Past Exhibition 20.03.20 – 31.10.2020
« Zao Wou-Ki : Friendship & Reconciliation » at the Villepin Gallery in Hong Kong
Presentation of the exhibition at the Villepin Gallery
Zao Wou-Ki: Friendship and reconciliation
Text by Dominique de Villepin
Zao Wou-Ki is often presented as the painter of the mediation between the East and the West, two arts, two creations that have most of the time turned their backs to each other throughout the 20th Century. On one side, a look focused towards the inside and the past, concerned about perfection in the imitation of the masters ; on the other side, a gaze directed forward, elsewhere towards creation to open up the future, pushing codes and formulas, deconstructing established patterns.
It is true that when embarking for France in 1948, Zao Wou-Ki was not only supported by a craving for a new European learning, in the tradition of many of his elders, but above all willing to break with the sterile academicism that still rules China at that time. To choose Paris, for Zao Wou-Ki who does not speak a word of French, is to choose the homeland of arts, it is to decide that he will, now on, only speak one universal language, that of art. From far away, he anticipates through magazines, books, postcards, another boiling world behind the ministering figures that already fascinate him: Cezanne, Matisse or Picasso. His visit to the Louvre Museum, on the very day of his arrival in Paris, testifies of his thirst for discovery, for learning, as does his desire to follow the teaching of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, under the aegis of Othon Friesz. But most of all, he enjoys immersing himself enthusiastically in this capital, where throng young artists coming from all over the world: Nicolas de Staël, Hans Hartung, Norman Bluhm, Jean-Paul Riopelle or Pierre Soulages.
But there is the mystery of his changeover. For many years, I have discussed with Zao Wou-Ki, studied his work, admired his paintings, but I have never been able to penetrate the secret of the voyage that the artist undertook across appearances, across traditions, across life. Zao Wou-Ki, arriving in Europe, does not start from a blank canvas. His mind is a real field of forces often antagonistic, even contradictory, confronting each other. First the heritage of his childhood and of ancient China: with his fascination for the grand-father figure who teaches him how to read and write, linking each sign to its image. By this daily practice of calligraphy, he gains access to a discovery, a vision and an understanding of the world. Through this first mediation, he establishes the link between the visible and invisible sphere. More fascination during the annual ceremony of the presentation of the paintings when the scrolls of the ancient masters constituting the family treasure were displayed, such as Mi Fu (1051-1107) or Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). He deeply felt, during the process of unrolling, the emotion in front of the silk which, by successive fragments, unveils itself, with in the end the revealing of the whole work free from its precious silk matrix. There are flashes that last and strike the imagination of a young child.
Beyond the combination of images and these first dazzles, one has to insist on the impact of an encounter, of a primordial founding place, the lake west of Hangzhou. It is in this city that Zao Wou-Ki starts, in 1935, his studies at the school of Fine Arts, and these landscapes on the lake shores will stand out as those of a primal and edenic scene, from where everything starts and where everything comes back, where the man, the woman, the wild animals cradled by nature, enjoy happy days. But this Eden is not a dream, it really reflects the pleasant reality of the lake shores where life has not yet been separated from poetry. Here, the primal earth is not “the rough reality” that has to be embraced, but an enchanting order stretching out its arms, a light, mobile, even liquid order.
This strong imprint can be found in Untitled (July 1948). The whole painting is flooded with a vibrant atmosphere, from light yellow to deep orange, with the blooming, in the foreground, of a bunch of long flowering stems with birds dancing and singing above. During the same period in Untitled (Sacré-Coeur), 1948, the same poetry, but serious this time, explodes. In the distance, the dark vault of the Church rises when right in front of us stand great bare trees, in an aura of blueish whites and pearl greys with in the background a large winter sky glowing in the sunset.
Deeply Chinese-inspired, with resolutely modern aspirations, Zao Wou-Ki will, right upon his entering the school of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, make a choice that will dictate his life. Instead of copying ancient works, according to the Chinese program of the school, where everything is frozen in the copying of works from the past, the application of studied codes and rules, the infinitely repeated gestures with due care and respect, our apprentice artist decides to take lessons ‘in the western style’ bringing in the effort of modernity to capture the air and the light, associating nature, reality, modernity, in the footsteps of Cezanne or Matisse. It is this painting that possesses him and which he wants to pursue.
Going from one shore to the other, from the East to the West, it is not to be reborn totally different. And that is no doubt Zao Wou-Ki’s chance, the mystery of his changeover, in a spirit of reconciliation that enabled him to take and give at the same time. That is why we have wished, for the opening of this Gallery, to focus on friendship. Arriving in Paris and immersed in the post-war creation, he does not allow anyone to impose anything on him. He resumes the work he started in China while opening up to new realities. The line becomes thinner, colors soften, shapes also become more precise. However our young Chinese painter does not become a French painter. He is anxious, tormented by the loss of many of his bearings, but he does not renounce anything, he goes forward, multiplies works, fills a great number of notebooks during his trips in France and throughout Europe. He tries new techniques, engraving, lithography, makes many encounters, some of them will prove decisive, with Paul Klee’s work during a trip to Switzerland, with Alberto Giacometti, for whom he felt both friendship and admiration, but above all with Henri Michaux.
THE PURPOSE OF METAMORPHOSES
Because I cannot retrace here his whole life that has been so rich, I wish to make you feel the path that he has travelled, to follow the track left by the successive metamorphoses which are the inner law of his life. 1948 is not a crossover, sudden and final, from one shore to the other. It is the starting point of a long metamorphosis, of a law of change that will impose itself upon his life. It leads him, step by step, from one obstacle to another, towards abstraction. His faithfulness to himself is part of his constant desire for a deep change, for often painful questionings, focusing on an always more open and sleeker work.
He quite early faces the issue of the color. In vivid or light tones, it conquers the painting and structures it with emotions and vibrations, even before he questions the deepness where plans come alive and where the perspective resumes its games. Throughout his life, Zao Wou-Ki goes on diversifying his palette, seeking in new tones a more accurate resonance with the vibration of the being. No doubt the revelation of Matisse has first been for him the intuition that painting is not to represent the world but to render it through the colors. The canvas becomes the arena of their confrontation, of their energization, of their overflowing to finally reach light. It is in this transmutation that works the so personal magic of Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings that make the viewer feel the vibrations of the colors. A unique quest links the women portraits on the 40’s and 50’s to the majestic landscapes of oracular signs from the beginning of the 60’s. In Lalan portrait dated 1949, under the influence of Matisse, the black flower pattern of the blue dress emancipate itself like a blooming of signs, standing out of the yellow background. It is the same faith in the color that later takes him to watercolor, free, as he is older, to confront the color on the pattern. That is how, in the 2000’s, with an incredible freedom, he gets to go after the bright colors of the Mediterranean sea, of Morocco, Spain or Provence in the south of France. The colors offer him a sensual architecture of the world, able to open onto the mysteries of space.
