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
It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you for this triple celebration:It is a celebration of the largest exhibition in China around Zao Wou-Ki, here in Hangzhou, at the China Academy of Art where he studied in his youth. It is a celebration of one of the giants of the 20th century. One of the rare artists to have participated in the adventure of art on its three main scenes: The European scene, the American scene and of course the Asian scene, Finally, it is a celebration of the friendship between France and China through this special tribute to Zao Wou-Ki, such an important figure, of whom we are all proud, on the eve of the anniversary of sixty years of diplomatic relations between our two countries.
Today is a key moment: For the world, facing tensions and crisis everywhere on our planet, For China, dealing with major responsibilities in terms of peace, in terms of stability and developing multilateralism, But also, it is a key moment for culture because through such exhibitions, we can expand the dialogue between countries and civilizations. Zao Wou-Ki is always looking for understanding, friendship and reconciliation, fighting to put art at the center of our lives, while being deeply rooted into the Chinese culture and tradition.
A mediatorbetween cultures
I often had opportunity in different countries to express the admiration and friendship I felt for Zao Wou-Ki, both for the man and for the artist. On the occasion of this major exhibition in Hangzhou, I would like to evoke before you this afternoon, the figure of Zao Wou-Ki as a Chinese painter who is part of a thousand-year-old tradition. He succeeded, by opening up to another tradition, European and Western, to establish himself as a bridge between cultures, as a link between tradition and modernity.
Because, if in 1948, he left for France, China never left him, always alive in his heart and in his mind. All those who, ever, have had the chance to visit him in his house-studio and his garden in the heart of Montparnasse have been able to witness the strength of this Chinese presence. All his life, his ambition was to strive to hold both ends together, in between two worlds, the East and the West, in between two cultures, in between two traditions of painting, with the philosophy of adding without ever renouncing, to confront without ever subtracting, to seek to understand without ever humiliating, to reconcile without ever obscuring contradictions and conflicts. You can see and almost touch this truth in all the great paintings of the end of his life.
1965年，布面油画，130 × 162 cm
In The wind pushes the sea (Le vent pousse la mer), a 2003 triptych where a fragile junk in the middle of the immensity of the sea faces a threatening sky, as if it was in a last voyage. In this painting, he frees himself from perspective, from Western geometric subjectivity that dissects space and time, to embrace the whole landscape at once, in a glimpse, true to that lesson of Chinese art, which consists in bringing together all points of view. However, the drawing of the boat reveals, another lesson learned during his countless visits to the Louvre upon his arrival in Paris and from his many trips across Europe. So we better understand his ambition to hold the two ends of Eastern and Western tradition, as if to make compatible the two artistic heritages, the two visions of the world and of the art.
《向塞尚致敬》（Hommage à Cézanne）
2005年，布面油画，162 × 260 cm
This ambition is echoed in another painting, in the Homage to Cézanne of late 2005, where the space is now held together by color alone. The green dominating the full painting is why, we can barely make out the sketch of a tree in the left foreground and the Sainte Victoire mountain in the background. It’s easy to understand why Zao Wou-Ki once said “It was Cézanne who taught me to find myself a Chinese painter ” His commitment to crossing cultures is also obvious in one of his last major canvases, also from 2005, the Temple of the Han, He returns to his roots, drawing inspiration from a mural painting of a tomb from the Han dynasty. But You can see how he purifies, simplifies the lines, universalizes his subject turning it into a kind of ark of alliance of our common humanity, you can find a memory of the pagoda and the memory of acropolis where balance and harmony dominate. It’s easy to understand why Zao Wou-Ki once said: “Everyone is tied to one tradition, but I am tied to two different ones ”
The crystallization of an identity
The affirmation of Zao Wou-Ki's Chinese identity is the result of a heritage, of an apprenticeship and a conquest that have enabled him to express this unique creative energy. His legacy is threefold. First of all, that of China, of a way of life, of a culture, of a history in a country which, at the beginning of the 20th century, is going through troubled times. Dark times of violence and misery in a country weakened by a century of looting and humiliation, subject to the Japanese yoke, torn between "warlords". It was also for him a time of wandering when, after the Japanese invasion, the Academy of Art was transferred from Hangzhou to Chongqing and he had to reach this city by foot, with his fellow students.
His heritage is also that of a family of scholars from his father, going back to the Song dynasty, and whom transmitted to him the passion for painting and a taste for collecting, while with his grandfather, he learned reading and writing, as well as loving poetry. Finally, he also inherits a critical eye, an appreciation for a certain quality of light and landscapes. For him, faithful to classical teaching, the landscape is not unity, but means polarity, coexistence of opposites and clash of contradictions, as evidenced by the designation "Shan-shui" Mountain on the one side and Water on the other side , which expresses a moment of tension in reality with the duality between vertical and horizontal, between what stays and what undulates, between hard and liquid, as Shitao emphasizes in his Philosophy of painting. He will also remember the lesson of the Song landscapes, the struggle between figure and background, when he discovers certain Italian primitives like Cimabue, during visits to museums in Europe.
《我在杭州的家》（Ma maison à Hangzhou）
1947年，布面油画，65 × 80.7 cm
But this heritage does not go without difficult choices, without questions, inner debates and questioning that mark his apprenticeship in painting. Let us not forget that when he was introduced to art as a young teenager, the vision of painting here in China was dominated by the imitation of the ancients or the model of socialist realism. In this respect, his entry into the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou in 1935 was a real opportunity. There he meets teachers who are more open to Western culture, such as Lin Fengmian who plays a decisive role for him and who spent seven years in Paris and Berlin while others are trained in Brussels.
He understands also how fortunate he is to discover Hangzhou, a place of learning, dreaming and meditation, with its sumptuous landscapes of lakes and hills that will remain in his memory as an image of paradise. From the outset, he chose to study Western painting at the Academy, his curiosity having been aroused by magazines and postcards featuring reproductions of paintings by artists such as Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. He thus rejected the prevailing Academicism and the weight of tradition, especially since he turned to oil painting early on, with a technique and materials that underlined his spirit of research and independence.
Finally, beyond the heritage and the choices he makes, his identity as a painter is constituted by the willingness of digging deep within himself to reconnect with three major dimensions of Chinese art marking his desire for an eternal return to China.First, and this is the first return, the rediscovery of the sign, through the Swiss painter Paul Klee, on the occasion of an exhibition in 1951. This is why he could say that “Paul Klee taught [him] to become a Chinese painter”. For him, it is a question of using Chinese characters, to find living signs, in harmony with the spirit. So he goes back to the very sources of the signs to find the vestiges of ancient writings, drawing inspiration from Shang oracular characters or archaic bronzes. The aim is to shake up the meaning, of making the sign waver in order to encourage it to be reborn, each time, ephemeral but alive. Numerous canvases in the mid-1950s bear the trace of this exploration, in particular the Homage to Chu-Yun, the second painting, Stele for a friend and the Homage to Tou-Fou. Each time,you will find the same signs which are constituting, organizing the spaces in the painting.
《我父亲的花园》（Jardin de mon père）
1955年，布面油画，38 × 46 cm
There is then, and this marks second return to China, the rediscovery of gesture, when Zao Wou-Ki, in the early Seventies, re-appropriates the delicate art of ink and brush. The experience is twofold, the projection of the body in the work and of the transmission of the spirit’s breath. He is encouraged by his poet friend, Henri Michaux, on the death of May, his second wife, when, overwhelmed with grief, he struggles to get back to the easel. And he will pursue this practice until the end of his life, finding in this return to tradition, a source of audacity, freedom and happiness, which he had refused until then for fear of being criticized for the temptation of the easy and the exoticism.
1975年，纸本水墨，54.5 × 53 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，© Adagp, Paris
Finally, there is a third return, with the rediscovery of the void at the heart of Chinese painting. Thanks to the void, reality becomes structured, becomes visible, capable of receiving and inhabiting light. By seeking a balance between the two opposite forms, space comes to life in contact with fullness and emptiness emerges, populated by breaths - clouds, mists, rain - linking the visible and the invisible. According to Mifu's principles, this is how the reciprocal relationship between Mountain and Water is articulated, via the Void: "Clouds are -he says -the recapitulation of the landscape, for in their elusive Void, we see many features of mountains and water reserves hidden there " In the concept of the Void, we find all the wisdom and skills of China as the monk-painter Shitao still reminds us: "The one Brushstroke is the origin of all things, the root of all phenomenons; its function is manifest to the mind and hidden in man, but the vulgar do not know .(it)” And he further adds, it is “the absence of rules that begets the rule. ”
第三次回归赵无极重新审视了中国画的精髓——留白。留白构建起现实，让画面能够吸收、容纳光线。虚实的精妙平衡加强了空间感，留白贯穿呼吸、云、雾、雨，将可见与不可见相互连接。正如米芾所言，山水之间的关系是通过留白来体现的，他说：“云是对山水景观的浓缩概括。在模糊隐秘的留白里，你能看到无数山的特质与水的性情”。留白这一概念是中国智慧和技艺的一种体现形式。正如画僧石涛所言：“一画者, 众有之本，万象之根；见用于神, 藏用于人，而世人不知。”他还补充道：“无规矩，不成方圆”。
In the game of perpetual exchanges between East and West, Western painting shares Chinese thinking, at the time of freeing itself from conventions and academicism, like Matisse. All these rediscoveries by Zao Wou-Ki are made, step by step, following a thousand tricks and crossroads, following in the footsteps of great intercessors, such as Paul Klee or Henri Michaux.
This is the first 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.