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Essay by Jonathan Hay

Zao Wou Ki



Zhao Wou Ki was born in Beijing on 13 February 1921. Later after arriving in France, he will adopt the spelling ZAO for his name.

Zao's family goes back to the Song dynasty. The family treasure. Displayed every year, was made of two paintings:
- One by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), famous for his paintings representing horses
- The other by Mi Fu (1051-1107), who particularly captured the attention of the young Wou Ki.

From age ten Zao draws and paints with great freedom and learns from his grandfather that calligraphy is an art when it transmits an emotion to the person looking at it.

At age fourteen he enrols at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, where he remains for six years. His first exhibition demonstrates his influences: Renoir, Modigliani, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso
In 1942, he organises an exhibition of works by Wu Dayu, his teacher, together with some of his own works.

This first attempt to show living artists who wish to detach themselves from pure tradition is well received by an audience of intellectuals and young painters.


The Japanese evacuate China. Zao Wou Ki returns to the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, which he had left in 1938.

In 1947 he exhibits in Shanghai.


Zao Wou Ki goes to France and reaches Paris April the 1st and spends the whole afternoon in the Louvre.
He attends the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and lives Rue du Moulin Vert nearby Alberto Giacometti's studio. He makes the acquaintance of Hans Hartung, Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, Viera da Silva, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm and Jean-Paul Riopelle. They often gather at the Galerie Nina Dausset, rue du Dragon.

In May 1949 he has first exhibition at the Galerie Creuze. He receives encouragement from Mirò, Giacometti and Picasso.

At the Desjobert printing shop he discovers and learns the technique of lithography.

Inspired by his lithographs, the writer Henri Michaux, spontaneously produces eight poems. The volume is published with the title Lecture de huit lithographies de Zao Wou Ki and exhibited at the galerie La Hune in 1950. This marks the start of an uninterrupted friendship between Zao Wou Ki and Henri Michaux.

In January 1950, Pierre Loeb proposes a contract. Their collaboration will last until 1957.


In Bern (Switzerland) Zao is mesmerised by the paintings of Paul Klee. In them he finds an intimate world echoing his own sensibility.

Exhibitions in Paris, Bern, Basel, Chicago, London and finally New York with a catalogue containing a foreword by Henri Michaux:
In connection with Zao's participation to the International Biennial of Colour Lithography in Cincinnati, a full-page, reproduction of one of his lithographs, is published in Life magazine.


Designs for the sets of Roland Petit's ballet La Perle.

Exhibitions in France, Bern, Geneva, Rome, Milan, New York...

Retrospective of his engravings at The Cincinnati Museum of Fine Arts


Retrospective in Bern of a catalogue raisonné of his engravings.

Invitation to exhibit in the French section of the third Biennial of Sao Paulo.

Exhibitions in Paris and in New York at the Kleemann Gallery.


First monograph written by Claude Roy and published by Le Musée de Poche.

Contract with the Galerie de France with the agreement of Pierre Loeb.

First exhibition at the Kootz Gallery in New York. Samuel Kootz becomes his first regular dealer in the United States.

In the USA, Zao makes the acquaintance of Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, William Baziotes, Saul Steinberg, and Hans Hoffman and finds great freshness and much spontaneity in American painting.


In 1960 he participates to the Venice biennial, to an exhibition of contemporary French art in Göteborg, to the Second International Biennial in Tokyo, and to Antagonismes at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

A film is devoted to his work Atelier en France: Zao Wou Ki, a series by Pierre Nourisse.


Solo exhibition at the Kootz Gallery in New York and at the Tokyo Gallery in Tokyo.

In a reply to Alexander Watt, for the magazine Studio published in London, he says: "Abstraction in art is no more abstract than isolated words in literature".

In 1962 exhibitions in Madrid, at the Ateneo, and then in Cordoba, at the Galerìa Liceo.

Publication of La Tentation de l'Occident with ten lithographs by Zao Wou Ki.

Zao Meets André Malraux, the French minister of culture; with his support he obtains the French nationality.

New exhibition at the Kootz Gallery, The Wonderful World of Zao Wou Ki.


Exhibition at the Galerie de France in Paris.

Participates in Peinture hors format, featuring fifteen artists at the American Centre in Paris.

