Zao Wou-Ki’s travels. A Quest beyond Appearances
Art Director of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, Co-Curator of Centennial Retrospective Exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki
First I would like to thank Mr. Gao Shiming, Mr. Yu Xuhong, and all the people at the China Academy of Art for this very long project of the Zao Wou-Ki exhibition at his alma mater and for organizing this important meeting.
Then, before speaking about the artist himself, I would just like to take some short time to present you the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation and its action. In 2012, before Zao Wou-Ki passed away, the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation has been created in Geneva, Switzerland. Our president, Mrs. Françoise Marquet-Zao, is the widow of the artist, and upon his will, his universal legatee and owner of his rights. I have been the assistant to Zao Wou-Ki since 2002, and I am now the Art Director of Zao Wou-Ki Foundation.
The Zao Wou-Ki Foundation does not own any works by the artist. Our main role at the Foundation is to support any cultural and artistic activities, to promote Zao Wou-Ki’s works, and to make it known in the widest possible way through exhibitions and publications. We are in charge of the archives of the artist which are the world’s most complete archives on his artistic and personal life. This allows us, then, to work on the catalogue raisonné of the paintings. We are also called upon to organize exhibitions, to collaborate with museums, like this one at the China Academy of Art. We frequently answer the questions of a lot of people, from museums, from collectors, from auction houses, journalists, etc. We are also here to take care of the works and to make certificates of authenticity to ensure that everything is in order with his works.
The European art as a model. 1935-1947
以欧洲艺术为范本 / 1935-1947
When Zao Wou-Ki was fifteen, he joined the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. He studied here from around 1935 to 1941, before becoming a professor. It was at the time the most modernist school of China, even if the trainings were largely traditional. As the teaching provided by his European professors stopped at the beginning of the 19th century, he looked for everything he could find concerning Western avant-gardes. He wanted to paint “in the Western style”, working on an easel with locally produced oil paintings. This was quite innovative at the time and also an iconoclastic approach, since oil painting was only taught in Hangzhou during the very last years of the students’ training.
1935-1936年，布面油画，46 × 61 cm
Zao Wou-Ki, Untitled (Still Life with Apples)
1935-1936, oil on canvas, 46 × 61 cm.
Photo: Antoine Mercier
Here you can see one of the very first paintings he did, which is presented in the exhibition, theStill Life with Apples, dated from 1935-1936. And you can find the comparison on the opposite, with the Still Life by Paul Cézanne. For Zao Wou-Ki, Cézanne was one of the most important European masters and a very important inspiration. You can imagine how difficult it could be for a Chinese artist just to find images of that kind of work, and to try to make something upon it, to try to copy it, to be inspired by it, and to train like Cézanne did.
His first trip results of a historical imperative: the advance of the Japanese troops forced the Hangzhou’s teachers and students to leave Hangzhou, and to flee the fighting in a long roaming of thousands of kilometers that lasted from November 1937 until the settlement in Chongqing in 1942, in southwest China. During that time, classes continued. You can see the very small painting dated 1941, which is an oil on wood. It has been created on wood because at that time Zao Wou-Ki could not find any canvas. But that also shows you that he kept on painting, even if he was not in Hangzhou but traveling to Chongqing. He once said about this painting that there is some influence by the Russian painter Marc Chagall, in the naive way of composition, the joy of the colors and freshness he wanted to put into that painting.
The oil painting Paysage Hangzhou that Zao Wou-Ki did in 1946 is a landscape of Hangzhou. You can also see in this painting the deep influence of Paul Cézanne, as Zao Wou-Ki tried to imitate somehow the touch of the impressionist painters.
Zao Wou-Ki was a very impatient student and desired to break up with Chinese art of his time that he judged in a way both decadent and sterile. That is why he wanted to complete his training with European and Western art.
On this family photograph you can see the whole Zao family. And hanging on the wall behind them, you can find the copy that Zao Wou-Ki made upon Cowper Madona by Raphael, a painting from the Italian Renaissance now in Washington. You can see that he did not only look at impressionist or modern works but also at very old masters from the Italian Renaissance. This is also certainly a deep influence of Lin Fengmian, his mentor and his teacher, who had himself a special interest for the Italian Renaissance and for the impressionists.
纸本水彩, 37 × 28.5 cm
Zao Wou-Ki,Untitled, 1945, watercolor on paper,
37 × 28.5 cm. Photo: Manuel Alves
With this watercolor dated 1945, which is exhibited in the show, and with this ink dated 1948, you can see some other western influences: on the first he tried to imagine something about the Fauves period, and on the second, you can see a deep influence of portraits of women by Matisse.
Back in Shanghai in 1946, Zao Wou-Ki followed Lin Fengmian’s advice and announced to his father that he wanted to go to Paris for two years to keep on training. He received his father’s agreement, but had to wait one more year to have the French visa and the Chinese authorization to go to France.
1948年，布面油画，81.2 × 65.2 cm
Zao Wou-Ki,Untitled (Landscape or House on Stilts)
1948, oil on canvas, 81.2 × 65.2 cm
But even if he wanted to go to France to make something about European art, you can see that China was rooted very deeply inside his creation, even if he rejected the Chinese tradition. In these two 1948 paintings, you can see a very strong influence of Chinese landscapes, but also of Chinese rubbings and print bricks of the Han period. He even tried to put some black patterns all around the painting just to imitate the Han rubbings. And you can find the same kind of pagodas, houses, and trees. For him it was a way to try to modernize what he found was the best part of China.
This is the first part of the speech Yann Hendgen delivered at the forum, "The Way Is Infinite: Zao Wou-Ki's World of Art", on September 20, 2023. This article is based on the audio record and approved by himself.
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.