Zao Wou-Ki is not of those who fumble about till they have found their own light, their favorite color which from canvas after canvas would in the end become their talisman. Instead, during his whole life, he will explore the boundaries of the colors, he will expose them or veil them, spread them or concentrate them. He will wonder about what is happening at the limits of the color, on the boarder of the visible or of what the senses can bear. This is where he discovers, in the colors themselves and in their interstices, passages towards other worlds, toward a supreme reality. The small watercolor Untitled, 1950, attests to this variation of blacks, greys, greens, blues, that, in a few strokes, build an atmosphere, expose the truth of a winter landscape.
Then, naturally comes the issue of space with an anguished note. Which importance is to be given to the void, so decisive in the Chinese tradition, as linked to the breath ? Even if Zao Wou-Ki wishes to leave behind all the academic influences of his native country, there is, in the movements of the filled and empty spaces, a primal truth, a deep breath of his being, which he cannot relinquish, this interaction being so powerful deep in the heart of his painting. It gives life and meaning to his art and this is particularly the case, whichever medium he chooses, during the personal crisis he goes through around 1972.
This is magnificently illustrated, during the last period, by the painting 21.11.2002-10.12.2003, 2002-2003. It is a mountain scene, some sort of radiography revealing the very breath of a magnificent nature raising, standing up against the calm vastness of the sky. It is the Sainte Victoire Mountain brought to China, a new homage to continue Cezanne’s work, to celebrate and capture the light as it cascades around the heaviness of the mountain. Where everything should fall, weigh, take root, we have the feeling that air wins, that reality evaporates, dissolves, becomes cloud to leave, free and triumphant, the color, to magnify the blue of a sky that can only be seen once ; a painting that can move a mountain.
Through his transformations, Zao Wou-Ki never gave up exploring the various formats of the canvas. His very large formats remained especially famous. But we do not always imagine how these gigantic paintings have only been made possible by the variety of sizes and compositions, from small paintings, nearly miniatures, but also tondos or stela formats. He wanted, in times of revolution, to hustle the conventions about the painting, those small windows opened on beauty that must be allowed to become, when necessary, rips through the veil of reality.
With Zao Wou-Ki, « space is silence » as we have been recently reminded by the great success of the exhibition of the paintings of the Chinese artist at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, in the words of Henri Michaux. Zao Wou-Ki’s works are like temples, spaces outside of time, cut out of the fabric of reality, sacral spaces where the seasons of life unfold. These spaces are also shelters, for the viewers as well as for the painter, dams against the violence of life and of history, like his studio was a shelter for the artist himself in his moments of doubt and fear. They are suspended territories where we can go, without a pass, without supervision, without accountability to enjoy the pure delight of mere humanness.
The issue of time comes shortly after that. It cannot be separated from the rhythm, the breath, the song, so many elements contributing to the elaboration of the sense, so decisive for the artist. For him, painting is not a game of chance. It has to be accurate, reach a carefully elected balance, to get as close as possible to the truth that constitutes his ultimate goal. For him, it is very important to always move forward, from the visible to the invisible, without ever forgetting the founding of the quest : beauty, accuracy, truth. That is what justifies and gives a meaning to his struggle. So there really is a path that he will strive to never stray from, enriched with old or new searches. Isn’t he one of the few painters of the 20th Century to walk through the golden triangle of art from the last centuries, from the School of Paris, to the School of New York, pulling open the strip of the West, without ever losing touch with the one of the East, in the variety of his approaches, Korea, Japan, China ?
Could he have started such an adventure if he had not been able to rely on so deep personal and family roots ? When he started there is, no doubt, for him coming from a family of academics, the feeling of an election and at the same time, of a collective belonging to the Chinese nation, rediscovering in the middle of the 20th Century the ineluctable force of China’s destiny, when the individual will joins the collective impulse. After having so deeply experienced the decline and humiliation of his country, he strives like his father, for the renewal of pride, the rejection of inequalities and of inequity which harmful consequences he noted. And then, on a more personal level, he will never forget the magic of the lake in Hangzhou where, may be for the first time, he learnt how to see, how to translate with his brush “this breath of the air on the calm water” that he will pursue during his whole life. Be it on a sheet of paper or on a canvas, he will try to capture this shivering, that can only be measured when the heart of the being beats at the same rhythm, follows the same breath, that the one of nature itself. At this moment, in this vast enterprise of radiography of reality, the artist understands that he is “Alive”, in harmony with Nature, and for that reason, he can experience, even if only fleetingly, a feeling of eternity.
To understand the importance of this mediation about “time “ in Zao Wou-Ki’s work in its more detonating combination, we need to focus on two elements : on one hand time that passes, conveying all kinds of different contrasted images, but always with a vivid concern and uncertainty : tomorrow is another day and we have to start all over again. On the other hand, time lasts, elusive in its profound essence, its continuum, its peace, but we can endeavor to capture fragments of it, like a foretaste of eternity. Without snatching this fleeting feeling, how could we have any intuition about Truth? Any tentative for such a quest would even seem absurd. Between the two ends of this Time, the one that passes and the one that lasts, sneak both our personal history and History with a capital H. For Zao Wou-Ki, since his childhood, both have taken an acute meaning, especially as they interpenetrate through the devastation of Japan occupancy, of the civil or World War. Facing these threatening disruptions of time, at the risk of being crushed by the iron jaws of History, in an uncompromising period, Zao Wou-Ki will never stop protecting life, in its very fragility, searching, around him, the talismanic protections able to exorcize this raging time, to restrain it, even if only for a moment.
It is probably the function he assigned to arts and so his paintings are partly works that are out of the world, utopias where the possibles are kept alive. In Untitled (Funérailles – Funerals), 1949, he gets the soul of a last journey, of a funeral procession, wandering in a vast plain among bare trees. Sorrow lies there, huddled on the canvas, in a sanctuary of cold colors. Mystery is tangible. The painting tells us a story, blows a winter breeze on our faces. The point of view seems to open our gaze, nevertheless it hides the scene that attracts us, that group of people bundled together as enwrapped around itself. This painting is an initiation to Zao Wou-Ki’s work, to his construction of spaces and times full of the gestation of possible stories.
