China’s Discovery of Zao Wou-Ki

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Rendezvous With Painter Zao Wou-Ki. Paris Match via Getty Images.

- Zao Wou-ki (known as Zhao Wuji in China, 1921-2013) discovered China in Paris, years after he moved to the city in 1948 on the eve of the Communist takeover of China. Fifty years later, China discovered Zao after he accompanied French President Jacques Chirac on a state visit to China in 1997. Will China re-discover Zao in the wake of his recent passing as a top selling contemporary Chinese artist?

In Hurun Report’s most recent ranking of Chinese art, the total transaction value of Zao’s works at public auctions reached RMB 610 million (approximately US$98.5 million) in 2012, topping the oil painting category three years in a row. In a recent 20th Century Chinese Art sale that took place on April 6 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 21 works by Zao were offered to vying buyers, many of whom were from China. In the past few days, the Chinese media has been abuzz with speculations about the future market value of Zao after the conclusion of a memorable career.

10.03.83 (diptych), sold at Sotheby’s for HK$37 million.

Wim Toebosch once asked: was Zao “[t]he most Western of all Chinese painters? The most Chinese of all Parisian painters?” The first Chinese contemporary painter to achieve international stature, Zao had famously declared that unlike most people he subscribed to two traditions. As I described in a recent blog post (“The Abiding Allure of Landscape”), for the most part of the twentieth century, Chinese art had gone through many politically charged ideological debates that pitted the Chinese ink painting tradition against Western influences. For many new generations of Chinese artists, Zao brought “Chinese Elements” to the world stage and symbolized the possibility of embracing different cultural identities without being slavish to one. 

Painter Xu Lei (b. 1963), who was born in the same town in which Zao grew up, wrote: “I am beyond grief upon learning about the passing of Master Zhao! I am indebted to Master Zhao in my growth as an artist.  . . .  A pioneer who integrated the Eastern and Western painting [traditions], Master Zhao has been the spiritual guru of my searching journey.”

Chinese media also quoted Zhang Xiaogang’s (b. 1958) response to Zao’s death: “Safe home, Master Zhao!  I’d never forget that in 1983 I saw your solo show in Beijing and requested your autograph!” Zhang was referring to Zao’s first homecoming exhibition at the Chinese Museum of Art, which, by all accounts, failed to win over his former countrymen. Only six years following the re-opening of college and art education at the end of the Cultural Revolution (Zhang himself graduated in 1982), 1983 witnessed the launch of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign and was still two years away from the birth of avant-garde art in China marked by the New Art Movement. Although the art scene was gradually breaking away from the dictate of Socialist Realism, abstract painting was still a relative novelty. “Why did Zhao deserve such international acclaim?”—many people reportedly asked. Only in 1998 a major retrospective at the Shanghai Museum reintroduced Zao, who became a French citizen in 1964 and now rode the wind of his Chirac-endorsed trip a year prior, to an audience who was warming up to abstraction.

10.1.68 sold for HK$68.9 million at Sotheby’s.

Another contemporary artist Zhou Chunya (b. 1955) wrote in a Weibo (Chinese equivalent of Twitter) post: “[Zhao is] the most influential Chinese artist in the world—an artist who contributed to the making of the world art history—a venerable artist.”

So, what exactly are the Chinese Elements in Zao’s works? For many people, he brought Modernist technique and visual language to the imaginary space inhabited by the traditional Chinese literati. Drawing on the Chinese aesthetics that valued ineffable energy over representational verisimilitude, and the versatile brushwork that characterized the traditional Chinese landscape painting, in his mature works Zao juxtaposed contrasting colors and emphasized the power of empty space to create his lyrical abstraction. In effect, Zao discovered the underlying abstract potential of Chinese art. One of the Chinese news headlines from last week reads: “Zhao Wuji Returned Abstraction to China.”

Zao reportedly left China behind where he once thought art history had been dead since the 16th century. The young Zao felt that for centuries Chinese painters copied old masters’ works without making their own contribution.

Zao’s formal art education started when he enrolled at the Hangzhou Academy of Art at the age of 14.  Impatient with the traditional pedagogy that emphasized technical training, while sitting for an exam on Chinese ink painting, Zao splattered ink on paper and signed “Rocks Painted by Zao Wou-Ki.” His teacher Pan Tianshou would have thrown him out of the school had Lin Fengmian, President of the Academy and a renowned painter, not intervened on Zao’s behalf. Lin, a pioneer painter who studied European painting at the Dijon Art College and the Ècole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, once advised Zao to return to China immediately after his studies in Paris because it was virtually impossible for a Chinese artist to make it in Paris.

10.12.59 sold for HK$18 million at Sotheby’s.

Today in France, by some accounts Zao has become, along with Confucius and the Great Wall, the most recognizable of Chinese symbols. In China, art critics generally concur on his seminal position in the Chinese and Western art histories. In October 2011, Sotheby’s in Hong Kong sold an abstract painting (10.1.1968), with radiant orange and blue hues, for 68.9 million Hong Kong dollars, or about US$8.8 million (hammer price with buyer’s premium), the highest record of Zao’s works. Earlier this month a diptych (10.03.83), which contrasts vacillating blue, violet and purple textured blocks and black brushworks inspired by the Chinese ink painting, fetched 37 million Hong Kong dollars, or about US$4.8 million (hammer price with buyer’s premium), at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. At the same sale, a painting with assertive gradations of blue hues (10.12.59) sold for 18 million Hong Kong dollars, or about US$2.3 million (hammer price with buyer’s premium), more than doubling the high end of the pre-sale estimate.

Chinese media also reported Zao’s close friends as saying that he had an unfulfilled wish to permanently exhibit his works at a dedicated museum located near the West Lake in Hangzhou. For an acculturated man who once admonished young Chinese students in Paris against being stuck in the Chinese social circle in order to learn authentic French, Zao finally discovered China in China.

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