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ALECHINSKY Pierre 2009

ALECHINSKY Pierre - « Rire jamais loin » (Laughter is never far), foreword from the catalogue of the exhibition Zao Wou-Ki – Entre ciel et terre. Aquarelles et encres de Chine (Zao Wou-Ki – Between sky and earth. Watercolors and India inks) at the Fondation Folon in La Hulpe, La Pierre d’Alun Editions, Brussels, Belgium, 2009 (pp. 5-6).

"After a striking retort, Wou-Ki is in and out of my Souvenotes. The scene evokes (from a distance in terms of location and time) the image and its duplicate. In other words, reality and illusion.  Graphic representations of a visual remembrance, which might become the page promised to my old painter friend for his forthcoming exhibition… Let us first check the content of the memory, more over, I do not know in which catalogue his paintings were confronted (this struck me), to gorgeous pictures of Chinese mountains. I inquired. His archivist is sending me some copies. Well! They do not match with the memory, or with what I wrote back in 1977 (using the third person). I read again to be sure:

He paints [P.A.] on a drawing board: a door laid flat on a horrible pedestal table in ceramics and wrought iron. However, it is the right height. A rental villa with recommendation notes stuck on the meters, cupboards and fridge. The bedroom walls are getting covered with watercolours. The window frames the sea where, in this purple morning, small islands emerge. L’Îlot de la Vache (Cow’s island). Taming of the said cow. The wind in the bedroom lifts watercolours / curtains. The family discovers Corsica, hikes in the countryside and it is exactly the way I imagine China, Mr. Fenouillard [French comic written at the end of the 19th century] would say. Besides, Zao Wou-Ki published similar rocks in a book about his work, that’s exactly right, Pierre complements. « Exactly right, Wou-Ki confirmed, I took these photographs while wandering in Corsica. »


Tens of years away from Wou-Ki’s laughter, the image does not offer any mirror effect. The Corsican landscape has not replaced anything. The landscape is indeed from the other side of the world. Pictures of China taken by Agnès Varda.

Why on earth the archivist has not been able to find the memory that I kept unaware for all these years.


Nabokov invited me to sit on a bench, after letting me to believe that this was Sebastian Knight (his hero)’s favourite bench. I was merely a reader under his spell and I had to wait until the end, wait for a long time, before I was told that this bench was absolutely not the one.


This – Corsican or Chinese- laughter was as convincing as a right gesture, increased by a paintbrush.

Today I am watching Rouge très très fort (Red very very red) a short documentary film by Richard Texier, where one can see Wou-Ki who, without paying any attention to the movie camera, leans over a sheet of paper laid on the floor, despite his old age.

Hand holding the paintbrush!

He is singing, taking ownership of this virgin whiteness. I am listening to his voice of encouragement, of course accompaniment. Half cry half crackle.

Guttural painting is following the rhythm of his breathing. A limit of time that the wise man sometimes enjoys. All his youth comes back from times long gone and lays on the white sheet. 

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DAGEN Philippe 2008

DAGEN Philippe - Extract from « Passage de la couleur » (Passage of color), catalogue of the exhibition Zao Wou-Ki. L’encre, l’eau, l’air, la couleur. Encres de Chine et aquarelles (Zao Wou-Ki. Ink, water, air, color. India inks and watercolors) 1954-2007 at the Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch in Issoudun, Albin Michel Editions, Paris, France, 2008 (pp. 15-19).

(…) "When the viewer looks at one of his watercolors from the 1960’s or the more recent ones, he is overwhelmed by the same feeling: the space seems to open and enlarge itself, without any upper or lower side retracting or shrinking. Neither the law of gravitation nor the laws of perspective is effective. In a world freed from its usual landmarks, color leakages and splatters designate no object – or maybe, some tentative marks of a landscape – waters, lands and skies. Some air must be circulating since one can feel it: breezes, gusts of wind, invisible currents carrying colorful hazes. If (very rarely) the eye seems to recognize a picture – leaves or flowers, it perceives as simultaneously that Zao Wou-Ki has not attempted to depict it. Watercolor does not allow it more than ink: one can see the paper, the successive strokes of the paintbrush and, even more clearly, the water content. Watercolor does not tolerate any trompe-l’œil or realism likely to deceive the senses. (…).

