Dominique de Villepin
Zao Wou-Ki’s painting is both universal and profoundly Chinese. Halfway between the Orient and the West, his work can be equally linked to the immemorial line of the great painting of his country of origin and the lyrical abstraction which flourished after the Second World War in his adopted country. At the age of fourteen Zao Wou-Ki enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy of Hangzhou where he learnt traditional techniques whilst admiring the works of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse that he discovered on postcards. He built himself up upon a duality that was to give his work an incredible depth of soul.
It took Zao Wou-Ki almost twenty years before he succeeded in reconciling the two contrary passions that inhabited him in his training years. On March 21st 1969, when he completed this masterful composition, Zao Wou-Ki was finally free. Free to shift from the void of fullness in the manner of the Songs and paint with oil like Europeans. By dint of work and research, he finally came close to his own light by accepting the inheritance of his ancestors given to him by the teachings of his professors form the Fine Arts academy of Hangzhou but also by his paternal grandfather, a scholar of the Qing Empire.
After the initial break, the original commotion gave way to the unity of the world. Thus we gaze upon the perfect symbiosis of Song landscapes which Zao Wou-Ki appreciated for their floating and elementary aspect and Rembrandt’s paintings which he admired for “the movements of the brush”, building “a rich, complex space that is at the same time economical”. As he explains in his memoires written in collaboration with Françoise Marquet, the 1960s were a blessed period for him. At the height of his art, Zao Wou-Ki had “vanquished the surface of the world" and penetrated his own heart. It was only then that his souvenirs of another era, that of his childhood, “before the Flood” as Dominique de Villepin says in a beautiful text on the artist entitled Le Labyrinthe des Lumières, could emerge from his paintings like vibrant invitations to travel. Travel in time and space, in search of a world of internal and celestial forms masterfully depicted in 21 mars 1969.
In this painting which, as mentioned above, symbolises a veritable reconciliation between China and the West, awaited in Chinese painting for over a century, according to the words of François Cheng in L’ultime bonheur de peindre de Zao Wou-Ki, the artist probed movement. With his nuanced palette and his unique, luminous path reinforced by the dynamic of colours which feed off each other, 21 mars 1969 incites contemplation. Lacking a fixed reference point, the gaze is constantly shifting, awaiting a revelation. Should one move from darkness to light? Or from light to darkness? By skilfully distilling haloes of pure light and opaque shadows, Zao Wou-Ki brings something sacred to this work. Always perfectionist, the artist here again employs one of the essential contributions of classical Chinese art building on layered veils thus bringing an aura of mystery to an abstract work which could depict the sky of one of the world’s first mornings. Because, one must not forget, “what is abstract for you is real for me” as Zao Wou-Ki once said.
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