Portrait de ma femme

1949, Oil on canvas, 73 × 60 cm
Photo Dennis Bouchard

For Zao Wou-Ki, Paris was a place of new connections and pictorial discovery. His early Paris paintings were full of numerous influences and at times, his portraiture is close to that of Jules Pascin, with a focus on the line and drawing. At others, his blocks of color echo those of Henri Matisse, as in Portrait de ma femme. His female nudes in charcoal, sanguine and pencil also contain influences of Aristide Maillol.

Montagne grise et jaune, 1950

Oil on canvas, 81 × 100 cm.
Rights reserved

Untitled (Vert émeraude), 1950
Oil on canvas, 127 × 127,5 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
Nature morte au Biba
1952, Oil on canvas, 64,5 × 99,5 cm.
Rights reserved

Zao Wou-Ki made still lifes using all mediums. Between 1948 and 1954, he painted more than 30. His use of the single graphic line –the floor line or the edge of a piece of furniture – as an indication of depth, is another influence of the work of Paul Cézanne.
His themes of inspiration during this period included fruits (lemons, grapes, figs), flowers (lotus, hydrangea) and animals (fish). He also represented familiar objects (teapots, glasses, bowls, vases and tea cups). Nature morte au Biba, 1952, represents a stringed instrument typical of Chinese music that he kept in his studio at this time.

Paysage boréal, 1953

Oil on canvas, 46 × 55 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
Untitled (Tower Hill London), 1953
1953, Oil on canvas, 73,5 × 92 cm.
Rights reserved
As soon as he had arrived in France, Zao Wou-Ki began traveling through Europe, looking for inspiration outside of the Chinese landscape. He carried with him sketchbooks, in which he would work in watercolor, ink or pencil, then used his sketches as a basis for studio work once he returned home. His first trips took him to Switzerland, Italy and Spain.
He went to the UK in 1952, but did not paint in his sketchbook. Instead, he transposed his memories the following year, producing a poetic vision of London’s topography, juxtaposing the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and boats on the Thames.
1954, Oil on canvas, 195 × 97 cm,
Centre Pompidou, musée national d’Art moderne / CCI, Paris, France.
Photo Dennis Bouchard

By the early 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki felt trapped in figuration. The work of Paul Klee would take him in a new direction. Like Klee, he decided to use signs and symbols as he moved further away from strict figurative representation, to invent a language that allowed him to escape the limitations imposed by choice of subject. He re-appropriated ancient Chinese characters for their aesthetic value and invented forms that would take him little by little, ever closer to abstraction. From this point on, he moved into a world without references.
Vent is often considered as his first abstract painting. The figurative element has almost totally disappeared and the long cascade of invented signs has no graphical meaning, evoking instead an impalpable element, the passing wind.

Hommage à Chu-Yun – 05.05.55
1955, Oil on canvas, 195 × 130 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
Chu-Yun (or Qu Yuan, circa 340-278 BC) is considered in China as the country’s first great poet, also famous for his patriotism. Born in the Kingdom of Chu, he served King Huai of Chu and was subsequently exiled by the king for his political opposition after being falsely slandered. Qu Yuan led an errant life, composing poems that spoke of his fervent patriotism, but also his bitterness and disillusion. He committed suicide by throwing himself into the River Miluo in protest against the collapse of the Kingdom of Chu.
The figure of Qu Yuan was honored by the Zhao family. On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Zao Wou-Ki and his father would throw rice into the water so that the poet would not be eaten by fish. Hommage is a continuation of the family ritual that honors the memory of the great poet: dated May 5, 1955, it evokes watery depths.
Aube (aucun soir ni aucun matin)
1957, Oil on canvas, 200 × 300 cm,
The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japon.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
This work is one of the first very large-format works by Zao Wou-Ki. Painted in the spring of 1957, it was shown in the artist’s first exhibition at the Galerie de France in May 1957. Painted before his trip to the US in the fall of 1957, this work shows that the artist was already tempted by large formats even before he discovered the outsized works of the American painters.
1961, oil on canvas, 200 × 180 cm,
Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne / CCI. Held at the Musée d’Art, d’Histoire et d’Archéologie, in Évreux, France
Hommage à Edgar Varèse – 25.10.64

1964, Oil on canvas, 255 × 345 cm.
Musée cantonnal des beaux-arts, Lausanne.
Donation Françoise Marquet-Zao, 2015.
Photo Dennis Bouchard

This very large format work (255 x 345 cm) was painted a year before the death of the composer. It was through Henri Michaux – who also joined Pierre Boulez’ Domaine musical– that Zao Wou-Ki met Edgar Varèse while he was in Paris working on Déserts in 1954. The two men quickly took a liking to one another.
For his tribute, Zao Wou-Ki undoubtedly drew inspiration from Varèse’s music. The dynamic tension and teeming mass movements evoke the sound contrasts and time splits of the composer’s works. Zao Wou-Ki gave the same central importance to emptiness in his paintings, as Varèse gave to silence in his music. They both created a moving space, that dilates and retracts, enveloping the spectator.