Evoking a « less world » comes to this: suggesting that a watercolor by Zao Wou-Ki, as his ink paintings, has the subtle power to untie for a moment the tight connections that retain each man of our time in the « system of the objects », in the empire of production and purpose. There lays a salutary effect. Because the artist is Chinese, because he has remained close to this civilization of his origin, it is tempting to compare this virtue of his paintings with those that the well-read people and philosophers used to confer to stones of strange shapes and colors for example. Through their observation of these stones, they moved away from their contemporary world, its businesses and events. These stones provided them with the opportunity to stand back, escape gravitation. Should you be willing to take the time to sustain their influence, Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings can also allow such escapes." (…).

The discovery of his most recent watercolors is a complete surprise: had we previously seen the artist go so far in terms of blasting and projecting forms? Breaking any principle pertaining to composition and venturing towards some kind of « all over », where the white surface becomes the empty space, where spots and lines of colors interlace and dance? Alternatively, taking the concept of liquidity to the point where the painting prompts to immersion, a long dive and a slow shifting along the submarine alike currents for which the watercolor painting becomes the mysterious map?

When the red colors rules, one cannot avoid a more physical feeling, like blood pressure, the thumping of life shows itself under its most immediate form – organic, almost cellular. One would say that, as a result of all his experiments and ellipsis, Zao Wou Ki finally achieved the shortest and most immediate posing of his own existence, his life turned into colors and gestures. One could even say that he now sometimes prefers to use his fingers than the beautiful paintbrushes and meticulously cleaned brushes in his studio – finger paintings, according to the vocabulary of pre-historians, which we are not referring to incidentally – and the projection of a shower of drops. In each case, the method is as simple as it can be and absolutely freed from any previous know-how, style affectation and any concern of virtuosity. Signs, simple signs of a passage, almost like footsteps in the snow." (...)

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ABADIE Daniel 2008

ABADIE Daniel -  Extract from « Le passage du vent » (The passing of the wind), catalogue of the exhibition Zao Wou-Ki – Hommage à Riopelle et peintures récentes (Zao Wou-Ki Tribute to Riopelle and recent paintings) at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec Editions, Quebec, Canada, 2008 (pp. 11-12).

"One day in 1959, Zao Wou-Ki stopped conferring a title on his paintings. He decided that, from this point forward, they would be identified by a simple date, the date of completion of the painting: from then on, there would be no more Bateaux en chantier (Boats in construction), Forêt verte (Green forest) or Paysage au soleil (Landscape under the sun). There would no longer be a Début d’octobre (Beginning of October) or Traversée des apparences (Going through appearances). The reason was that, for the second time, Zao Wou-Ki’s painting had changed. However, only few people were aware of this new mutation, although all had obviously recognized the first one.

In 1954, the painter had actually given up the fine shorthand signs by which he represented a running animal, a women laying nude in the landscape or a house among trees. Other written forms had then appeared in his paintings; however, they did no longer represent the world and its objects. For the Western viewer, they spontaneously evoked series of Chinese characters, naturally unreadable, but evidently meaningful. On the contrary, for the conventional well-read viewer, such notations were futile paintbrush strokes deprived of any meaning, far from this tradition of ink painting which partly establishes the Chinese civilization. Besides, the use of oil painting itself, unfamiliar in the East and symbol of modernism supported this interpretation. 

By such signs, bordering in 1954 the margin of Vent (Wind) where the writing seemed to invent itself in another form and transformed, in some kind of commemorative stone, the narrow vertical format of the canvas, Zao Wou-Ki undoubtedly marked the double distance where he would position his work from then on:  Western from a Chinese perspective and Chinese from a Western perspective, modern and traditional at the same time.

