Zao Wou-Ki: the Modern Chinese Painter Overseas



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Since the mid-20th century, the Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013) gradually established himself as a renowned artist in the Parisian modern art scene by developing a unique style of abstract landscapes. His works stand at a middle point between two distinct art practices—Western modernist oil painting and Chinese traditional ink painting. This project examines Zao’s experiments and personal inquiries that led to his abstract landscape painting in the 1950s, the social and cultural circumstances in China where the artist received his training prior to his departure for Paris in 1948, and the responses to his works within post-revolutionary China in the late 1970s. Zao Wou-Ki belonged to a generation that strived for a radical modernization of the tradition-dominated Chinese civilization. Born into an aristocratic family, Zao received extensive training in calligraphy and ink painting since childhood. However, following the founding leaders of the Republic of China that ended the monarchical rule of the Qing dynasty in 1912, he gave up traditional ink practices and grew increasingly fond of the Western modernist art. He refused to work in ink to avoid being trapped in its classic formula. In the end, however, the more he immersed himself in Western art, the more he felt the need to acknowledge his own cultural roots, and thus in Paris started his lifelong effort of creating in art a cultural bridge between East and West. Zao’s career is emblematic of the evolvement of modern Chinese art in the 20th century. The pioneering Chinese modernists such as Zao Wou-Ki first emerged on the art scene during the fervor for modernization in early-20th century China. But these artists relocated themselves overseas in the 1950s when modern art became threatened by the state policy of Socialist Realism in the early Communist regime. In the late 1970s, the re-introduction of Western modernism in mainland China stirred debates among the post-revolutionary Chinese audience. Reflecting this controversial process of reintroduction, these artists proved critical for re-launching Chinese art into the international orbit. The cross-cultural interaction that Zao carried out between East and West proposed a possibility for Chinese art in the age of globalization. In this study, I regard Zao Wou-Ki as a painter-translator, refashioning Eastern aesthetics in a Western visual language. In the search for a link between his Parisian life and his Chinese roots, he achieved a form of art that was intuitively understandable to both Western and Eastern audiences. It is thus that both the artist and his works became a valuable bridge across cultures.



Zao Wou-Ki, Chinese art, modern and contemporary, abstract art, 20th century China