1969, Oil on canvas, 200 × 300 cm,
National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Taiwan.
Rights reserved
24.02.70, 1970
Oil on canvas, 130 × 162 cm,
Ishibashi Foundation, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japon.
Rights reserved

En mémoire de May – 10.03.72

10.09.72 – En mémoire de May (10.03.72), 1972, Oil on canvas, 200 × 526 cm,
Centre Pompidou, musée national d’Art moderne / CCI, Paris, France.
Photo Dennis Bouchard

Zao Wou-Ki met his second wife, Chan May-Kan, in Hong Kong in 1958. He made this large composition in her memory, after she died prematurely in 1972.
The work is striking for the strength and violence with which bears witness to his wife’s great suffering. Zao Wou-Ki did not wish to sell it, so he decided to donate it to the French State in 1973, as part of the collections of the National Museum of Modern Art of Paris.
10.03.74 – Nous deux encore 1974
Oil on canvas, 280 × 400 cm,
Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japon.
Rights reserved
01.04.76 — Hommage à André Malraux – Triptyque
1976, Oil on canvas, 200 × 524 cm,
The Hakone Open-Air Museum, Hakone, Japon.
Rights reserved
Made a few months before the death of André Malraux, Hommage is testament to the artist’s admiration for the author of The Temptation of the West, for which he created ten lithographs in 1962. As French Minister for Cultural Affairs, it was Malraux’s turn to help Zao Wou-Ki two years later, when he helped him obtain French naturalization in the same year that General de Gaulle officially recognized Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China.
Thanks to the Fuji Television Gallery, which exhibited the work in Tokyo in 1977, this important painting has remained in Asia, a continent dear to Malraux. Now owned by Fuji Media Holdings Inc., it is held at the Hakone Open-Air Museum (Japan).
15.12.76 – Triptyque, 1976
Oil on canvas, 195 × 390 cm.
Rights reserved
15.04.77, 1977
Oil on canvas, 200 × 162 cm.
Rights reserved
24.11.80 – Triptyque, 1980

Oil on canvas, 200 × 525 cm.
Rights reserved

In 1977, Zao Wou-Ki bought a large studio in the Loiret, where he painted large formats and big triptychs throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Made in 1980, this triptych demonstrates the artist’s great pictorial mastery. Three panels are combined to create a dynamic, distorted composition. In re-appropriating the Chinese artistic tradition, he breathed new life into it and went on to create his largest ever triptych, a commission for his friend, the architect I.M. Pei for his vast Raffles City complex in Singapore. Juin-octobre 1985 measures 10 meters long by 2.8 meters tall.
04.01.82, 1982
Oil on canvas, 260 × 200 cm, TOTAL France.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
20.03.84, 1984
Oil on canvas, 260 × 200 cm, Fond National d’Art Contemporain, Ministère de la Culture, Paris, France. Held at the Questure de l’Assemblée Nationale, Paris.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
20.12.85, 1985
Oil on canvas, 195 × 130 cm.
Rights reserved
Hommage à Henri Matisse I – 02.02.86, 1986
Oil on canvas, 162 × 130 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard

Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, Paris
Donation from Françoise Marquet-Zao, 2019
This painting is inspired by Matisse’s famous work, Porte-fenêtre à Collioure, 1914 (Pompidou Center, National Museum of Modern Art, Paris).
In 1984, he wrote about the work: “ (…) In China they say that Porte-fenêtre is a magical painting, because in front of that door, empty and full at the same time, there is life, dust, the air we breathe. But what happens behind it? It’s a vast, black space. It’s an open door onto real painting for all of us.”
This tribute work in honor of one of Zao Wou-Ki’s favorite artists, remained in his collection until his death. His wife donated it to the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris in 2019, rendering it inalienable and ensuring it could be on permanent public view.

20.05.88, 1988
Oil on canvas, 99 × 81 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
Mai-août 90, 1990
Oil on canvas, 260 × 200 cm,
Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Rights reserved
30.06.92, 1992
Oil on canvas, 162 × 130 cm. Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.
Rights reserved
21.08.95, 1995
Oil on canvas, 200 × 162 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
1998, Oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard

Zao Wou-Ki made this painting in memory of Incendie, an oil on canvas dating back to 1954-1955 (130 x 195 cm). Acquired in 1955 by the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the work is unfortunately no longer part of the national collections. Lent out numerous times, the canvas did not return from its last exhibition in Singapore in 1982. Zao Wou-Ki chose to make a fresh reinterpretation of Incendie, more than 40 years after its creation.

Hommage à mon ami Henri Michaux, avril 1999-août 2000 – Triptyque
1999-2000, Oil on canvas, 200 × 750 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
After the works he made in 1963 and 1964, this large triptych was Zao Wou-Ki’s third tribute to Henri Michaux. A posthumous homage to his great friend, the work was made on the request of I.M. Pei for the reception hall on the eleventh floor of the headquarters of the Bank of China in Beijing, designed by C.C and L.C. Pei. The commission was never completed and after going on show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 2003, the work finally joined a private collection in Asia.
Septembre-octobre 2003, 2003
Oil on canvas, 97 × 195 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
Le vent pousse la mer – Triptyque, 2004
Oil on canvas, 194,5 × 390 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
For this triptych, Zao Wou-Ki spent three weeks searching for a spot from which to paint a small boat of which he had previously made several pencil sketches, after research into the history of ancient Chinese painting. Despite its small size, the boat is the first sign of a deliberate return to the figuration he had abandoned in 1954. The change appeared in other works as well, all linked to the plant world. Nature was the pretext for new work on color and form: imaginary landscapes, color variations in the changing seasons and underwater life.
Hommage à Cézanne, 06.11.2005 – Diptyque, 2005
Oil on canvas, 162 × 260 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
Untitled, 2005
Oil on canvas, 97 × 195 cm.
Photo by Dennis Bouchard
Terre rouge – 16.01.2005
2005, Oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard
This painting is emblematic of the painter’s great freedom during the 2000s. With nothing left to prove, his use of color speaks of pure pleasure at the easel. Strength of composition combined with a choice of bright colors creates a whirlwind of pigment and texture.
18.03.2008, 2008
Oil on canvas, 116 × 89 cm.
Photo Dennis Bouchard