Xie Jinglan – popularly and professionally known as Lalan – was a singular woman of numerous talents: a painter of harmonious compositions, a performer of spectacular imagination and, as her son Jia-Ling Zhao recalls, a mother of extraordinary charm and charisma.
Lalan was born in 1921 in Guizhou, a province in south-west China, into an intellectually engaged family – her father was a figure in Chinese literary circles, her grandfather an academic. Music was Lalan’s first love and in the late 1930s she enrolled in the music department at Hangzhou School of Art. It was here that she met Zao Wou-Ki, who would become one of the most prominent Chinese abstract painters of the 20th century. The couple married in 1941.
After the end of the Second World War, the pair moved to Paris while, initially, their son Jia-Ling remained in China with his grandparents. The couple embraced the cultural scene in the French capital, running an atelier in Montparnasse and befriending figures such as Alberto Giacometti and Pierre Soulages. Lalan collaborated with her husband on many of his paintings – naming them and advising on choices – while pursuing her music and dance studies, both at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and the American Cultural Centre.
The couple divorced in 1957, and Lalan subsequently married the French sculptor Marcel Van Thienen. Over the following four decades she blended the worlds of painting and music, much like she combined her Chinese roots and her new life in France. Her paintings drew both on Oriental traditions, such as calligraphic motifs and smoky effects, and the gestural techniques of the French Art Informel movement. She choreographed her paintings like her performances – paint pirouettes, slides and sweeps over the canvas. As Jia-Ling explains, the career trajectory – this dance – was fluid and ever changing. And, of course, for him it was indicative of their exhilarating family life.
We are immensely grateful to Jia-Ling Zhao for sharing his memories with us.
Sotheby’s Gallery Director, Jonathan Wong: How old were you when your father Zao Wou-Ki and mother Xie Jinglan (Lalan) moved to Paris?
Jia-Ling Zhao: I was only about five or six at the time. Whether we lived in Hangzhou or Shanghai, an artistic atmosphere always surrounded us. My mother was great at bringing together artists from all fields. We’d always have guests visiting; Lin Fengmian for example, who I called “Lin Gong Gong”, was a regular.
JW: Did you want to move to France earlier?
JLZ: My mother had planned to bring me to France, but due to certain changes in the family, my father wanted me in China. My grandparents were very fond of me and wished for me not to leave, and so I went back. As the Chinese saying goes, “One does not travel far when mother and father are around”. Being raised by my grandparents, I did not ever consider leaving China before they passed away.
JW: What was it like when your parents first arrived in France? Did they share experiences with you?
JLZ: My parents immersed themselves in the post-war artistic sentiment after arriving in France. My father told me the first thing they did in Paris was visit the Louvre. Being a musician, my mother attended all sorts of concerts and recitals, from modern to classical music.
JW: Did your mother share anything about her works of that time?
JLZ: She was quite focused on her own creativity. I feel mother’s main contributions lie in abstract art. Her oeuvre is categorised into works from three main periods. The first period reflects traces of my father’s works, and yet I feel their works are fundamentally different. My parents began dating when they were 14 years old, and whilst together, mother was present for the creation of each of father’s works. They discussed every piece of work.
Mother once told me she and father often had very different views towards painting. They had a strong dispute one time about a painting’s composition, but a week later, I discovered my father made changes according to my mother’s comments. She was pleased that her views did indeed make some sense.
I believe mother was the person who influenced father’s works, and not the other way around. She was extremely strong-minded, and together they discussed every painting. She was the one who named many of them. Works belonging to mother’s second creative period were intended to influence others. She felt unable to be at peace as the world was overly busy with people having too many ideas and desires. Having read works of Laozi’s, the ancient Chinese philosopher, she discovered a sense of calm that is reflected in her works.
JW: A peaceful, ethereal feeling?
JLZ: The third period comprises abstract paintings yet again, and in my opinion these are her best works. For an artist through her own explorations to move from focusing on abstract pieces, to landscapes, and back again, is to experience a journey. Were she still alive, I believe she would continue to deliver even better works of art. It is sad, because she was at the height of her creativity when she passed away. We held an exhibition of my mother’s works at the Shanghai Art Museum in 1999 and when I showed the catalogue to my father, he commented, “Those are works of the cleverest painter I have come across in recent years”.
JW: You moved to Paris around 1979. Did you ever attend any of your mother’s exhibitions or musical performances?
JLZ: Yes, I did. After moving to Paris, every time either of my parents’ held exhibitions, we would attend the vernissages. We attended previews of their friends’ exhibitions, too, so we were certainly immersed in an artistic atmosphere.
JW: How did you feel when you first watched your mother perform?
JLZ: A performance which I recall vividly took place inside an old castle. In front of one of her own large format triptychs lay a great big transparent glass ball, and she had herself created the music. It began with the sound of a baby’s heartbeat inside its mother’s womb, followed by the disruptive noise of car traffic. After that, dancers appeared from either side of the room. Skilfully, mother combined music, dance and painting to produce a form of modern art; she is indeed an important figure in “integrated art”.
JW: Your mother had a very strong personality. What was she like privately?
JLZ: Perhaps others are unable to see how she was as a mother. She may have felt she owed me somewhat as I did not have a conventional childhood. She never expressed it, but I felt it. I often tell people that had my childhood experience been more conventional and complete, the world may have lost a great artist.
JW: Life is not easy for Chinese artists abroad. Was it even more so for a female artist?
JLZ: Mother influenced father’s creativity and the works of Marcel [Lalan’s second husband]. Art writers describe Marcel’s works as a sculptural dance, embodying mother’s impact in his oeuvre. Mother once said to me, “I championed an artist and a sculptor, and as yet I am still nothing.” This remains my reason and motivation for introducing my mother’s works to a greater audience.
We hope that Sotheby’s exhibition will help to fulfil this wish. The selling exhibition includes a selection of oil paintings and works on paper from her three main periods of creation, bringing the enduring avant-garde spirit of this remarkable Chinese female artist to life.