Friendships constituted the second enclosure wall against the attacks of time. They gave him this meeting point of immediacy and duration that give the feeling that each meeting is always a new one and that everything in friendship is always to be renewed. This acute awareness, this consideration for others too, made him an extraordinary friend, continuing with constancy and fidelity dialogues initiated more than half a century ago. The third wall was the one of work, of the sense of repetition, of striving, of the determination to do that drove him day after day, even when he grew old, to confront his works and to go on creating, against all odds. With these conditions, was he able to ward off the violence always generated by the gap between the time that passes and the time that lasts? He tamed time and the forces of nature, as he cultivated in his Parisian studio, every morning, a little patch of a fragile garden, sheltered by high walls, the symbol of a nature within his reach. Because, when facing the absurdity of the immeasurable, of time, of large space, of the history of men, may there be a call for wisdom, just as Voltaire’s Candide, to go within oneself and “cultivate one’s garden” leaving the storms of the world pass in front of the window when you cannot prevent them from happening. This is how Zao Wou-Ki’s painting provides us, living in an uncertain and scary world, a lesson of wisdom and humility.
This turmoil of the period, this broken time, minced and mixed with anxieties and suffering might try to counter him by relying on a longer time, erected as a rampart against the disorder that spreads. To stand against this wave of destruction, he will go even further. To seize the impetus, the rhythm, the color, the shapes will no longer be enough for him. He immediately favors a special moment becoming the guideline of his work, starting from the spark arising from chaos to give meaning and shape to the world. Once more, he asserts himself as the master of crossings, the thresholds keeper, an alchemist between two periods, two orders, two cultures in the world. This vocation would not have been possible without an acute conscience of his difference enriched by the learning of his time. He, the son of a long line, sees the ancient world collapse before his eyes. So, of course, he clings to the signs and bearings he knows, cryptograms or ideograms, to talk about and understand the world, but he also opens up to the reality that comes, encouraged by other signs and marks gleaned elsewhere, through the history of Art. He, very early, breaks the mold and the codes passed on by his masters to create his own tools, through his experience and his personal practice. For the sake of truth, he abandons all contrivances, refuses shortcuts to focus on the Question, even if it implies, and he knows it, painful confrontations. He is now ready to rise to the challenge coming from this founding experience : the meeting with reality in Hangszhou which, visible or invisible, structures his look and invites him to the wonders of the present, to the instant of the first gushing when, for a flash of time, the shapeless takes shape and life appears.
The fight he chose is a rough one. And he needs quite a number of guardian angels or intercessors to walk the path he chose : Rembrandt, through faces, boats, landscapes, helps him to better positon himself in his spatial management both here in old Europe and there, in his ageless China ; Cezanne, with his color patches, gives life to landscapes ; Matisse enhances the line among vivid splashes ; Picasso electrifies, breaks and reconstructs. He deepens his knowledge, strengthens his choices to the test of the canvas. But this is not enough to placate his worries and shivering. Between him and Europe, there are too many misunderstandings, too many unanswered questions for him to be able to quietly go on with his adventure on the steep path going from one civilization to the other.
Like many of his contemporaries, Zao Wou-Ki might have been tempted to compromise, avoiding the problems that seemed insuperable. He, from a very young age, shows his determination, asserting a free and independent temperament. That is why he does not wait, as is the rule, for the end of his scholarship to try oil painting. Drawing from plasters and models is not for him, and as of his second year, he uses brushes. He will show the same independence of taste and mind when organizing, in 1942 at the National Museum of Natural History in Chongqing, an exhibition of living artists, thus breaking with the tradition. But the young artist will not remain alone for long after his bold action. He will soon be able to rely on many supporters, both within his family and outside. Vadine Elisseeff, cultural attaché to the French Embassy in China, provides him a significant support when he presents, in 1946, around twenty of his paintings to the Musée Cernuschi and invites him to Paris. Later on, André Malraux will become his protector.
The key meeting takes place in 1949, only a few months after his arrival in Paris, when he crosses paths with Henri Michaux. Even before they met, he had accepted to write eight poems to illustrate Zao Wou-Ki’s first lithographs, which will become a little treasure for bibliophiles : Lecture par Henri Michaux de huit lithographies de Zao Wou-Ki, published in 1950 by Robert Godet. The two men have immediately recognized each other and will become friends. For Zao Wou-Ki, driven by a powerful personal conviction, the moment is important because, for the first time, he felt he has been spontaneously recognized and distinguished by a prominent figure of the Parisian art scene. He draws from it a strong confidence, more than a renewed confidence. It strengthens and encourages him in his demanding approach. He will remember it in difficult times.
Among the protectors, the fairies having, in a world of shapes and signs, enabled Zao Wou-Ki to spread his wings, we must add, a bit later in 1951, the discovery of Paul Klee’s work during a trip to Switzerland. Klee’s work, influenced by calligraphy and Chinese art, enlightens his own path. Often feeling that he is straddling two worlds, European and Chinese, Zao Wou-Ki discerns a space where the interior and the exterior can be reconciled, where the sign and the meaning can be separated to the point of breaking down many barriers between the East and the West. So let us not misunderstand this involvement of the sign. Of course the ritualistic reference is not devoid of meaning, pillar of an ancient breath. But it is mainly an action, an aggregation of space and energy structuring the painting, rampart erected against chaos, crossing between two worlds, exterior and interior. Klee did not help him reach a new state of his art, he did not initiate him into a new language, he has instead set in motion the mechanics of the permanent metamorphosis that already, in an underground and unconscious way, animated Zao Wou-Ki’s painting. Klee took him out of the harbor to risk, for the rest of his life, the navigation on the high seas.
