Zao Wou-Ki: Artist whose work combined Oriental landscapes and Western abstraction


Zao Wou-Ki was an artist whose work unites Oriental landscapes with the influences of abstraction and of the Paris School. His signature, which combines a first name in Chinese characters and the Zao family name in Western script, symbolises this synthesis of Eastern and Western cultures in his paintings.

Zao was born in 1921 in Beijing to a family of intellectuals, who encouraged him to draw and paint from an early age. He studied at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and went on to become a teacher of drawing there.

In 1948 he emigrated to Paris and spent his first afternoon in the city at the Louvre. He held his debut solo show at the Galerie Creuze the following year. At the print workshop of Desjobert he worked with lithography and produced a series of eight prints. The painter and poet Henri Michaux saw this work and was inspired to write a sequence of poems. The resulting book Lecture par Henri Michaux de huit lithographies de Zao Wou-Ki (1950) was the beginning of a life-long collaboration and friendship between the two artists. Michaux in turn introduced Zao to the art dealer Pierre Loeb, who immediately bought 12 paintings and much of his work over the following seven years.

His early output from the 1950s bears a striking similarity to pictures by Paul Klee, whose work he encounted for the first time at exhibitions in Switzerland. He said of the discovery "How could I be ignorant of this painter whose knowledge and love of Chinese painting is so obvious? From these small signs drawn on a ground with a multitude of spaces, a dazzling world emerges." and later told a biographer, "I was very much influenced at the beginning by Paul Klee. I continued my search and, from 1954, finally found my own voice."

This new-found voice was further amplified by a prolonged visit to New York in 1957, where he met artists of the Abstract Expressionist group, including Franz Kline and Adolph Gottlieb. His paintings turned increasingly towards abstraction. Although, as the art critic Jonathan Hay points out in a 2003 catalogue essay, "Abstraction is somewhat misleading as a description of Zao's paintings; it would be more accurate to say that their image field hovers between nature and abstraction, once in a while slipping over the edge into the reminiscence of a Chinese landscape schema."

Zao was wary of what he called "chinoiseries" (chinese-esque style work) and deliberately avoided ink painting until the early 1970s, when he adopted the technique at the suggestion of Michaux. His wife Chan May-Kan was suffering from mental illness and he had trouble finding the energy for large-scale paintings. He recalled: "As I spread out those stains, life became easier to live and the pleasure of those gestures prevailed on the traces of my memory." Following her death he returned to painting and created the vast En mémoire de May (In Memory of May, 1972), a dark landscape with flickers of light, hints of optimism after the sorrow of loss.

Paint remained his favoured medium, as he said "Painting, painting, always painting, painting again, the best possible, the empty and the full, the light and the dense, the living and the breath". He travelled and exhibited widely throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was recognised with exhibitions at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1981, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (2003) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (2008). The Tate holds Avant l'orage (Before the Storm, 1955) and the V&A has a number of lithographs.

While he was well-known in his adopted country from the 1960s, recognition in his native land came rather later, with a first major exhibition in 1983 at the National Museum of China in Beijing. Renewed interest amongst the art-collecting Chinese and Hong Kong nouveaux riches boosted his work, resulting in a record price for a Chinese painting in 2005, when one of his works went for US $24m. Then, in October 2011 at Sotheby's Hong Kong 20th Century Chinese Art, his 10.1.68 (1968) sold for US $8.8m, the most expensive lot in the sale.

But this financial success was not without its difficulties. He had recently moved to Dully, on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, with his third wife Françoise Marquet. His son Jia-Ling Zhao accused her of emigrating in order to control Zao's inheritance. A legal battle was ongoing at the time of his death.

Zao had taken French citizenship in 1964 and was honoured by the country for his contribution to the arts. He was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur (1984), progressing to Commandeur (1993) and Grand Officier in 2006.

A retrospective of his work was held in 2011 at de Sarthe Fine Art, Hong Kong. The gallery owner, Pascal de Sarthe, told me, "The art world has lost a giant, especially in Asia. He was a great man, kind and generous with a great passion for art. His original contribution to modern Chinese culture positioned him as a leading figure of the postwar generation. His paintings were not simply abstract, they expressed thoughts and feelings."

Marcus Williamson

Zao Wou-Ki, artist; born Beijing 13 February 1921; married firstly Xie Jinglan (divorced 1957' one son), 1958 Chan May-Kan (died 1972; one daughter), 1977 Françoise Marquet; died Nyon, Switzerland 9 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most