(…) The titles that from 1954 to 1958 echoed back this first and deep mutation forwent the stating of facts – from then on, no recognizable image would justify these titles. However, titles became responsible for the poetic substrata conveyed by figurative images until then. Moving entities – Foule noire (Black crowd), Avant l’orage (Before the storm and natural elements – Pluie (Rain), Foudre (Lightning), Nuage (Cloud) prevailed over description. Instead, suddenly, they were there to suggest, although the paintings were getting larger and great inspirations had started to sweep out the « verger des signes » (orchard of signs) that, a few years back, had caused Henri Michaux’s admiration (Foreword of the Cadby-Brich Gallery catalogue, New-York, 1952).

Indeed, the large signs, whose meaning was unpredictable, were inscribed in these paintings in the manner of those incised in divinatory bones at the time when the writing was being invented, lines at the same time are definite and pulsating, such as those engraved into ancient bronzes that the painter so admired. Such signs were bound to disappear from the painting with everything they reminded of an unambiguous discourse. (…) From then on, Zao Wou-Ki’s painting, like a free course across the great movements and micro-events of its surface, must be understood no longer as the memory of a landscape, identifiable or suggested, but rather as the transcription on canvas of contradictory forces that the painter eventually overpowers through the completion of the painting." (…)

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MARCHESSEAU Daniel - Extract from « Zao Wou-Ki, l’artiste de l’Est sur la montagne de l’Ouest » (Zao Wou-Ki, the artist from the East on the Western mountain), catalogue of the exhibition Zao Wou-Ki, peintures, œuvres sur papier, céramiques (Zao Wou-Ki, paintings, works on paper, ceramics) 1947-2007 at the Nemours Château-Musée, Somogy Editions, Paris, France, 2007 (p. 21).

(…) "The poet Shitao wrote: « If one uses the Unique stroke of a paintbrush as a benchmark, then it becomes possible to take part in the metamorphosis of the Universe, the sound and shapes of the hills and rivers, to measure the remote immensity of the earth, to gauge the dark secrets of the clouds and fog». Zao Wou-Ki is familiar with his paraphrases about the landscape. However, besides his non-figurative paintings on canvas and paper, the cosa mentale (mental thing) which illuminates in depth the deposit of pigment, is emerging. Silence inhabits the perceptible quiver of the skin of the painting, vibrating with a tactile sensuality, invisible although present like the diluted lights at dawn.

His first return to China (1972) and his meeting with Françoise (1973) brought Zao Wou-Ki the peace of his identity after a long exile and the fulfillment of a new love. In the Paris studio like on the countryside, he started to work on oversize paintings and polyptychs in tribute to his masters of the thought (Malraux in 1976, Monet in 1991, Michaux in 2000, Riopelle in 2003 and Cézanne in 2005). In such paintings, the full and empty figures, dripping of secret forces, burning at the source of the echo, can be read in the violently colored perspectives.

His introduction in the gallery Pierre Matisse (New York, 1979), the tribute devoted to him by Jean Leymarie at the Grand Palais (Paris, 1981), the opening of his oversize wash tints for the architect I.M. Pei on the site of the Fragrant Hills near Beijing (1982) and the exhibitions in China and Japan (1983) attest of Zao Wou-Ki’s international recognition by the museums and the media and the respect provided by his native country.

In the past nearly thirty years, there have been numerous retrospectives of his work in the whole world whereas his paintings seemed to reach, with his maturity, an entwined fulfillment through his enlightened metamorphosis and his more intimate rhythms. The magnitude of space in a discursive all over reveals the sources of his inspiration, broadcasts full figures outlined by empty shapes and punctuations delineating torsions. Thus, the observation of his paintings calls for daydreaming, perception and effusion.

A welcome stroke of luck? Predestination? A guiding principle? The Chinese Wou-Ki character means « limitless »."

