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Essay by Jonathan Hay

Zao Wou Ki

A few quotes on Zao or by Zao

1952 a foreword by Henri Michaux
"revealing while disassembling, breaking the direct line or making it tremble, musing and tracing the detours of the rambling and the spidery scrawl of the dreaming mind, that is what Zao Wou Ki loves, and suddenly, with the same festive air that enlivens Chinese villages and country scenes, the picture appears, quivering joyfully and somewhat comically in an orchard of signs."

1954 on his designs for the sets of Roland Petit's ballet La Perle.
"My painting became unreadable, still-lives and flowers no longer existed. I was tending towards an imaginary, indecipherable writing".

1960 In The second volume of Georges Charbonnier's Monologue du peintre Zao declares :
"I believe that all painters are realists for themselves. They are abstract for other people".


In an interview Zao Wou Ki declares:
"Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China it has affirmed itself as my deeper personality. In my recent paintings, this is expressed in an innate manner. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins".

In an interview with Alexander Watt, for the magazine Studio he says:
"Abstraction in art is no more abstract than isolated words in literature".

Jean Dominique Rey writes about Zao's lithograph published in La Tentation de l'Occident :
"Tachist painters inspired by Zen Buddhism present themselves in Europe and produce calligraphy in a Far Eastern style. Works of Japanese calligraphy allow themselves to be seduced by lyrical abstraction as practised in the West. Why is it that the former do not convince us and the latter attract us ? The Westerner imitates results without being familiar with their spirit or their slow apprenticeship. Orientals, already trained in this discipline, find in abstraction the prolongation of a climate that is already familiar to them. Zao Wou Ki is one of this latter group, for whom Europe has doubtless brought a certain freedom, but who does not forget the profound teaching of his origins"


Zao Wou Ki participates in Peinture hors format, featuring fifteen artists at the American Centre in Paris. He notes:
"Painting is a struggle between the canvas and me; a physical struggle. Especially with large formats, which allow more human gestures, a veritable projection. One must plunge into them completely".

In an article published in the magazine Preuves he declares:
"Everybody is bound by a tradition, I am bound by two".

In an Autoportrait, published in 1988, Zao Wou Ki explains why he has illustrated so many poets:
"In the Chinese tradition, painting and poetry are intimately connected, to the extent that it is not uncommon for a poem to be written in an empty part of a picture. I have read poetry since my childhood. I learnt to read it when I learnt to write. I feel these two forms of expression as being, physically, of the same nature. They both express the breath of life, the quivering of the brush on the canvas or of the hand on the paper as the character is formed. They evoke without representing, they reveal hidden meanings, those of the universe. (...) Since 1950, each time that a publisher has suggested it or a poet has selected me, I have agreed to associate my work with his poems. What I love above all in poetry is the feeling of freedom, of moving about in words. Each word finds its place in a unified whole, it closes upon a whole in which anyone can casually stroll or stop, go backwards or pause for breath. One comes up against a full stop and there is a wonderful moment of silence, like a piece of emptiness in a painting".

1971 Zao Wou Ki paints with ink and explains:
" I think I can say that painting with marks is a Chinese invention, but Chinese painters have never taken it seriously, and for a long time I was mistrustful of the facility that came to me from my long apprenticeship in calligraphy. It had remained an exercise in style, a kind of virtuoso demonstration that I mistrusted. But, despite this feeling to which I became increasingly indifferent, I went on. I saw spaces come into being, made or unmade according to my whim, in an invasive impression of lightness: lightness of brush and colour, the lightness of the moment, of time passing. And as I arranged those marks, the living of life became lighter and the pleasure of those gestures prevailed over the traces in my memory".

1972 Pierre Matisse exhibits his paintings and inks in New York. I.M Pei writes the foreword of the catalogue:

"My first visit to Paris took place in the spring of 1951. It was then that Pierre Loeb took me to see Zao Wou Ki's work for the first time. I found his paintings and lithographs very attractive. In a way they reminded me of the mystical side of Klee and also the arid landscapes of Ni-Tsan. After that we rapidly became friends and I continue to follow his progress with the liveliest interest. I can say now, without any risk of exaggeration, that Zao Wou Ki is one of the greatest artists on the European scene..."

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Essay by Jonathan Hay
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Zao Wou Ki Main Exhibition | Exhibitions