ZAO WOU-KI: PIONEER OF THE 21ST CENTURY
Dominique de Villepin
General Advisor of Centennial Retrospective Exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki
Former Prime Minister of France, Honorary Chairman of the Foundation for Art and Culture
At the sources of the revival of Chinese art
But it would be a mistake to believe that Zao Wou-Ki’s pictorial adventure is a solitary adventure. He participates directly in the revival of Chinese art. And it would be a mistake to believe, as we sometimes think in the West, that the future lies in seeking compromises, in seeking a synthesis of Western modern art with Chinese art. On the contrary, I believe that it is in our mutual interest to maintain a confrontation of views, a clash of opposites, from which something new and the unknown can emerge.
1951年，布面油画，50 × 45.5 cm
Among the pioneers of the revival we must mention the giant Qi Baishi, whose powerful gestures succeed, for a moment at least, in uniting Western-inspired modernity with Eastern tradition. Zao Wou-Ki's work is also part of the New Culture movement, in the wake of the May 4th Movement, with artists like Li Tiefu, Yan Wenliang, Xu Beihong and of course Lin Fengmian who was his teacher and paved the way for him in France. With his detour to the West, Zao Wou-Ki himself belongs to a very diverse group of pioneers, all of whom passed through Paris, such as Sanyu, Chu Teh-Chun, or Walasse Ting who multiplied the bridges with the West. And if it took time for Zao Wou-Ki to rediscover China, it also took a long journey to allow China to reclaim Zao Wou-Ki, in the central role of bridge-builder and pathfinder between the two worlds.
After the 1983 exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing, he taught for a month here in 1985. Everything changed and accelerated at the turn of the 2000s, with the major retrospective exhibition in Shanghai in 1998, with the Suzhou Exhibition in 2006 and the dialogue with younger artists, such as Xu Bing and Cai Guo-Qiang. He dreamed of this exhibition opening today in Hangzhou, which is at the starting point of his artistic vocation and which he loved so much. It was here that he began the long journey that allowed him, from Paris, around the world, to become“authentically” and fully a Chinese painter.
1970年，纸本水墨，28 × 27.5 cm
赛努奇博物馆藏，法国巴黎，© Adagp, Paris
Looking at Zao Wou-Ki’s work from both ends, from China and from France, from the end and from the beginning, allows us to free ourselves from a number of false interpretations:
It is a chance to circumvent the false problem of the transition to abstraction. The question is not indeed, for Chinese painting, the figure but the stake of representation, the capture of life, the resonance of breath and the embodiment of line. And if Zao Wou-Ki turned away from what had become Chinese painting in the mid-thirties, it is indeed because he was worried about the dead image, about a loss of vital impetus through imitation. He then took the lessons from the many variations in the bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. He also drew inspiration from certain Tang or Song paintings. Abstraction on this path is the fulfillment of Shitao’s teaching, the search for the "without trace" which only captures the resonance of what passes through things, flooding and irrigating them to arrive at the true image, as Mi Fu invites us "not breaking with the trace".
It is also a chance to move beyond the question of the painter as demiurge competing with nature and the divine. Chinese painting is more concerned with participation in the world and the revelation of reality. By immersing us in primitive chaos, capturing the brilliance of reality through the clash of colors and forms, Zao Wou-Ki takes us back to the sources and traces a path with his painting.
It is finally a chance to get out of the Western trap of a beauty which, in a single word, crushes our vision of painting when, in China, it can take countless forms and express the diversity of reality where life abounds and opens to the presence of being.
Between wonder and fight
But who is Zao Wou-Ki? A Chinese artist, a French artist or an artist of the world? He is all of that, he is a broker of images and spaces who nourishes each of his paintings with his own experience, real or imagined. He keeps traveling. Paris is his first encounter in 1948, with works he had seen in newspapers and postcards and which he finally discovered in reality in galleries and museums. But, Paris is also a unique chance to meet with artists, intellectuals and gallery owners, remembering for example that his neighbor in Montparnasse was Giacometti. Finally, Paris is for him an opportunity to participate to the second school of Paris, with Hartung, Soulages, Maria-Helena da Silva or Georges Mathieu.
