DUBY Georges – Extract from the foreword of the catalogue of the exhibition A retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki at the Museum of Fine Arts of Kaohsiung, Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum Edition, Taiwan, 1996 (pp.19-20)
Text retrieved for the catalogue of the exhibition Infinite Image and Space - A retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki at the Hong Kong Museum of Fine Arts, Urban Council of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1996.
"(…) Zao Wou-Ki acknowledged that “a part of myself was forgotten, buried under things … I feel I am quite disengaged from Chinese painting. Now it seems to me that it is part of my universe”. Indeed, he needed to disengage himself and break free from every ritualized process among which the act of painting in ancient China was trapped. It was essential, in order to recognize himself finally and freely as a Chinese painter. The imprints left by his early childhood, for a while faded, became more prevalent with age. The earliest memories, all the legacy of hereditary culture, imperceptibly returned from his innermost being. But what in this painting looks Chinese, seen with the eyes of a Westerner? And, first of all, what is not ? The rejection of figuration, obviously, the preferences of canvas and oil to paper and to wash tint, finally, and foremost, the absolute rule of color, all betray Chinese tradition. However, in my opinion, three characteristics of the said tradition demonstrate its resurgence.
First of all, the function of the stroke. At first sight, its presence is imperceptible. However, a careful examination reveals its essential influence. Forming the fundamental texture of the painted work, a multitude of blurred strokes cover each other, interfere, combine with each other, disappear, spurt back here and there, pour out and blend in the shimmering limpidity, conferring upon the colored matter its smooth thickness and its succulent, endless richness, with the constant desire to continue painting marks, subtly, willfully, from the tip of the paintbrush, in order to spin at last the web-like mounting on which, the composition lays, unsubstantial.
Precisely, in the composition, it seems I can also see China reappearing in the arrangement of the aesthetic components and in the portion allocated to empty space set in a central position within and uncircumscribed area. All the while, the whole painting is built on a clash, a conflict which is also a harmony, on the hesitant balance between fullness and emptiness, between what is coarse, oppressive, dark, harsh and solid – represented by the mountain, the rocks, the earth in classical Chinese painting – and the effusions, fumes, breezes – depicted in the Chinese tradition by the wandering waters, the sky, the clouds and the haze.
However, I feel the most Chinese peculiarity lays in the relationship between the painter, his work and the one who looks at it. In China, painting has never been a pure object of sensual enjoyment. It always had a purpose. Such purpose was not sacrificial, like in medieval European Christian art, and the painting was not considered as an offering to supernatural powers. It was not used for telling of events, maintaining a historical memory, passing on instructions or prompting people to act one way or another. As a mediator, painting only claimed to promote a passage. It was an open door into enchantment. (…)."