Brotherhood seals confidence the way admiration clears up doubt. He is ready to engage further on the narrow path he chose in his “Traversée des apparences” (Crossing the appearances), according to the title he gave to one of his key paintings dated 1956. From figuration to abstraction, he in turn undertakes a great revolution of shapes. And yet, there is not, strictly speaking, a disruption in his works. He goes on searching along the line of Truth, without turning away from reality. If he gives up concrete shapes to enter the gates of the visible, it is to reach another reality, the one of hidden shapes, full of times and languages, which he goes on seeing when he follows the track of the sign, the vibration of the breath. All along his struggle, encouraged by friendly hands extended to him on his way, he now knows that he can transcribe his visions and illuminations. Many paintings mark out this period of transition, this in-between where a new world awakens, supported by a more ample movement and a purer energy : Pluie – Rain dated 1953 from which miraculously arises the intangible ; Forêt verte – Green Forest, dated 1953 where the emerald blue tries to surpass the opaline green, with animals and figures frolicking about in a wood ; Foule noire – Black crowd, dated 1954, which is first a dark forest rising towards a white light. And then, of course, Vent – Wind, also dated 1954, which represents a decisive shift because, here, abstraction totally prevails. No more figures, only a few traces of signs, sagging or swept by the passing wind. Because the reality of the breath of the wind is there, tangible, pervasive, seen and represented by the artist, like the power of a breath going from the eye to the hand, bringing the brush to life. One more effort with the Hommage à Chu Yun – Homage to Chu Yun dated 1955, to celebrate the great national poet, then Nous deux – Both of us, dated 1957, to tell the suffering of the parting until Vent et poussière – Wind and dust, also dated 1957. Now, from this date, a new order reigns over the canvas, the old marks shatter, everything goes up in flames and scatters in a new life. No need for titles to give its meaning and its identity to each painting, a date is enough like small white pebbles left along the way. His apprenticeship ends when he is able to seize “space, its stretching and its contortions and the infinite complexity of a blue in the minute reflection of a leaf on the water”, as he will say in his Autoportrait – Self-portrait
But how he suffered, hesitated and felt remorseful before he got there. The changeover occurring in the middle of the 50’s comes from a deep distress and worsens it. The old marks, living figures or still-lives fade away to be replaced by animated signs, floating about, born from an undecipherable scripture that soon melts away. The numerous journeys of the years 1951-1952 have most probably fed his desire for renewal, for a change which imposes itself upon him, like an answer to his double artistic heritage, from the East and from the West, painfully coexisting inside him. The line he creates between Visible and Invisible reconciles the two parts of his being and finally soothe him. His American trip in 1957, especially to his brother’s who lives in New Jersey, encourages him to move forward, as will the meetings with a number of artists who will become his friends : Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, William Baziottes, or Hans Hofmann. He is very sensitive to the vastness of the country as to the spontaneity of the impetus, the vividness of the movement, merging with his own desire for ever larger paintings, true to his vital need to never accept any restriction. “Abstract expressionism” with its large formats and its unconventional use of the colors becomes, for him, a new decisive encounter, a new confirmation of his own metamorphoses. In the same way, in Asia in 1958, in Japan or in Hong-Kong, he renews and refreshes his inspiration drawn from new sources, especially as his meeting with May, who will become his second wife, lifts the burden of his anxieties and wrath.
His life path, like the one he follows through his painting, leads him to refocus more every day on the essential. To paint, to go on painting, to always paint as a life principle, to give birth to indispensable shapes able to make life possible. Outlines standing out according to the rhythm of the heart or of the mind, shapes ripped alive from the chaos. That is why they are never frozen. They stay alive, for the artist and for the viewer. But more than ever, when facing the trials and the blows of life, Zao Wou-Ki will feel the need to recreate the combination of the matter with the colors and the shapes.
The subtle whirl of blacks, greys, blues, ochers and whites, on his painting 03.06.70 (1970) clearly attests to this vibrant quest. This painting belongs to a crucial period, a painful time in his personal life and a time of questioning about his practice as a painter. In the delicacy of the line and of the shades, a question is whispered to the painting itself, a return to the suspended quests of the Chinese masters, towards the blurring of the line, towards the finally achieved merge of the hand and the canvas, through the colors. Blue waters, dark earths at each end of the painting, grey clouds scattered like veils, last frontier between what is and what is not. It is the painting of a painting aspiring to be a painting.
In 1971, severely suffering from May’s illness, he takes back the thread of his Chinese youth by devoting himself, on the advice of Henri Michaux, to several ink works on paper. Furthermore, after May’s death in 1972, he will a few months later start painting large formats. Grief frees his gesture, renews his taste for life and for freedom, increases his need and desire for work, especially as his meeting with Françoise Marquet, whom he will marry in 1977, brings him confidence and inner peace. It is also the time of both an official and worldwide recognition. Praised in Europe and in the United States, he is also more and more solicited in Asia and especially in China where he will have in 1983 his first exhibition since he left the country in 1948. Two years later, he will go back to Hangzhou, invited by his old School.
Another renewal, as in each turning point of his life, when, driven by the freedom of old age, for the first time in 2007, he works with watercolor, on the pattern, in the gardens of La Lanterne. He rediscovers the liberating joy which, from the very first sketches at the lake in Hangzhou, makes his mark. But there is also the inner jubilation of the Truth he finally found and shared after a long journey of work and sufferings.
THE AMAZEMENT OF THE PRESENT
This exhibition has a strong objective. It will enhance the two ends of Zao Wou-Ki’s work : the beginning and the end, in an effort to spotlight the less studied periods of his work. The heart of the work receives the full attention of collectors, experts and of history of art books. But most of all, I am convinced that it is difficult to understand the advent of his painting without his double journey, the original one which is, in a way, the source and not a mere preparatory draft, and the one of his last years which sheds light on the objectives of the artist, his final harbor, free from the burdens and trials that may have hindered his move forward.
In both cases, with a significant gap of forty years, we find the same principle, the same spirit, the same catalyst that pushes and leads him : “the amazement”. But his principle is more than a personal philosophy, it is an active principle, an action over the world, to such an extent that, how the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire did, Zao Wou-Ki might choose as his motto : “I amaze”. He does it from the beginning with a line where man and animal harmoniously mingle with nature. From the very first moment, he wants to “poetically’ inhabit the world. That is why he faces the subject in a painting where his eyes linger like in an embrace. We must follow the slow bobbing of the small red cork of the thin fisherman standing on the shore in “Deux bateaux” (Two boats) or in 10.06.50 (1950), as we have to resist vertigo when contemplating the distant church, standing above the cliff drop in Untitled (Italy), ca. 1950.
His whole life lived in a voluntary ascetic and minimalist deprivation is animated by a mysterious enchanted fire. Everything is where it should be and everything has a meaning in this paradise of childhood. The painter puts everything in a predetermined order that nothing threatens, not the man who lazily basks in the sun, or the wild animal which, stag or wolf, howls its love in the middle of the forest. Each figure represented tells about harmony between beings and between things, they talk together, they correspond. In his last works, the line has disappeared to surrender the whole canvas to gushing colors. He pulls the same thread, the one of an amazement that overwhelms him and overwhelms us in the same sharing. The order, somewhat frozen in the beginning, is swept by winds, emotions, feelings. Life vibrates, shivers everywhere on the paper or on the canvas, the hurdles have been passed. In this exhibition many watercolors attest this carnal happiness bursting in leaping strokes on the paper : Untitled (Gaudigny), 2007 or also Untitled (Quebec), 2007, and of course Untitled (Les jardins de La Lanterne – The gardens at La Lanterne), April 2007, where for the first time he strives to paint directly on the pattern.
Then the heart of his work, from the end of the 50’s to the beginning of the 2000’s, has its whole significance, a long and difficult quest for the artist to confer upon his art its essential magic which is its link with life itself.