In his life as an artist, the trip to America in 1957 played an essential role, perhaps not so much as the discovery of a new creation, but as the confirmation of intuitions and metamorphoses already under way, accelerated by his encounters with Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning. He understands the urgency of change, the need to extricate himself from the impasse into which he feels he is plunged. He forged new relationships with artists such as Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Hans Hoffmann and Barnett Newman, discovered a new gallery owner, Sam Kootz, who opened the doors to the American market for him. For the next ten years, he returned to the United States every year and became part of the historical and magical triangle of contemporary art.
His return to China from 1972 was also an important step, since he reconnected with the landscapes of his birth without denying the universal aspect of his work and without denying his thirst for transmission, as demonstrated by his stay here in 1985, in contact with students at the Academy of Arts.
《20.12.49 - 黄色风景》（20.12.49 - Paysage jaune）
1949年，布面油画，50.5 × 59.5 cm
蓬皮杜艺术中心，国家现代艺术博物馆/工业创造中心藏，法国巴黎，1976年艺术家捐赠，© Adagp, Paris
Art historians and experts with a taste for periods and classifications sometimes minimize the complexity that lies behind the work of an artist. In the case of Zao Wou-Ki, it is striking to note at both ends of his life, more than forty years apart, corresponding to the time of youth and maturity, that the same guiding principle is asserted, the one of "wonder". At the start of his journey in Hangzhou, it is striking to note how everything is in place in its paintings, in a pre-established order with nothing threatening, neither the man who is lounging under the sun, nor the wild animal, deer or wolf, in the middle of the forest. Each figure tells the harmony of beings and things and everything matches, in harmony with nature.
《向我的朋友亨利·米修致敬，1999年4月-2000年8月——三联画》（Hommage à mon ami Henri Michaux, avril 1999-août 2000-Triptyque）
1999-2000年，布面油画，200 × 750 cm
Likewise, in the works of the end, color takes center stage, each time different depending on the location: Ibiza, Biarritz, Gaudigny, “La Lanterne”, “La Cavalerie”... Wherever city or place he goes, wherever he paints, he draws the same thread of wonder. So the heart of his work, from the late fifties to the early 2000s, takes on its full meaning, that of a long and difficult quest for the artist to weave his link with life and give his art its indispensable truth and magic. His approach is one of conquest at every stage: when he understands that he must go beyond visible reality with the help of the sign which gives him both the strength of distance and the help of mediation to enter into the depth of the canvas. As you can see, there are so many keys, so many pillars that will encourage and support him on his way. Armed with new landmarks in space and time, able to play on all the variations of color, painting becomes his battlefield where he can wage the battle of a new modernity, instructed by the lessons of the Ancients and the Moderns, Delacroix, Manet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, educated through the violence of History, in his native land as in Europe torn apart by fascism and the rise of communism.
He uses his brush as an instrument to tame horror, to tame the violence between men and in the heart of every single man. To better confront it, to better neutralize it, he will inscribe it on the canvas itself, distributing his own forces until harmony is reached.This is why Zao Wou-Ki’s art, modern from the outset, has become a humanist art placing human consciousness so high that it becomes capable of taming History. The Taoist philosophy of the East, made of continuous flows and precarious balances, meets the dialectic of Western History, with its impetuous and mechanical movements.
《向弗朗索瓦兹致敬-23.10.2003》（Hommage à Françoise- 23.10.2003）
2003年，布面油画，195 × 324 cm
To prevent beauty from fading and freezing, it must constantly replenish itself in the movement of life and the passage of time. Zao Wou-Ki therefore wants to welcome on the canvas the vibration of opposing forces onto the canvass, aware that in his place, the painter can repair and correct the destiny of our chaotic world. But to do this, the artist must be willing to descend into himself, as one goes down to the mine, to embark on a dangerous journey of exploration. And it is only at the end of the road, at the end of a long process of recreation, a violent hand-to-hand combat with the canvas, that he can restore a balance that we will find in Zao Wou-Ki’s great tributes, Homage to Claude Monet, Homage to Cézanne, Homage to Françoise.
This is the second part of Dominique de Villepin's keynote speech delivered at the forum, "The Way Is Infinite: Zao Wou-Ki's World of Art", on September 19, 2023.
Some illustrations of Zao Wou-Ki's works in this article are slightly different with those in the speaking script due to copyrights.
All works by Zao Wou-Ki : ⓒ Zao Wou-Ki-ProLitteris, Zurich.