Best known for his large-scale canvases, the Chinese-born French artist was also a committed printmaker whose styles and themes evolved across a five-decade practice
‘I can’t think of any other artist whose prints so completely intertwined Asian and Western traditions,’ says Alexandra Gill, Senior Specialist in Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London, of Chinese-born French artist Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013).
Born in 1920 in Beijing, Zao Wou-Ki began drawing and painting at a young age. In 1948 he moved with his wife to Paris, where he would meet and work with some of the greatest Western artists, including Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró.
‘Zao Wou-Ki was brought up understanding Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and it’s well documented that he arrived in Paris with some preconceived notions of what European art was like,’ Gill explains. But after settling in France, his views began to shift.
Zao spent most of his career negotiating the artistic influence of his Chinese heritage and the development of his abstract art. ‘Over time, his images display these struggles, and how he emerged from this conflict into graceful, energetic works which merge the fluidness of Chinese landscape with the controlled abstraction of Western art at the time,’ says Gill.
In 1949, Zao made his first lithographs at the Paris workshop of Edmond Desjobert. He would later describe this initial foray into printmaking: ‘The idea of throwing colour on a large white porous stone, like on China paper, pleased me. I used a lot of water, which is not at all to be recommended. Edmond Desjobert, a remarkably skilful lithographer, criticised me for it and told me the outcome would be poor, because one could not mix so much water with the lithographic ink. Even so I tried, and while the proofs were being printed he became enthusiastic.’
The success of these early experiments with an unusual lithographic technique — entirely his own invention — touched off a 50-year practice for the artist.
If his very early prints tend to be image-based, reflecting the continued influence of figuration, this soon began to change. Zao was particularly moved by the work of abstract painter Pierre Soulages, whom he met in Paris. The paintings of Paul Klee, which he encountered in the mid-1950s, were extremely influential as well, and helped him begin to resolve the tensions between Asian and Western artistic traditions in his work.
‘How could I be ignorant of this painter whose knowledge and love of Chinese painting is so obvious?’ Zao would write of Klee. ‘From these small signs, drawn on a ground with a multitude of spaces, a dazzling world emerges.’
The work of Soulages and Klee also encouraged him to move to a bolder style in his prints. As Gill explains, Zao’s palette developed and his work became more fluid throughout the 1950s; he also fully embraced abstraction. So significant was his shift to abstraction at this time that Zao stopped naming his works after 1958 (subsequent prints were all ‘Untitled’).
Entering the 1960s, his prints become still more energetic and abstract, while retaining suggestions of Chinese artistic traditions. ‘When you look at his prints you can see a very gentle Eastern quality to them — they are almost like mystical landscapes, but not quite. You could call them mystical landscapes, or you could call them abstract, in the Western way,’ says Gill.
As Zao would explain in a 1962 interview, ‘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. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins.’
In the 1970s and 1980s, Zao's prints remain bold, and he ‘pulls in fantastic bright colours’, Gill says. But as he hits the 1990s his palette changes again: colours become muted, shifting from the vibrant to ochre, brown and saffron.
By the final years of his life, there’s almost no sense of structure left in his prints at all.
‘Zao was a traditional painter-printer,’ Gill explains. ‘His prints were not copies of his paintings, or preparatory studies; rather, his printmaking was another distinct medium in which he could explore his major themes.