Zao Wou-Ki


Over the course of his career, Zao Wou-Ki (1920–2013) developed a unique style that merged traditional Chinese painting with European modernism. Born in Beijing, Zao attended the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou for six years before becoming an assistant professor at the school. In 1948 he traveled to Paris, which would eventually become his home, and formed friendships with artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró. Zao’s style underwent a series of transformations during the 1950s: following a brief Paul Klee–inspired period, he completed a number of semiscriptural paintings whose markings evoked ancient Chinese carved oracle bones; he then adopted an even more saturated and abstract style after visiting the studios of many prominent Abstract Expressionists during a pivotal 1957 trip to New York. Zao received his first of many retrospectives in 1965 at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany.

In 1971 Zao temporarily turned away from oil painting and began focusing on smaller compositions in india ink while caring for his ill wife. Distraught by her passing the following year, he traveled to Shanghai to visit his family for the first time in over two decades. These events brought Zao closer to his Chinese roots, spurring him to develop a monochromatic brush-and-ink technique that wedded motifs from traditional Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting with visual cues from his network of Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. By the 1980s and 1990s, Zao had developed an increasingly substantial artistic presence in his birth country. The National Art Museum of China, Beijing, and the National Museum of History, Taipei, both staged important solo exhibitions of his work in 1983, and the Shanghai Museum organized a sixty-year retrospective, which also traveled to Beijing and Guangzhou between 1998 and 1999. In 2002 Zao was elected to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, and the following year he was celebrated with his first retrospective in France at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris. He was awarded the title of Grand Officier de l’Ordre de la Légion d’honneur in 2006.