Chinese – French Artist Zao Wou – ki was born in Beijing, China in 1921. Zao´s given name, "Wou – ki" (or "Wuji" in the standard Hanyu Pinyin romanization used in China), translates to "no boundaries." This perfectly encapsulates Zao Wou–ki as an artist, who was uniquely able to combine the cultures and aesthetic visions of France and China in his Fine art paintings, prints, etchings, and lithography.
Zao Wou – Ki went to school in Nantung, a small town north of Shanghai, where his father worked as a banker. Zao Wou–ki was considered a gifted pupil and he took great interest in literature and in Chinese and world history. Zao Wou – ki´s family was one of intellectuals who appreciated painting and fine art, and Wou–Ki would learn the traditional Chinese art of calligraphy from his grandfather.
From the age of ten Zao Wou–ki created drawings and paintings constantly. In 1935, at the age of fourteen, Zao Wou–Ki was admitted to the School of Fine Arts at Hangzhou, China. There Zao Wou – ki studied life drawing, oil painting, and also received instruction in the theories of calligraphy and western perspective. Despite the traditional teachings in accuracy and realism, Zao Wuji sought to capture the broad outlines and essence in his artwork compositions.
Zao Wou–Ki was appointed lecturer at the School of Fine Arts and in 1941 held his first art exhibition. According to Wou–Ki "To tell the truth, the [Paintings] I showed were strongly influenced by Matisse and Picasso. My harlequins recalled the ‘Blue Period´, my statue women the ‘Greek Period´." Indeed it was in the artworks of Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso that Zao Wou–Ki would find the vision he considered closest to nature. Inspired by his collection of postcards of reproduced French paintings and full page illustrations of Renoir, Modigliani, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso artworks in American magazines, Zao Wou–ki developed his artistic approach.
In 1947, the twenty–seven year old Zao Wou–Ki decided to leave China for Paris. Zao Wou–ki and his wife, Lan–Lan, sailed from Shanghai in early 1948 and after a voyage of 36 days, arrived in Paris, France where Zao Wou–Ki spent his first afternoon at the Louvre Art Museum. Zao Wou – ki settled in a studio near that of Alberto Giacometti; took French lessons; and visited and saw everything he could in Paris. The city inspired him and Zao Wou–ki easily frequented a circle of international artists, writers and intellectuals. While in Paris, Zao Wou–ki acquainted himself with European Lyrical Abstraction, a movement of postwar French artists pursuing free–form abstract expression through painting.
In 1949, Zao Wou–ki began making art prints after learning the technique of lithography at the Atelier Desjobert. The lithograph medium delighted Zao Wou – ki ––"The idea of throwing color on a large white stone, like on China paper, pleased me…," and Zao Wou–ki´s print experiments became lithographic masterpieces. In 1950 Zao Wou–ki published his prints accompanied by poems from celebrated poet Henri Michaux in 1950.
Zao Wou–ki´s collaboration with Henri Michaux pushed him to review his Indian ink techniques and his roots in Chinese traditional drawing. Upon discovering Paul Klee´s paintings in 1951, Zao Wou–ki began to incorporate ideograms into his paintings, drawings, and prints. Zao Wuji still painted figurative elements, however, before he definitively committed to an Abstract painting aesthetic in 1953, inspired by archaic Chinese characters. Zao Wou–Ki had unknowingly come full circle back to traditional Chinese calligraphy – carefully drawing out each character with great passion and emotion.
Zao Wou–Ki travelled extensively in the 1950–1960s discovering and exhibiting in Italy, Spain, the United States, Japan, Greece, Switzerland and England. In 1950 Zao participated for the first time in the Salon de Mai, at which he was to exhibit regularly every year after that. Zao Wou–ki´s would befriended artists such as Rufino Tamayo and Joan Miro, as well as, architect I.M. Pei. In 1993 he was appointed Commander of the Legion of Honor by the President of France and the following year was awarded the Premium Imperial Award of Painting in Japan.
Zao Wou – ki was regarded as one of foremost Chinese Contemporary painters of the 20th century.By the end of his life Zao Wou–ki had stopped producing new artworks due to health problems. He died on April 9th, 2013 at his home in Switzerland.
"How to represent the wind? How to paint emptiness? And the light, its brightness, its purity? I did not want to reproduce but to juxtapose forms, to assemble them in order to find in them the whispering wind over still water." ~ Zao Wou–ki
Select Museum Collections: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC Guggenheim Museum, NYC Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris Musee des Beaux–Arts, Montreal Art Institute of Chicago, IL Museum of Modern Art, NYC Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico National Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona