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
The lessons of a lifetime
In Zao Wou-Ki’s highly personal journey, what did he draw from the depths of himself? What lessons could he learn? I will personally remember six of them:
The first one, the importance of work and example which is embodied in the high figure of the Scholar, transmitted through his family heritage via his Song ancestors and the image of his grandfather and father. He knows that Chinese painting owes its status, its originality and contemplative depth, to its central place within society. Unlike the West where it became the monopoly of virtuoso craftsmen, painting remains the business of thinkers, of scholars painting with and for other scholars, in a daily practice of the great classics of poetry and thought.
1987年，铜版画，39 × 53 cm
The second lesson is openness to others, because Zao Wou-Ki is convinced of the creative force of friendship, sharing and exchange. His approach is one of trust in man, trust in nature and in the world. Although he does experience doubts and worries of betrayal, trust always prevails. In his Self-portrait written with the great complicity of his wife Françoise that we are so honored and pleased to have with us tonight, he will be able to say “I love my friends just as I tend the bonsai trees, orange trees and orchids in my dining room every morning at breakfast time, while drinking .(tea)”
1958年，布面油画，114 × 163 cm
It is therefore not surprising that Zao Wou-Ki knew most of the great artists of his time, not only to share but also to debate, to confront points of view on art and on the world, to overcome the obstacles that lay in front of him, on canvas and in life. And this debate, he pursues it until the end with living artists, those intercessors who mean so much to him, whether they are called Rembrandt, Cézanne, Matisse or Picasso, who help him to overcome the obstacles, to move forward along the path he has chosen.
The third lesson is the conviction that all the arts are linked and work towards the same goals of beauty and truth. He believes in a necessary dialogue between all the arts and especially between painting and poetry. All his life, he sought the company of poets and engaged with them to create wonderful art books. He turned to Henri Michaux, René Char, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Yves Bonnefoy and so many others. But his dialogue with poetry also applies to other arts, such as music with composers like Edgar Varèse or Pierre Boulez, or even architecture with Ieoh Ming Pei. And to each of them, he will want to express his gratitude through dedicated works, Tributes to those who, friends and artists, have inspired him. Without doubt, he experienced the last glimmerings of a fraternity of the arts, before the fragmentation and isolation, which won contemporary art in the last decades.
（Lecture par Henri Michaux de huit lithographies de Zao Wou-Ki）
1950年，45 × 65 cm
The fourth lesson is the pursuit of an ideal of reconciliation. There is a powerful mystery here: how did this Chinese painter, in love with the world and with all cultures, far from home, managed in the solitude of his studio to clear a path for a possible encounter between the East and the West? What secrets does he hold? The first requirement of his art is to remain alive, that is to say capable of movement and of change. It is at this price that art, he thinks, can be beneficial. But being alive is not enough, it is still necessary, according to the Taoist tradition, to be capable of withdrawing into oneself, from which it becomes possible to unite and gather forces. Its point of balance is not that of compromise, but of a challenge pushed ever further, of reconciliation between reality and art, beauty and truth, to enable painting to become a work of peace of mind, allowing man to be reconciled with himself.
1980年，布面油画，152 × 130.5 cm， 法国国家造型艺术中心藏
The fifth lesson, the commitment to metamorphoses, because to stay alive, you have to Keep questionning yourself. Zao Wou-Ki will never cease to apply this rule to his art. On the question of color, by constantly broadening his palette to reach the vibration of being. On the question of space, in the place to be given to the void, in the format of his paintings, in the creation of refuges or suspended territories. On the question of time, inseparable from rhythm and breath, which contribute to the formation of meaning, a decisive factor for him as he intends to go ever further.
It is therefore important for him to distinguish between two different conception of time, the one which passes and the other one which lasts, as well as to distinguish two conception of space, the visible and the invisible, without ever forgetting what is the basis of the quest: the beautiful, the just, the true.Through metamorphosis, Zao Wou-Ki opposes the great teaching of Chinese philosophy to a Western art still and always captivated by the permanence of the form, by the idea of the being of things that must be captured on canvas, against the sensitive world. On the contrary in China, there are no distinct states, only incessant passages，varied polarizations in a thought of flux and change.
赵无极，《无题（高迪尼）》（Sans titre [Gaudigny]）
2007年，纸本水彩，66 × 102 cm
Zao Wou-Ki is fully in line with this demand for movement, against a frozen history of art. Painting for him must be in touch with its time, in breath with the evolution of customs and habits, tastes and expectations. He applies this lesson,including to colors, noting that black had been repudiated by the Impressionists, before returning to favor in the era of lyrical abstraction, after 1945. Painting for him is not locking up life in a tomb or produce a bouquet of dried flowers, but it is creating life itself, in a moment of History.
The final lesson perhaps for Zao Wou-Ki is the importance of harmony without which Chinese thought would not even be possible. This harmony is the only law of things, the condition of the intelligibility of the world and of human life in society. In our troubled century, it is our only chance for unity and cooperation around common goods. But this ideal of harmony must sometimes be embodied and expressed in our lives. For Zao Wou-Ki, harmony reveals itself in a chosen place, a place that he inhabits and that inhabits his work. He will never forget the magic of this Hangzhou lake, where he learned for the first time to see, to translate with his brush "this breath of airon the calm of water" that he will pursue all his life. On his paper, as on his canvas, he will want to capture the quivering life that can only be measured when the heart of a being beats at the same rhythm, with the same trembling murmur, as that of nature. At this moment, in this vast undertaking of radiography of reality, the artist understands that he is "alive", to become one with Nature, and as such, he can experience and transmit to us, if only fleetingly, the feeling of eternity.
1975年，纸本水墨，31.5 × 54.5 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
Today more than ever, Zao wou-ki is alive with his painting among all of us. And we can make the full measure of his presence, the gift that he had made to us by the very precious exhibition that has happen today at the academy of Arts in Hangzhou. Zao wou-ki is standing in front of us as one of the most imaginative, one of the most creative, one of the most innovative, and certainly the most universal artist of the century. Thank you very much!
This is the third 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.