Haute RE Magazine

Dates with genius: Zao Wou-Ki

The enigmatic brushstrokes of revered Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-ki often have equally enigmatic titles. Beginning in the late fifties, as he left figurative painting behind, Zao named his oil paintings with simple numeric dates: 18.07.62, 15.02.73, 18.03.83, and 24.11.80.

Zao’s own birth date made him a New Year baby: February 1st, 1920 in Beijing. His artistic talent was nurtured by family and teachers, leading to the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts. He was encouraged to travel to Paris, the epicentre of world art at the time, where he maintained his studio for most of his career.

In Paris, paradoxically, Zao rediscovered his roots. He is recognized today for combining two great traditions in his art —  Western abstract impressionism and ancient Chinese classical scroll ink brush.

1973. Portrait. Photo Mohror
1973. Zao Wou-Ki in his Paris studio. Reserved rights. Photo Credit: Mohror
1995. Zao Wou-Ki in his Paris studio. Reserved rights. Photo Credit: Hervé Pasquet
Juin-Octobre 85 - Triptyque, 1985, oil on canvas, 280 × 1000 cm. Private collection. Photo Credit: Dennis Bouchard

A versatile artist, whose calligraphic name can be interpreted as ‘no limits’, Zao was inspired by Shang dynasty oracle bone script. He was also intrigued by the way that the scholars of the Southern Song had moved from hanging scrolls (zhou) to hand scrolls (juan) to better represent landscapes. A similar transition from vertical to horizontal took place in Zao’s work, culminating in the gigantic 10-metre long masterpiece Juin-Octobre 1985 from his ‘Infinite Period’. This triptych set a world auction record for the artist, reaching $65M USD ($510M HK) when it sold posthumously
in May 2017.

The art of Zao Wou-ki is a meditation on the absence or presence of qi, a restless reanimation of calligraphy in cosmic landscapes of colour and texture. His popularity has grown in recent years, with his work in 150 collections in over 20 countries, establishing him as the most sought-after Asian artist of the 20th century.

If you haven’t seen any Zao Wou-ki up close, make time for the timeless.

27.02.98, 1998, oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm. Private collection. Photo Credit: Dennis Bouchard
1981. Painting with China ink in his Paris studio. Reserved rights. Photo Credit: Serge Lansac

Where to see Zao Wou-ki in Canada, Hong Kong and China:

Montreal — Museum of Contemporary Art; Museum of Fine Art

Quebec City — National Museum of Fine Arts of Quebec

Toronto — Art Gallery of Ontario

Hong Kong — Museum of Art; M+

Hangzhou — China Academy of Art

Beijing — China Central Academy of Fine Arts

Suzhou — Suzhou Museum

All works by Zao Wou-Ki: © Zao Wou-Ki / ProLitteris, Zurich