Zao Wou-Ki

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Zao Wou-Ki Painting Style (1968)


Zao Wou-Ki (1921 – 2013)

Zao Wou-Ki, a Chinese artist, was born on February 13, 1921, in the capital of China, Beijing. His father was also an artist, a calligraphist. Zao Wou-Ki himself studied calligraphy in Dantu, where his roots are from.

In 1935, Zao Wou-Ki began studying at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and was a student of painting there for 6 years. Then he went to study at the Hongchow National Academy of Fine Arts, where he would later work as a teacher. He organized his first exhibition in 1942. The exhibition included some of his own works together with the works of his teacher, Wu Dayu. He moved to Paris with his wife Lan-Ian in 1948. They wanted to pursue their own careers, so their son was living in China at the time, with Zao Wou-Ki’s parents. The couple lived in Montparnasse. His first exhibitions there were greatly admired by artists Joan Miró and Picasso. Zao Wou-Ki attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and lived at Rue du Moulin Vert. This location was near the studio that belonged to Alberto Giacometti. He often gathered with other famous artists at the Galerie Nina Dausset.

In the mid 1950’s, Zao Wou-Ki divorced his wife. It was then he decided to visit his younger brother who lived in New Jersey, in the United States. His brother lived close to the New York artistic scene. Zao Wou-Ki wanted to learn more about the style of pop art and painted several paintings during his extended stay there. The largest pop art painting by Zao Wou-Ki can be seen in the Detroit Institute of Arts and was a gift from his brother. He stayed in the U.S. for 6 weeks, and then travelled to Tokyo and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Zao Wou Ki met his second wife Chan May-Kan, who was an actress. He would later influence his wife to start making sculptures.

In the year 1957 and during his stay in the United States, the style of Zao Wou-Ki paintings were abstract. He used a “cypher-like signature” for over 50 years and combined both ‘’Chinese and Western aesthetics’’ in his signature. The Chinese characters in it represent his first name and Western orthography his last name, showing the combination of abstract and sensible, and also his dual cultural heritage. However, over the years, Zao Wou-Ki’s art evolved through different painting styles. After having experimented with Abstract Expressionism and various styles and techniques, in 1972 Zao Wou Ki returned to ink painting. This was something he learned in his youth. He continued to use this technique until the mid to late seventies. Also, during this same period, his wife suffered with mental illness and eventually committed suicide.

In the early 1990s, he mostly uses black color and saturated hues in his compositions. Later, in the period of 1993-2002, his paintings have rich surfaces and various kinds of marks– spattering, pouring, wipes, etc. Zao Wou-Ki’s art also includes less worked canvases with a ‘’lightness of touch’’. However, Chinese ink is a part of all his paintings and all stages of his evolving as an artist. His work also includes an autobiography written by him, in which he talks about all the emotional dramas that happened in his life. These emotional dramas happened mostly because of his moving from China to Paris.

Recently, Zao Wou-Ki has become a member of the Académie des Beaux Arts, which is a part of the Académie Française reserved for architects and painters. Zao Wou-Ki died at the age of 92 in Nyon, Switzerland.