« I am working » … « I am working » …
That is what Wou-Ki answered in his lilting voice, hopping like a sparrow on a string, in the tone of the most perfect evidence, when asked about his day or his health … and it meant “All goes well”.
Each time, I felt the same relief in knowing that the painter’s brush, in harmony with the re-creation of the world, would overcome in its silent perseverance chaos, disorder, anguish : work as the very core of his life and his joy of painting in this wide-eyed gaze, like a first time.
Today we have gathered around him to take our leave of an exceptional man. Take our leave of the man but not of the artist and that is his privilege. His paintings remain in our lives with a necessity all the more pressing since the world still remains to be reinvented. As long as the colour, as long as the light will not have faded, he will be there, with us, among us.
His painting is alive. It is not one to be framed, to be confined. On side tracks, on watersheds, he shakes up the horizon, on intimate terms with the lightning, taming vertigo. He inhabits the impulse of an explosion, sometimes a torrent or a blazing fire.
The first image that comes to my mind when I think about him is his face, a face infinitely turned towards the other. An open chalice, offered, slit by sparkling eyes and bursts of laughter. He never escaped. He had chosen to be fully present in every moment of his life. His place, within the space of his paintings. His breath, in the erupting substance on his canvases. His hope, in the harmony forced out of a future painting. It would be futile to try to describe the day-to-day clinch, the ceaseless fight. On the canvas, behind each sign, behind each line, behind each movement, is caught the tremor of the heart that gives a glimpse on the laboratory of the work.
Here, bundles of joys and sorrows, there, regrets and doubts before the spurt of the revelation. And yet the artist knew how to hide his feelings. Always the same fluidity in the speech, the same musicality in the colours of his brushes. Often a gliding as quiet as a river in a mountainous landscape. To both live and paint, here is the breath that made him so present, so precise in everything he did.
“Me, I am a painter”. His whole life was summed up by those words so simple but at the same time so full of pride. Any discussion would almost necessarily turn back to this primal truth. It is to this sentence that led his experiences as his intimate ordeals, everything he lived.
And for me, to talk about Wou-Ki today, is to tell about him painting, again and again. The hours spent in the studio, on a chair facing the canvas, to collect on it the light pouring down from the glass-roof at the rue Jonquoy. The magic, when I looked away, even for the shortest of instants, of this mauve suddenly turned red. Witchcraft of this line answering the breath of life.
I remember a sunny afternoon at the Pavillon de la Lanterne with Françoise and Marie-Laure. He was scrutinizing in the distance some motif, invisible to me, and then with his brush rushing to the paper, with short, precise gestures, a mass of roses had opened out. He saw beyond, he saw through, as clairvoyants would do, turning his life into a lens able to receive the light of the world. Because painting, for him, was painting what cannot be seen at once, going on the other side of the deceptive wall of appearances. It was crossing to the “stormy back of the mirror” as his friend René Char called it.
To talk about Wou-Ki today, to call him to us, it is once more, to accept to be transfixed, through closed eyes, by those sudden looming-ups, among coloured expanses. It is to witness, once again, the metamorphosis and multiplication of the gesture turning to sign, then of the sign to trace, when the painting becomes the place, the formula, the chance of a shared experience.
I think about his early paintings lacerated with familiar lines, trees, houses, children who fascinated him so much. Or others, lashed by a storm of signs. Less willing to tame shapes or elements than to extract their breathing, to pull out their primal light, through the magic of his shaman hands. As many enigmas, as many proofs brought back from his quest, to offer to see and share in his empire made of horizons and ends.
Because Wou-Ki, the man, so unique in his quest, has been shaped by meetings and friendship. He knows what he owes to the great ancients. He knows what he owes to the poets and musicians. He knows what he owes to the artist-friends who accompany his life and his work, Soulages, Vieira da Silva, Staël, but also Michaux, Char, Bonnefoy and Boulez, Varèse. And in the freedom and generosity that were his, he pays homage.
“Homage to Henri Michaux” is an explosion of colours. Michaux who succeeded so well in seeing through his singular art : “To show while hiding”. That was the enigma Wou-Ki would place in the heart of everything, erasing the tracks, the frames, the comforting landmarks where reason would like to confine reality. One has to know how to conceal the masks to reveal the being. One has to go through artifice to reach authenticity. It is a ‘peinture de geste’ as there are ‘chansons de geste’.
To reach this ambition, Wou-Ki does not hesitate to welcome emptiness in the heart of his paintings to make the infigurative, the unrepresentable loom-up. And there is the “Homage to Claude Monet” where the memory of the white water lilies emerges like a transparency of the water, like what is both matter and light.
How many accumulated fights, how many real passions to reach such an inspiration. This same inspiration that is also found in his “Homage to my friend Jean-Paul Riopelle. The story of two Canadian maple trees” where the intertwining of greens and yellows, under a clear sky, seems to revive nature, as a strength overflowing from the limits of the painting.
Along his path as a painter, Wou-Ki never forsook anything to the forces of fate. He chose to make this big trip from China to France, from the East to the West. He chose to nurture the dialogue between these cultures that were so distant and yet friendly. He held in his hands the two sides of representation, painting the sign and the figure. For him, Art cannot be divided but sets itself up as a whole, like a mountain that must be patiently climbed, always open to new quests, new daring touches. Again and again he sets out to go further, even groping around. With, for this civilization mediator, the extravagant dream of digging into the heart of mystery to pick the spark of a presence in a place where dialogue, peace and reconciliation would at last be possible.
He had a keen and painful conscience of a world torn apart. He deeply felt the tragedies and hopes of his native country as of his country of adoption, in periods of extreme challenges. But he believed in time, in the mad will of men to always rebuild what had been destroyed, to revive what had been forgotten, to rekindle extinguished fires.
Intertwined histories dwell with him as they always tell him about a torn mankind. The great History and the small one, the history of men as the one of civilizations. They are both there, inseparable, in a painting born soon after September 11th where a tower made of smoke and ashes also conveys the doubts, fears and fights of a lifetime.
It is not a coincidence if the quest for the human element leaves such a deep mark in his work. What an emotion it is to see, fifty years later, appear in his triptych “Le vent pousse la mer” among the whites and blues, a fragile small boat. A boat for which he tried for several weeks to figure out the best location on the canvas. A boat suggested by a few lines, like a raft meant to rescue what can still be rescued, after time has done its work. Therefore death, at the end of the trip, is only the completion of a cycle, a fusion with the elements in the embrace of expectation.
I cannot, I do not want to forget this afternoon, nor any of the faces of those he loved like Lanlan, May and you, his children, Jia-Ling and Sin-May, and his grandson, Zhen-Zhen.
No, Françoise, I do not want to forget anything. I can still hear him shout out to me : “Where is Françoise ?” … “Where is Françoise ?”.
Since I met him, it has been a question, a refrain that came back a hundred times a day and these also were his last words in French. He thus expressed his love, his confidence and his gratitude ; for you who, during the forty years you spent at his side, have made his work live and grow in a passion you shared.
To each of you, my friends, I want to say thank you, because in the country he made his own, in ‘Zaowoukian’, he loved to say thank you.
Therefore, thank you to you and thank you to him :
- for a life, his life that knew inspiration,
- for a life, his life that gave inspiration.
Translation: Monique Etienne