Bridging East and West: a retrospective show of Zao Wou-ki at his alma mater

Wu Huixin
About 200 works by Zao, who studied at the China Academy of Art in the 1930s and returned to teach during the 1940s, are being shown at the academy's art museum.
Wu Huixin

Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013) is one of China's most famous contemporary abstract oil painters. He studied painting at the China Academy of Art during the 1930s and returned to teach at the academy during the 1940s.

Now, about 200 of Zao's works are on display at the CAA's Art Museum, showing the master's art styles and achievements in oil, ink-wash, watercolor, woodblock printing and porcelain. Organizers hosted a grand opening ceremony for the exhibition, "The Way Is Infinite: Centennial Retrospective Exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki," at the Art Museum on September 19.

As a cultural program of the 19th Asian Games and the 2024 China-France Year of Culture and Tourism, the exhibition is sponsored by Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Zhejiang government, and supported by the French and Swiss embassies in China.

"Zao is not just a towering figure in the academic genealogy of the CAA, but also a shining star in modern art history," said Gao Shiming, president of the academy, at the opening ceremony.

"His works bridged the gap between Eastern and Western traditions, creating a modern Oriental style that underlines both the spirit of Chinese art and modern paintings."

Bridging East and West: a retrospective show of Zao Wou-ki at his alma mater
ⓒ Zao Wou-Ki - ProLitteris, Zurich

"Piazza Siena," 1951, oil on canvas, 50×45.5cm, Collection of M+, Hong Kong, China, Gift of Mrs Sin-May Roy Zao, 2020

Zao's art was deeply rooted in Chinese culture. For years, he tried to explain the Chinese artistic spirit through his brushes and created an innovative genre. Through the works on display, visitors can view how the late master transformed Chinese elements into his own avant-garde genre. Zoe's artistic career started in Hangzhou in 1935, when he was enrolled by the then Hangzhou National College of Art.

He traveled to France in 1948. In 1951, Paul Klee's paintings greatly inspired Zao. He then started to draw inspiration from Chinese oracle bone scripts and bronze inscriptions to create imaginary characters in his paintings. He began doing abstract works that focused on the beauty of abstract forms, lines, colors and subtle tones. That magnificent change took place in the late 1950s.

In 1957, Zao was acquainted with artists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who broadened his painting styles. Starting from 1958, Zao no longer gave a name to his works, only marking them with their painting dates. Last year, his work "29.09.64" sold for 248 million yuan (US$33.9 million) at a Hong Kong auction. The painting was completed on September 29, 1964.

Since the 1960s, Zao immersed himself into the abstract expressionism that shares similarities with traditional cursive calligraphy. Zao created a distinct style that successfully assimilated Western abstract techniques with Chinese characteristics and modern conceptions, ushering in a new chapter for oil painting.

Bridging East and West: a retrospective show of Zao Wou-ki at his alma mater
ⓒ Zao Wou-Ki - ProLitteris, Zurich

"03.05.62," 1962, oil on canvas, 100×80.5cm, Collection of National Gallery Singapore, Singapore

"His paintings reflect the Chinese people's perspectives, namely you (游, wandering) – feeling the unrestrained changes in unbounded wandering; guan (观, observing) – opening oneself to the outside world and studying its subtleties; and wang (望, pondering) – using both rational and emotional attitudes to envision," Gao said.

Today, Zao's abstract oil paintings have been collected by more than 150 museums and galleries in France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, boosting cultural exchanges between China and other countries.

In the 1970s, the late master's painting themes changed again. He turned to traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings when he returned to China in 1972. The majestic landscapes and poetic views in his homeland gave an impetus to Zao, who then created ink-wash paintings inspired by traditional art genres.

"Zao witnessed the changes of two centuries. In the 20th century, he was a great trailblazer for the oriental style of abstract paintings. In the 21st century, he was a purist in the complex modern art environment," Gao added.

Bridging East and West: a retrospective show of Zao Wou-ki at his alma mater
ⓒ Zao Wou-Ki - ProLitteris, Zurich

"My Home in Hangzhou," 1947, oil on canvas, 65×80.7cm

If you go

Date: Through February 20, 2024 (closed on Mondays), 9am-5pm

Admission: 100 yuan

Venue: Art Museum of China Academy of Art

Address: 216 Nanshan Rd


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