Zao Wou-ki dies aged 93
By Katherine Tong
Zao Wou-Ki (1920–2013), the prominent Chinese painter, died on April 9 at the age of 93. His dynamic compositions emerged from a hybrid aesthetic of traditional Chinese brushwork and vivid European abstraction, and made him a seminal figure during the formative years of contemporary Chinese art.
As a young artist, Zao attended the National Academy of Arts in Hangzhou under the guidance of Lin Fengmian, one of the pioneers of modern Chinese painting. Zao’s exposure to the various Western art movements being introduced to Shanghai and Beijing at the time inspired his move to Paris in 1948. He quickly immersed himself in the art community there, befriending pivotal figures including Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
In this new environment, Zao assumed he would move beyond his foundation in Chinese painting, but this proved not to be the case. In 1962 he wrote, “Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China. In my recent paintings, this is expressed in an innate manner. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origin.”
Zao’s paintings are abstract expressions of landscapes interwoven with his life experiences and emotions. His subjects from nature—wind, strength or speed—are executed with the “rhythm of life,” the principle considered most important from the six canons of traditional Chinese painting. Many of his expansive canvases portray light with bold colors, and a sense of space through the depiction of voids. His freehand brushstrokes express the energy and intensity of the artist’s vision, making a notable impression in the Lyrical Abstraction movement in Europe, as well as on contemporary Chinese painting.
Involved in over 160 exhibitions during his lifetime, Zao maintained a considerable profile in the media, speaking freely about his life, inspirations and artistic processes, though rarely discussing his works. In the late 1950s he began to title his canvases only with the dates of their completion. “I never speak about my paintings, unlike some artists who keep on doing it,” he stated in a video documentary in 2000, “I don’t like that. It’s fine to let the audience read alone.”
Zao’s health began deteriorating in 2011, prompting his move to Nyon, near Geneva, Switzerland, where he remained until his death. During his lifetime, his paintings consistently achieved record-breaking prices at auction and, just few days before his death, his painting 10.03.83 (1983) sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for USD 4.8 million, surpassing pre-sale estimates.
Katherine Tong is a researcher at ArtAsiaPacific.