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FRECHES José 2007

FRECHES José - Extract from « Le souffle et l’âme (Breath and Soul) » in Zao Wou-Ki – Œuvres, écrits, entretiens (Zao Wou-Ki - Works, writings, interviews), first published by Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 2007, and Editions Hazan, Paris, France, 2007 (pp. 14-15).

"… To a student at the Hangzhou School of Fine Art (Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts) - where he had been invited to teach for a month in the spring of 1985 - and who asked him how he painted his paintings, Zao Wou-Ki answered without hesitation:

- I do not know how to show. I can only paint.

Such answer, typical of a Taoist master to his students, summarizes better than any other what is Zao Wou-Ki: an artist entirely focused on the canvas that he is about to cover with colors – straight away, not tomorrow because tomorrow is another day! – in the silence of his studio where he locks himself away from the world.

For him, painting means entering, racked with fear of repeating himself, into an ultimate haven where he feels good. It means spending the time of the day, pushing away as far as possible the night of insomnia. It means covering the distance, pushing away the limits, exploring space. It means walking alongside the hollowness of incommensurable abysses. It means touching fluffy clouds, it means diving into opalescent hazes.

In the very beginning, the canvas is empty. This emptiness will need to be filled in but also sometimes, protected and set aside. Exalting emptiness, filling in emptiness…Depicting the « non existing » by shapes and colours on a canvas which really exists…a canvas – an object! – that the artist will have to challenge, against which he might fight, sometimes scratching it, sometimes caressing it and whispering loving words, like a woman he wants to seduce…a canvas which, after much acceptance, might also take revenge of its« aggressor » in the end, by forcing him to scratch off everything and re-do it all, like Sisyphus and his rock …

The ease of execution is only an appearance. What one believes to be the outcome of a first draft is actually the consequence of complex repeated processes made of various colours overlapping and remorse indefinitely painted over. 

The magic of Shapeless – the magic of the Tao itself, of the emptiness, its riches, its depth, its complexity, its ultimate drives, the feelings, emotions provided to those close to it, the favours granted to those who know it well because they are able to free themselves from everything and «clear their minds » (as the saying goes), none of this is easy to capture, record, retrace and convey.

This is the place where the creative alchemy takes place: in the silent studio (…) that he has difficulty to leave for more than ten straight days because, despite his apparent composure and warm serenity, Wou-Ki, who cares little about talking about what he does and the way he does it, considering – rightly so – that his work speaks for itself, is always in the urgency to become familiar with the emptiness and the virgin canvas.

And it is precisely when he puts himself in danger of facing this emptiness that Wou-Ki creates his world.

Evaporation, coagulation, storm rains, sedimentation, ebullience, whispers, murmurs, tears, escapes, short cuts, dream catchers, clouds of strokes, lakes of dreams, mountains of energies, desperate seas, hazes of joy, volcanoes of love, trees of tenderness, paths of solitude, philosopher’s stones; references to facts, tributes to women and men; digressions, variations, expansions; tensions, distortions, dead calms, wash tints, washings, thickenings; gliding, bucks, twists; allegro, piano, vivace … at times ma non troppo and in other times molto forte; Zao Wou-Ki’s painting is alchemical and musical …"

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DE VILLEPIN Dominique 2006

DE VILLEPIN Dominique - Extract from the foreword of Zao Wou-Ki – Carnets de voyages (Zao Wou-Ki - Travel notebooks), 1948-1952, Albin Michel Editions, Paris, France, 2006 (pp. 6-7).