For Zao Wou-Ki, painting must be alive to serve its purpose as protection, as mediation. If art is not meant to have all men stand together, “Alive first”, in a single proclamation of faith and fight, it is lifeless, unable to fulfill its essential mission. Therefore it is imperative for him to remain in contact with life, to take on challenges and struggles. To achieve this goal, he must every day work in his studio, on the canvas that becomes a battle field, to get involved in the fights of this time and face the obstacles that he encounters. He always aims at the never predetermined balance point where space can fully unfold, where time can reach its fullness, where, all boundaries broken down, the present, full of the powerful breath of the past, can finally open up to the future.
As we can notice, his approach is the one of the conquest. He has to invent a crossing that does not yet exist and therefore accept confrontation with the elements, without forgetting his ultimate goal, a preserved life. It really is a rescue undertaking when everything shakes and might collapse, pulling the deepest roots : an historical time when China wobbles, threatened by war and divisions ; a personal and emotional time when Lalan abandons him and leaves him alone and humiliated, when May’s illness plunges him into the deepest distress. Each time, he turns to his canvas to solve the difficulties besetting him and avoid the violence of the blows. From the mid 50’s, he understands that the vision he is developing has lost its power. How could he find answers to his increasing problems? He does feel it, the magic of his art is about to exhaust itself. The language that was his no longer enables him to move forward in his quest to find a remedy to the violence that plagues him.
The order he patiently built proves too fragile, made up of twists and turns that he now wants to eliminate. He decides that he has to shake up all this, to dig deeper inside, because he feels that it is in himself that he will be able to find the answer, beyond the visible he is coming up against.
The sign will give him the strength he needs to attack the real. The sign, as he explores it and uses it, is an in-between in the service of his metamorphoses. It is not exactly a meaning, or a drawing, or a matter, or a spirit. He carefully selects it so it does not belong to any place or to any time, borrowed from the mutual fantasies shared with Claude Roy about the signs engraved on all antiques, devoid of any legibility, of any interpretation charge. They are futureless oracles, with no past either, keys to the door of an absolute immediate present of dreams and colors. Their difference seduces him as he himself feels torn apart and he needed to go half around the world to once again be able to hear the music of those ancient signs. These signs represent his condition, his estrangement, his parting from what the meaning is made of, as if he had become, along the years spent in the West, a sign without a referent.
Other references, other meanings and power relations will in turn replace in clever balance games within the space-time of the painting, the initial intention borrowed to Klee, with a sign overcoming the surface to access the depth of the canvas. Once the doors have been open, the signs which where keys become pillars and vaults to uphold these always larger bubbles of spaces, made up of color stretched to the infinity. This hieratic style reaches perfection in 10.05.62 (1962), a vertical painting, immersed in an alternation of light and dark ochres sweeping the space in large patches, the horizon closed by a large black and white strip, the lightning strikes and slashes the smooth surface, the eternity of a movement. The colors themselves are enough for us to place this painting at a key time in the work of the artist, in a time of completion. We see the canvas about to tear. During those years, the painter always seeks to go further towards the mystery of the origin of the primal force he strives to represent. He watches for it, like in this painting, when it is about to emerge from the void. How could we not see in this work the searing pain of the being? Now Zao Wou-Ki can challenge the powers that obsess him, the violence of history, the inequity, the humiliation, the evil lurking in the heart of the world, as in each one of us.
In this new physical, moral, spiritual force field where he has to face the worst threats, he little by little finds his way beyond the visible. He rebuilds for himself amulets and protections, creates, through the pattern of lines, shapes and colors, a new armor, beats curses and spells, casts out the demons of grief, expels the venoms by means of exorcisms. How else could we interpret the meager procession following the dark carriage in Funérailles – Funerals in homage to this dead child whose memory does not fade? Stèle pour un ami – Stela for a friend (1956) reflects the pain felt after the news of the death – which will prove false – of a friend, far away in China. Mourning becomes a re-appropriation of a heritage and a rooting, previously deemed cumbersome. The vertical format of the stela and the arrangement of the signs on a white mourning strip create a solemn, mineral work that will become one of the starting points of the transformations. Humility, silence and meditation are the artist’s best answers to this period. In the same way, in the Hommage à Chu Yun – Homage to Chu Yun 05.05.55 (1955), he wants to preserve the life and the memory of the poet and, faithful to tradition, win the affection of all the fishes.
With his prodigious gift for life and wonder he has, Zao Wou-Ki pursues his wild dream about a painting that would be able to alleviate the pains and miseries of the world. Painting is his battle field and he can now only rely on himself, immersed every day, with a sort of frenzy, during long hours, in his studio, a concrete cube where the light of the sky only streams through him before rebounding on the canvas. Through his struggle, keeping his amazement of the present, he knows he will establish a foothold in the future.
A PHILOSOPHY OF FIGHTING
The strength of his commitment leads him to never ignore any of the dangers and threats arising in front of him. He might choose indifference, ignorance or avoidance. But on the contrary, Zao Wou-Ki feeds on the challenges opposed to him. His art is an art of the avant-garde in the tradition of Delacroix, Manet, Cezanne, an art of modernity where no one looks away from the arising forces, carried on the wings of history. Being Chinese, he bears in himself the hopes and torments of his native land. During many years, the pain of exile gripped him, like a feeling of abandonment towards his family, subjected every day to misery and humiliation. In the same way, when looking at France, at Europe or at the United States, he never turns away from the historical and plastic stakes. When the visible runs out, he takes the paths of lyrical abstraction or of abstract expressionism, the color, the broken shapes and, always, a new track which has to be created with large movements over surfaces that become larger and larger when the horizon of the world widens with other countries, other people, other aspirations to satisfy, to recognize.
But how to do it? Which path should be taken when violence spreads everywhere? To the present he wants to assume with its diversity, its complexity, its truth, he adds a new assumption, the one of a pervasive violence, of an inevitable conflict spreading everywhere between men and in the heart of each man. In this scramble, his brush will be his tool to placate horror or, at least, to reduce it, tame it. Because, and he is well aware of it, it is part of a natural order and, therefore, it is doomed to come back again and again. So, better try to neutralize it by mobilizing opposed forces. To this end, the painter wants to choose his ground before confronting these hostile forces. This violence, he has to repel it, disorganize it, to arrange it on the canvas, sometimes permitting it to occupy the whole space, and at other times being relegated, threatening, within the margins. Empty and full, full and loose, he remains in the heart of the scuffle, pushing forces one against the other, to the climax when all rages spent, harmony is reborn. This is the secret of the completion of a painting, of a passing breath, vacillating, without ever stopping.