Exhibitions in London, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Hayden Gallery in Cambridge (USA) and at the Kootz Gallery in New York.


In a film dedicated to his art - in the series Art Vivant - Zao demonstrates the use he makes of Chinese brushes.

Retrospective in Essen, Germany, at the Folkwang Museum, paintings between 1950 and 1964.

Exhibitions in Europe: in Vienna at the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, in Turin, Oslo.

In New York at the Kootz Gallery,

In Los Angeles at Frank Perls Gallery

At the San Francisco the Museum of Art.

He travels throughout the USA and visits Mexico where Rufino Tamayo welcomes him.

Illustrations of Saint-John Perse's Oeuvre poétique and Rimbaud's Les Illuminations.

Exhibition at the Galerie de France in Paris, with a foreword by Pierre Schneider.

In 1967, he collaborates to a book about the Han period stampings (209 BC-200 AD). Most of the stampings are drawn from the collection of his father, several are very rare.

In 1969 second retrospective exhibition at the contemporary art museum in Montreal and then at Musée du Quebec.

A new film on Zao Wou Ki, in the series Champs visuels, is directed by Pierre Schneider and produced by the ORTF, the national French television.


Exhibition at the Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst in Salzburg. He is appointed as a teacher for the summer season.

Exhibitions in Geneva, Charleroi, and at the Galerie de France.

Henri Michaux adds a foreword to a new edition of his monograph at Le Musée de Poche.

Zao Wou Ki 's wife, May, is very ill. Zao rediscovers the ink medium.


May dies in March 1972. Zao Wou Ki leaves for China. His first trip there since 1948.

Upon his return, he describes in an interview the impressions that his country has left in him.

Exhibition of his inks along with sculptures by May at the Galerie de France.

Appearances in two films:
Le Défi de la grandeur, directed by Herbert Kline, and narrated by Orson Welles.
Personnage de la vie made by Claude-Jean Philippe and Monique Lefebvre for the French television.

He returns to the oil medium, and exhibits in Lisbon, Luxembourg, Essen, and Amsterdam.

A monograph is published in Belgium.

Designs for the sets and costumes of Béla Bartòk's The Miraculous Mandarin and The Wooden Prince for the Rhine Opera (Mulhouse, Colmar, Strasbourg).


The Galerie de France exhibits his recent works, with a foreword by René Char.

He paints large formats, such as Hommage à Malraux (78" x 240 "), which is exhibited in Tokyo at the Fuji Television Gallery.

In Accrochages III, an exhibition at Centre Georges Pompidou, an entire room is devoted to his work.

Exhibitions in France, Belgium, and Lebanon.

Zao Wou Ki weds Françoise Marquet. She is nowadays curator of modern art at the Musée du Petit Palais.

Publication by Françoise Marquet.of Zao Wou Ki, les estampes 1937-1974.

Invitation to stay at the Villa Médicis in Rome.

The Fuji Television Gallery in Tokyo presents fourteen paintings, mostly large formats, with a foreword by Henry Michaux and Tamon Miki, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.


On the occasion of Homenaje a Joan Miro in Madrid Zao meets up with his friends Miro, Tàpies, Chillida and Pierre Matisse.

He donates a group of his engravings to the French National Library. Eighty prints are exhibited at the Library.

Exhibitions in Barcelona and at the FIAC - the contemporary art fair - in Paris, with the Galerie de France.

Four designs for the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres.

Pierre Matisse exhibits his paintings and inks in New York. I.M Pei writes the foreword of the catalogue.

Publication of Zao Wou Ki, Encres, a dialogue between the artist and Françoise Marquet, with a foreword by Henri Michaux.

Creation of a nine panels fresco, opening like a picture book, for a school building designed by the architect Roger Tallibert.


Illustrations for En Occident, le jardin d'une femme indienne, by Henri Michaux.

Exhibition at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris. The catalogue is introduced by Jean Leymarie and François Cheng. The exhibition travels to five destinations in Japan.

At the request of I. M Pei, Zao creates two large pictures in ink Fragrant Hills Hotel.


Exhibition in Taiwan at the National Museum of History.

Retrospective at the Musée Ingres.