(…) "Like the poet, Zao Wou-Ki names things. However, there is no word between his fingers and no speech between his lips. There are only strokes and drips of ink, wondering between the reference of a Chinese character and the rigor of the Western alphabet, between water and signs. In such a breach, a world peculiar to him is being built, which no painter before him had ever explored, because no painter had ever linked both poles of a same world in his work. The West, China: two facets of the same universe, two parts of the same spirit set off from a foreign shore to find its natal river. Here: the sharp slopes of the Alps drawn with one single stroke of the paintbrush in the shape of a rectangle, in Paul Klee’s style, and intertwined in steps up and down, in the shape of a deep-sea monster’s back spine. There: the hills and the snow, softly climbing towards the sky in an effervescence of whites, greys and blues, to the point of merging with it. Two perspectives on the world are observing and contemplating each other, assessing and sizing each other up, and, conversing, as if they attempted to grasp a better truth peculiar to each of them.

Then, a meeting took place. These are two hands holding each other above the oceans, deserts and steppes. These are two sets of eyes meeting. These are two ages conversing, the age of vivacious childhood and the one of great age, when you are short of breath and foggy-eyed. The first inscriptions of the shell, flowers and fish in limestone come to whisper in the abstract ears of the last painters. With a few marks of a quill, through the wet passage of his paintbrush, Zao Wou-Ki links the heritage of painting and his fanatical desire to give the world to see and understand. (…)."

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DELAY Florence 2005

DELAY Florence - Extract from the foreword of the catalogue of the exhibition Zao Wou-Ki - Peintures et encres de Chine (Paintings and India inks), 1948-2008 at the Espace Bellevue in Biarritz, Hazan Editions, Paris, France, 2005 (p. 9).

(…) "Night never falls in Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings because they belong to here and there, yesterday and tomorrow. When night falls on Biarritz, somewhere else the sun is rising. “I am yesterday and I know tomorrow”, the sun god of Ancient Egyptians used to say. Humble, the painter we love prefers to belong to both and his paintbrush comes and goes between the extreme discoveries of the West and the Far East of things. In the untitled compositions, gusts of colors blow senses to bits. Internal life is untitled.

On these landscapes of the soul, we cast our passions. Precipitates of black rage, turning blue from terror, scoria of suffering and oxides of sadness fall in the bottom of the painting, such as ashes of passion blown by the wind.

Zao Wou-Ki’s palette is all the same extremely large and generous. Let us follow the colors since they are guiding us. Let us then guide us towards the secret of the painting because it is also ours. (…)"

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NOËL Bernard 2000

NOËL Bernard, Extract from « Au bord du visible » (The border of things visible), foreword for Zao Wou-Ki – Grands formats (Zao Wou-Ki - Oversize paintings), Cercle d’Art Editions, Paris, France, 2000 (p. 19)

(…) "Perception has its own truth and, color, its own nature. Shape calls for its nature in color and its truth in perception. One can observe this call in the essence of Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings, although it is often mistaken for a wave, a backwash, because appearance helplessly stands for the field of illusions. However, appearance is inevitable and one would create it while rejecting it. Consequently, appearance is required, for concealing inner nature with a face or making the violence in play in any expression appear likeable.

How can one express oneself without committing an act of display? One must throw oneself inside out, and the more drastic the more faithful such ejection. Then appearance is no longer a distinguished piece of clothing, rather, the skin covering one’s raw being. Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings are prudish through the intensity applied to the unveiled experience represented by each of them. Finally, the aesthetic perspective pertaining to each painting represents its best veil: it moves perception towards the art and no longer towards its truth. (…)." 

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RIGAUD Jacques 2000

RIGAUD Jacques - Extract from the foreword of the catalogue of the exhibition Zao Wou-Ki at the Thessa Herold Gallery in Paris, Galerie Thessa Herold Editions, Paris, France, 2000 (p. 13).

(…) "Standing before a previously unseen painting by Zao Wou-Ki, after looking at it for a long time, I like to close my eyes and try, not to depict it, but to re-create the emotion I have just experienced through observation. Behind my closed eyelids, colours, somehow blurred shapes and almost graphic details appear. Even more so, I am overwhelmed by sensations, something resembling music never heard before, and, more over an intangible feeling of well-being, as if the ongoing passage of time was taking me towards a horizon where all is calm and beautiful. (…)."

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