The Chinese painter shares with the Moderns the desire for a truth of our times, a human-sized truth to the measure of its violence and disorders. He does not shy away from anything. He does not celebrate an eternal Beauty, out of this world. But he no more believes in the transfiguration by the artist of garbage into beauty, far away from the baudelerian demiurgy, when in Les Fleurs du Mal, in the opening of modernity to the rumors of the city, the poet strives to turn mud into gold, also far from the street scenes of the expressionist painting in the between two wars period. He is more confident in the vocation of the artist to release beauty in the effort of man when he confronts this world and this time. His so internal painting is full of the crashes of his time, of the exhausting work of a contemporary to confront it, escape it and tame it. That is how, modern from the beginning, Zao Wou-Ki’s art has become a humanistic art, giving human conscience, its freedom, its brotherhood so high a place that it became able of taming History. It is the Taoist philosophy from the East, full of flows and fragile balances, meeting the dialectics of History dear to the West, with its impetuous and mechanical movements.
To avoid that beauty crumbles, fades out or becomes frozen, it must constantly be re-energized in the violence giving birth to truth and power. This is how it will bloom, strengthen and flow. To be true and go on talking to those who contemplate it, a painting is to both welcome and resist the tensions and power relations surrounding the artist. Twisters and attacks break lose on the canvas. Zao Wou-Ki realizes it in all seriousness. On this piece of white canvas becoming a painting, the future and the redemption of man are at stake, like the one of his own humanity giving to the act of painting a moral, philosophical and spiritual dimension. In his place, with humility and responsibility, the painter can repair and correct the destiny of our world submitted to chaos and destruction.
More than an aesthetic of the conflicts, it is therefore a vision of the world where the artist puts in the heart of his work everything that corrupts and threatens. Survival depends on his ability to neutralize these hostile forces. As long as he is able to, he gathers all his energy, aggregates sufferings, anxieties and doubts, so many elements drawn for his inner self to serve his purpose as a shield against the rising tide. In his studio, another world is being created. But it cannot come from anywhere but the genius of the artist. Zao Wou-Ki sensed it very early. He needs a fight to be fought and reinvented every day. From this struggle, through his large movements, the new lifesaving colors and shapes can bloom. On the canvas, he opens ways to harmony, through infinite combinations of shapes, rhythms and colors. Here comes this painting, out of the deepest night, which maintains the hope of a possible life.
To do so, the artist has to get to his inner self, the way you get down into a mine, to pursue a dangerous and scary journey of exploration, like Henri Michaux who, through “travels” and “clearances”, looks “the great secret”. He keeps in mind this previous world as he knew it, where reigned moderation and simplicity. The same one reconciled, how he knew it and how he would have wished it to be, he painted in his first works in the 40’s and beginning of the 50’s. But today the task is much more difficult. Lines, fragile filigrees or twists, filaments and lineaments are not enough to express and capture the confronting forces, when what is at stake is the very possibility of survival. From the original spark, pushing the limits, tearing the veils, he recomposes a matter focused on chaos. It is this fate he wants to antagonize with his diggings, lightenings and thickenings, his scratches and crossing outs. Both striking and disturbing, this painting 07.05.2002 bears the stigma of flaming towers and of a health problem the artist suffered at the end of 2001. A dark block enlightened with gold spark stands out against a luminous blue background. It is the proof that art does not evade even if absurd prevails.
At the completion of the canvas, the re-creation work is such that the viewer can totally enter the painting, standing and alive. Distance is eliminated, representation dissolves. Thanks to life rediscovered, to the grace of the gift, the amazement is shared to such an extent that no one would stay out. This indeed may be the alchemist or shamanist side of Zao Wou-Ki, a transformation occurs, energy is transmitted, the dawn of a better world rises and drinks from the ancient wells, Chinese paintings, primitive Italian painters such as Cimabue or Piero della Francesca, and from the modern ones, a breath over the painting from Cezanne to Matisse.
Could we talk about his art as a sacred art, a spiritual journey? I would personally prefer to call it the path of a profane meditation, born from an inner experience dictated by the upheavals of the world and the torments they imply in his own life. Faced with that, Zao Wou-Ki cannot remain passive and it is through his art that he seeks an answer. He therefore undertakes the correction of men violence through the lessons of nature. He learned their soothing effects through the ancient paintings of his country, but also thanks to his personal observation. He tasted their comforting and welcoming peace during his first years in Nantung. He might have had the intuition, when contemplating nature, of an order where violence wells up from everywhere, where there is nothing but the struggle and confrontation of the elements, of a life endlessly inhabited by death the way the full is inhabited by the void, but he also finds there the lesson of a balance in constant restoration, of a game of forces and reactions which endlessly generates new cycles of the being. He sees the possibility of peace beyond the unavoidable disorders, of a moving and mysterious order which, even if unattainable by men, might be used as a pathway for healing or for reaching appeasement.
This eagerness for observation, this desire for balances, this vibrant vitality explode in the large triptychs painted by the Chinese born artist in his mature years. These very large formats have the capacity to capture the energy of nature, the two major laws Kant wonders about, the moral law inside man and the law of the movement of stars outside. For instance, Hommage à Claude Monet – Triptyque, Février – Juin 1991 (Homage to Claude Monet – Triptych, February – June 1991), a two meters by five format, seems to invite us to the exploration of marine arches. The colors are moving circulating from lighter to darker shades and hues, building a deep open space, predicting promises of peace. With these paintings, the artist invites us to an immersion in nature through art, he re-creates the conditions of a primal harmony between man and nature that technical reasoning might have abolished. Representation is outdated. The canvas, as a symphony or a poem could be, becomes a direct, immediate experience of the world.
Should we imagine a divine hand, an immanence coming to constantly favor the search for a new order or is it not rather, according to the artist, a multitude of micro-balances able, counteracting their corresponding numerous imbalances, to achieve a new global order ? An order resulting from many disorders and bearing their mark, the living memory of endless modifications and lightenings searched for in the space of the painting as in life itself.
Delacroix and Turner had already got on with the task through historical scenes, orientalist scenes or seascapes. Both of them, in the turmoil of history, in the movement of life or in the unleashing of the elements, were looking for the magic moment at the point of balance where the revelation can occur. And the whole preliminary work, the viewing angle, perspective, composition of the painting in its virtuosity and its complexity, do not seem to have any other purpose than the final unveiling of a long hidden secret.
Yes, this painting, with its slow maturation but with its ample and vivid movements, keeps the properties of a living breath. It is beneficial because it restores the possibility of an order that does not lose the memory of ancient disorders and which, at the same time, is strong of a possible future. In this respect, these painters, immersed in a long tradition remain “classic”. But because they aim to push the adventure further, the adventure of color, of deepness, breaking all the boundaries between the visible and the invisible, they impose themselves, each one in their own period, as the essential actors of a new modernity.
