact on him. He found himself profoundly impressed by pioneers of European Modernity. From 1941 to 1947, Zao held the position for art professor at the academy and displayed his work in a solo exhibition.

In 1948, he immigrated to Paris with his wife, Lan-lan, a composer. He made acquaintance with several noteworthy artist of the time Alberto Giavometti, Henri Michaux, Maria Elena Vieira da Silva and Joan Miró. Moreover, Zao invested his time learning lithography at the “Grande Chaumière” in Paris. Soon after, at the Creuze gallery, he had a solo exhibition presenting his representational painting. Since then he held numerous exhibits of his work across Europe. Inspired by Paul Klee’s artwork, Zao seemed to gradually break away from representational painting. He became increasingly interested in the juxtaposition of European Art informel and Eastern calligraphy.

The paintings of Zao manifested scenic-cosmic associations through its poetic and abstract style. Besides paintings, he also used to design sets. R. Petit’s “Die Perle” was a ballet for which Zao designed a set in 1953. Prior to his travel to America, Zao and his wife got divorced. Late 1950s is marked as the time when Zao Wou-Ki went to United States where his younger brother Chao Wu-Wai lived in Montclair, New Jersey. During his stay with his brother he painted seven canvases. One of the monumental canvases was given to the Detroit Institute of Arts by his brother. Subsequent to his stay in America, he made several stops before returning to France. During his brief stay in Hong Kong he met an actress who became his second wife. He groomed her to be a successful sculptor. Notwithstanding their good relationship, his wife committed suicide owing to her mental illness.

French government granted Zao citizenship in 1964. The following year a retrospective of his work was held at the Folkwang museum in Essen. Despite his newly acquired status as French citizen, he didn’t cease to head back home. In 1970s he frequented China, where he composed a series of ink paintings representing the Chinese culture and traditions. Besides he collaborated with various artists and close friends such as H. Michaux and A. Malraux on illustration projects.

Additionally, Zao Wou Ki held the chair as a professor at the Ecole Nationale supérieure des Arts décoratifs. As to honour his work, Zao was awarded several doctorates and accolades including the Japanese Premium Imperial Award and the Carnegie Award. Furthermore, his works have been displayed at various prestigious museums, such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Venice Biennale. The celebrated painter passed away at the age of 93 in Nyon, Switzerland, on April 9, 2013.

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