Invitation to exhibit by China's Minister of Culture. A selection of works is presented at the National Museum in Beijing and in the facilities of his former school in Hangzhou.

In October, his work is presented at the FIAC.

Inks exhibited at the Jan Krugier Gallery in Geneva

Ten large formats at the Galerie de France.

A film Voyage chinois de Zao Wou Ki.


I.M. Pei commissions works from Zao Wou Ki Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland for the Raffles City Building in Singapore.

Trip to China where, at the request of his former school in Hangzhou, he teaches for a month in painting and drawing, while Françoise teaches history of modern painting and museology.

Exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, with a foreword by François Jacob.

Exhibitions in France and Japan.


Exhibition at Jan Krugier Gallery in Geneva.

Fortieth anniversary of his arrival in France.

Retrospective of his work at the Artcurial Gallery and large formats at the FiAC

Publications of Zao Wou Ki, by Claude Roy, Zao Wou Ki, by Daniel Abadie and Martine Contensou, a monograph by Gilles Plazy, Zao Wou Ki, Encres, by Bernard Noël


Exhibition of paintings and inks at Jan Krugier

Exhibitions at Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours, at the Vasarely Foundation in Aix, at the Artcurial Gallery, foreword by Pierre Daix.

Marwan Hoss exhibits his inks in his Paris Gallery.

Retrospective at the Gulbenkian foundation in Lisbon.

Exhibitions in Luxembourg: Encres de Chine at the Musée National and Peintures at the Château de Vianden.

Exhibitions in Germany, Switzerland, France.


Zao is made a Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur, receives The Grande Médaille Vermeil de la Ville de Paris and is awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Hong Kong.

Retrospective exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Exhibitions in Paris, Nice

Exhibition at the Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico, catalogue introduced by Robert Littman and Pierre Schneider.


Zao Wou Ki receives the Imperial award from Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

Illustrations of 24 Sonnets of Shakespeare.

Publication of a monograph by Pierre Daix, Zao Wou Ki, l'Oeuvre 1935-1993.


Seven prints for Henri Michaux's book Annonciation.

Retrospective at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts in Taiwan and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Hong Kong. Daniel Marchesseau curates both exhibitions.

Design for a ceramic mural panel for the future Atlantic underground station in Lisbon.

At the FIAC with the Jan Krugier Gallery.

Exhibition in New York, Hommage à Pierre Matisse at the Jan Krugier Gallery, texts by Maria Gaetana Matisse and I. M. Pei. The exhibition then travels to the Krugier-Ditelsheim Gallery in Geneva.


Participation in ARCO 1998, the international fair in Madrid.

Retrospective travelling in China: at the Shanghai Museum of Art, in Beijing at the Chinese Palace of Fine Arts, in Canton at the Palace of Fine Arts. Daniel Marchesseau curates these exhibitions.

Exhibitions in Taiwan, France and Japan.

The FIAC in Paris

Publication of Grands formats, participates in Chine, la gloire des empereurs, at the Musée du Petit Palais.

In the spring of 2001 exhibition at the IVAM, in Valencia, Spain.

Exhibition " Signe(s) " , inks of Henri Michaux and Zao Wou Ki.

Exhibition "Zao Wou-Ki, Rêve de nature ", at the Chenonceau castle . Inks and oils of the last twenty years.

In December , Zao Wou Ki is elected at the Académie des Beaux Arts. The Académie des Beaux-Arts is the section of the Académie Française reserved to painters and architects. His official reception at the Académie is on schedule for November 2003.

In 2003

Two retrospectives and one exhibition are on schedule :
- February-April

In Helsinki, Taidehalli, " rétrospective Zao Wou-Ki"
Curated by Markku Valkonen.
- April-May

Exhibition at the Marlbourough Gallery, New York.
- October to December

In Paris , Retrospective at the Museee du Jeu de Paume curated by Daniel Abadie
This exhibition is organized whithin the program of the Années croisées France-Chine. 2003-2004 will be in France the " year of China ".

all text & images © Zao Wou-Ki archives
Essay by Jonathan Hay
Biography | Quotes | Public Collections | Personal Exhibitions |
Zao Wou Ki Main Exhibition | Exhibitions