But the price is high, always the same, a powerful and brutal hand to hand fight with the canvas fully symbolized by Delacroix in La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange in the Saint Sulpice Chruch in Paris. At this very moment, the artist brings his energy to the forces of creation as chaos lies in wait, be it with the face of evil, of violence or any other disorder. In the face of the threats, Paul Klee, who Zao Wou-Ki loved so much, relied on the canvas, divided like a chessboard and on the repetition of geometrical patterns to perpetuate the living being through the color. Whereas Vassily Kandinsky persisted in controlling the scheduling of the world through the pursuit of a correspondence between forces and colors, Zao Wou-Ki already mobilized the inner breath but in strong correlation with a spiritual quest, each painting being susceptible to be considered a true icon, a “prayer from the heart”.
THE CHOICE OF FRIENDSHIP
Painter of the embrace of life, Zao Wou-Ki does remain in the tradition of those who know how to combine an inner life stirred up by emotions, doubts, contradictions and even some sort of savagery, allied to a strong desire for construction and balance. We can refer pell-mell to Rembrandt, Poussin, Chardin, Delacroix, and of course, more recently, Cezanne, Matisse or Picasso. His first great friendships are, no doubt, spiritual, imaginary and artistic affinities, beyond the rifts of time and space. These painters marked his adolescent years and his Parisian apprenticeship. How could he not have been marked by the Cezannien simplicity and will of reconciliation of antagonistic forces and shapes? The one who thought himself as being “slow, dull-witted and stupid” and who, in his first paintings, multiplied the subjects telling about violent, rape and orgy, has, with discipline and work, asserted himself as the painter of nature and of presence, be it of an apple, of l’Estaque or of the Sainte Victoire Mountain, anxious to establish a new order beyond the unbalances and distortions to reach the harmony by penetrating the hidden mystery of things. With him, we can reach the deep identity of beings and things, the breath that carries them and reveals them to us. The purity of his gaze cast on the world re-teaches us how to look, feel and understand. Zao Wou-Ki will never stopped meditating Cezanne’s lessons, as he will capture Matisse’s message of peace, joy and serenity in spite of the hardships of life. The freedom of the artist’s wrist, lighting on the canvas his “fire of signs” moved him. Zao Wou-Ki’s work enriches with these meetings and discoveries. His happy humility and his admiration ability stimulate his inspiration and lead him to pursue his search, always further beyond the paths explored by others, set about the reconciliation of the looks from here and elsewhere.
This empathy with everything that surrounds him comes out of every page of his Carnets de Voyage – Travel notebooks. Whatever he looks at, mountains in Switzerland, villages or places in Italy, landscapes in France, we can feel again this tenderness, this benevolence, this gratitude that inhabit him. Moreover, his lithographs, engravings or etchings succeed in conveying the artist’s joy of being and painting. Within the material, he inscribes the most fleeting impressions of his mind with the greatest freedom. This is why a special attention must be dedicated to the early works on paper, engravings or lithographs : Bain de soleil – Sun bathing in 1950 where, the bodies of the man and the woman lazily lounge in the sun between the river and the mountain as the animals, fishes and insects frolic around ; Les loups – The wolves, on that same year, engaged in their love parades accompanied by the vibrant concert of the birds in the forest ; Montagnes et soleil – Mountain and sun, in 1951, where on successive plans, nature wrapped in warm colors spreads over the whole space with a magnificent sun hanging over it ; Marine – Seascape in 1952, all in yellow and ochre hues, where figures and birds on the shore face the vast sea dotted with sailboats ; Bouquet de fleurs – Bunch of flowers in 1953 enriched by six colors, spreads its multiple stems adorned with generous flowers and leaves to express the delight of the artist. Always in 1953, Les poissons – The fishes perform their immemorial round swim like the boats of Voiles à la mer – Sails on the sea, superposed on green and blue water. It is a feast for the eye, soft colors and quick lines capturing the fragile, the elusive. Space takes shape and evades at the same time. It becomes movement, path, lightning.
If there is a lead thread running across the work and life of Zao Wou-Ki, it is the one of friendship, fed by his trust in man, in life, in nature and in the world. Of course, if he feels doubt, anxiety, even has a feeling of betrayal, trust always prevails, enriched by the uninterrupted dialogue with art and poetry, through which he endlessly regenerates. He will express it in his Autoportrait – Self-portrait with a touching declaration: “I love my friends the way I take care, every morning at breakfast time, of my bonsais, orange trees and orchids in my dining room”. Grace, harmony are the reward for a long journey, a real alchemy of which we find clear traces in quite a number of his works from the beginning of the 2000’s, bright side of the new century where freedom is at work in every brush stroke.
In the radiant 25.03.2004 the sky breaks through the bottom of the water in a red whirl. The painting radiates, it sends flying sparks from the center of the canvas, like shrouded in white streaks, to the assault of the edges of the frame, ready to burst forth and embrace the viewer. The intertwining of the primary colors creates a shock wave which propagates through the painting, giving birth here to dark crackles, announcing, in the midst of triumph, the presence of danger, and there to new hybrid shapes, from where arises a purple wisp like a freeze-frame, a close-up on the simple joy of an exploding firecracker for Chinese New Year on the serene background of a winter sky.
It is no wonder that Zao Wou-Ki will very early and forever join the fellowship of the poets. They share the same force of life and of freedom enabling the shapes, colors and words to revive. He will all the more deeply and durably earn their praise that his tools are more fragile and more simple: ink and color, chisel and brush. For the etchings of the Compagnons dans le Jardin by René Char, he thus unveils a dust of images which, later on, will aggregate like dark insects on the page, to illustrate the translation of the XXIV Sonnets de Shakespeare by Yves Bonnefoy. These books of friendship between the painter and the poets illuminate his way in the maze of creation. Through peaks and abysses, Zao Wou-Ki finds a lifesaving Ariane’s thread because he knows how to surround himself with those who have mastered vertigo. He turns towards Rimbaud, Pound, Michaux and also Char, to enrich the dialogue between the East and the West, between tradition and modernity, to capture the breath hidden between the words and the images, between beings and pages, submitted to the appreciation of each reader.
But there again, like in his painted work, the friendship from the early days, fed with lines and figures of the visible, pursues its quest through the always freer color, liberated in the space of the sheet of paper where the games of light and dark release the light. In the lithographs for L’Elégie pour Jean-Marie by Léopold Sedar Senghor, he creates a real alter piece, his powerful inspiration enhancing the words of the poet.
This dialogue with poetry also applies to other arts like music with the composers Edgar Varèse or Pierre Boulez, but also to architecture with Ieoh Ming Pei. To say the importance and deepness of his gratitude to all these creators, let’s just remember the important part played in his work by dedicated works, numerous Hommages – Homages to the friends and artists who inspired him. We can refer pell-mell to Jean-Paul Riopelle, Edgar Varèse, Henri Michaux, René Char, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse… Friendship is there, vibrant, and Zao Wou-Ki is always proud of it and honors it. Let’s imagine these evenings, in the Montparnasse of the 50’s and 60’s, gathering the finest of the arts of the time, the youth of women and men convinced of the strength of art to change the world by their look, certain to take part in extraordinary times where all dams suddenly break, in the prodigious acceleration of Modernity. May be were they witnessing the last flames of brotherhood in arts, confident in the future, before the bursting, the fragmentation, the confinement that prevailed in contemporary art over the last decades. It is Zao Wou-Ki’s way of asserting the strength of friendship in art, of his creative power, enabling fragile shoots to strengthen one another.
AN ART FOR RECONCILIATION
How, all along the 20th Century, has this Chinese painter fond of the wide world, of unbounded cultures and of a fraternal geography, been able in the solitary laboratory of his studio, nourished with silences, secrets and asceticism, to create a painting turned towards hospitality, so beneficial and open to all ? This is no doubt the great strength of his painting as well as its mystery. Henri Michaux gives us the key by acknowledging and naming his territory: “Zaowoukia”. A territory cleared by the artist, painting after painting, a whole territory invented by the most mischievous and naïve look I have ever met. With his art, he creates another world where the Eastern and Western fanatical duality has not given up the dream of a possible harmony through the juxtaposition even the understanding of shapes.
Relentlessly, the painter pursues his quest. What is he thinking about when every morning, he locks himself in his studio of the rue Jonquoy, this concrete cube where through the roof window he only receives the zenithal light he loves because it does not flatten the shapes nor does it fade the light ? Zao Wou-Ki, as he will confide to France Culture in 1986, examines at length each canvas, one step backward, one step on the side : “In a good painting, there is some sort of silence, some sort of tension, a somewhat loose side, another emphasized side. It has to be treated very differently to make the painting alive”. And many years later, who knows what kind of burning revelation he has been able to capture when in 2007, standing in front of his work table in the gardens of La Lanterne, he strives to render the pattern in life for the first time with large strokes of his brush on a sheet of paper, totally soaked with water ? Him who has been for so long used to follow the thread of his inspiration between the four protecting walls of his studio. The asceticism, the steadfast intransigence of his work remain which he will never jeopardize. But the lead thread of his adventure goes through many meanders, many vicissitudes, without ever breaking on the altar of pre-established rules or shapes. Nothing is said, written or painted once and forever and the vitality specific to creation must overrule everything else. He fully applies this conviction to his art. As nothing is frozen, he assigns to each painting, with the complicity of the viewer, its own duration, according to where he chooses to look at it. The painting goes on living its own life through the path of the breath, the always evolving track of the colors. That is the way the painting goes on coming to life.
The first requirement of his art is to remain alive, which includes being capable of evolutions, movements, changes. For him, it is only in this way that art can be beneficial, all the more so in a period of great upheavals. Through the magic of his brush, all the orders of the reign of creation coexist, sometimes mountains arise, sometimes they bend under the sky. In the great whirl of things and beings, each one of them, shapes or spirits, finds its place little by little. But this place would not remain legitimate for long if it were not strengthened by a freedom always to be re-invented ; the purity of the intention can be verified in the freedom of the movement, the power of the creation which never results in repetition and refuses artifices and seductions.
But remaining alive cannot be sufficient if conflicts remain with the others or with one self. Steeped in Taoist culture, Zao Wou-Ki pursues, in his creative work, the withdrawal within himself from which he can work towards his ambition of reconciliation and union of the forces, reconciliation of man with nature, of shapes and colors together, of societies and cultures, of tradition and modernity, of the East with the West. The balance point or the point of harmony in his undertaking is uncompromising. On the contrary, he wants to always go further in the adventure. He pays cash as he cannot envisage painting seen from afar. He mobilizes his whole body and mind to get into the painting and, from each of its points, have the lines move towards more boldness and freedom. This requirement leads him to an always higher conquest because he knows that after him other artists will come to take over.
At the peak of his art, Zao Wou-Ki, with his keen eye, restitutes to us the primal peace, from the bottom of the water, from the depths of the ages, a few grasses with fishes in Le vert caresse l’orange – The wind caresses the orange – 11.06.2005. This moving painting is both a painting lesson, one of these enigmatic lessons, interrupted with silences, full of irony and wisdom, that Zao Wou-Ki could generously provide, and a meditation about time and age. The infinite tenderness it conveys has an acute awareness of the fragility of life, of the fleetingness of the moment. It is indeed a caress of the soul, rubbing against each other the painting of the origins, with its codes and quests, like these reeds with birds, on a gold background, which familiarity we can feel, and on the other side the great hand of the colors, triumphant and completed, of the mature years. This painting is the caress that Zao Wou-Ki, once aged, addresses the child he has been, encouraging him to start on the path again.
May be the subtlety of Zao Wou-Ki’s art is to be found in only one word, reconciliation, with its multiplicity of meanings. It first reflects this existential dimension which makes commensurable the sacred and the profane, the terrestrial and the spiritual, this invisible seam that can cure man from his exclusion of the world of ideas. It is also the reconciliation the way as intended in the English language when it reconciles two versions of a same text, this exhausting labor of comparison, of confrontation, this effort of judgement and of justice when a true word can help to move forward again. I think that it is what the work of Zao Wou-Ki aims at, filling the cracks between the real and art, between beauty and truth, thus allowing the painting to become a work for the peace of mind, promising the reconciliation of man with what surrounds him. In Le vent pousse la mer – The wind pushes the sea in 2004, the meditation is at its highest, in this confrontation of the man on board his frail skiff with destiny. Peace is perceptible. It is finally possible. This very peace that bursts in the triptych Hommage à Françoise – Homage to Françoise– 23.10.2003, in the form of a confidence and happiness conquered over large strips of pinks and reds streaked with thin dark veins, black and purple. This extraordinary lyrical painting, saturated with emotions and colors, sounds like a symphony to life and joy. Everything is solved with delicacy and subtlety, the time for peace is finally back, the memory of the fierce fights seem to have vanished in the dawn that already turns blue in the sun glows. This painting stops us, invites us, shares with us a temporary world order.
At the end of this journey, may be are we able to better understand his endless quest from Hangzhou to Paris, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong … his numerous trips between France and China. For him Truth is not a place, not a School, it is in the endless movement of a search, of a look on the world, always anxious to enrich the Other’s experience. So, Zao Wou-Ki, even if faithful to the culture and to the country of his childhood, does not lock himself up in any bias, refuses diktats and power relations. His identity, his kingdom, is the one of Art, an Art for Peace, Friendship and Reconciliation. By his energy, his vision, his commitment, I am convinced that he lays the foundations of the movement of the new Art of the 21st Century.