Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji) 1921-2013, 趙無極 Dordogne Zao Wou-Ki (born 1921)

Zao Wou-Ki only began to feel truly Chinese when he left his homeland. This was the secret of his success, argues Matthew Wilcox

Who is the most successful Chinese artist? You might think of radical dissident Ai Weiwei, you might consider the merits of the pyrotechnic pioneer Cai Guo-Qiang, or you might reach further back, perhaps as far as the sublime landscape painter Fan Kuan, supreme master of the Song era. Wrong, wrong and wrong again: the answer is Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013), whose relentless experimentation and complex layered works are the perfect riposte to anyone who still thinks Chinese modern art began in the 1990s.

Surprisingly, Zao spent more than 60 years at the forefront of the international avant-garde, yet still managed to become one of the few Chinese artists to reach a pitch of commercial success that anticipates the present market for contemporary Chinese art. So Zao
not only has paintings in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and Tate Modern, but his work now routinely sells at auction for significant sums – as at Bonhams Hong Kong in May 2012, where his 2004 painting La Mer sold for HK$8.2 million.

Impressive numbers are part of the picture, but Zao has won serious critical praise too. In 2009, The New York Times, for instance, described the Paris-based painter as "China's most important living artist". An earlier review in the same paper by John Russell had praised his "rare gift for metamorphosis" and quoted approvingly from
an exhibition catalogue that Zao's paintings achieved "a sort of quantum duality, seeming to occupy two places at once".

Russell was on to something there. Take a look at Zao's biography. He was born in Beijing in 1920 into a wealthy family. His father, a banker, encouraged Zao's interest in art, sending him to study at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts under Lin Fengmian, a respected artist who became a pioneer of modern painting in China. But after five years making a living as a teacher and increasingly frustrated with the formal limitations of the Chinese academy, Zao moved to Paris in
1948. It was an astute decision. Soon afterwards Mao's communists swept to victory in the Chinese Civil War, and many of Zao's former colleagues and teachers, including Lin Fengmian, suffered terribly
in the Cultural Revolution.

Zao, meanwhile, was being embraced by artists and influential cultural figures in Paris. He became close friends with Miró, Alberto Giacometti and the poet and painter Henri Michaux; Pierre Matisse acted as his dealer. And it is in this fertile period that he
creates Dordogne (1954), to be offered at Bonhams Hong Kong November sale of Modern and Contemporary Art. The work is strongly reminiscent of Avant l'Orage (Before the Storm) (1955), one of Zao's paintings held by the Tate.

The key point about these works was summed up by Zao himself, as he reflected on this period of his life. "Between 1953 and 1956, I was influenced by archaic Chinese signs ... I can say that I have never had any intention to make a Chinese landscape or painting; if my painting looks like a landscape, this is completely accidental, as for the Chinese influence, it is, I think, in spite of myself."

His ambivalent attitude towards Chinese art reflected a new uncertainty as to the value or relevance of his previous training in classical landscape painting and calligraphy. He recalled, instead, discovering and falling in love with the work of the Impressionists, as well as contemporary artists such as Jackson Pollock, Joan Miró and Franz Kline.

But it was in reconciling these two traditions and reasserting his own identity as a Chinese artist that Zao would discover his métier. As he said in an interview with the French cultural magazine Preuves in 1962, "Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins." He continued, "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." Speaking about this complicated inheritance, he said: "Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two."

Asian demand for Zao's work duly took off in the 1970s and '80s in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and in 1983 he held a major exhibition in Beijing at the National Museum of China. When in 1998 he was awarded his first ever full-career retrospective in China, his friend Jacques Chirac – former president of France and a noted Asian art enthusiast – wrote the preface to the catalogue. In 2006, Chirac appointed Zao to the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest military and civil award. By now, newly affluent Chinese collectors had began to take interest in Zao's work, and the market for his paintings soared.

Towards the end of his life, Zao returned to landscape painting, largely as a way of further asserting his Chinese roots. By then, he had long been signing his paintings both in Chinese and in the romanised form of his name: Wou-Ki, 無極 – his given name. It means 'no limits'.

Matthew Wilcox writes on art for national publications.

Sale: Modern and Contemporary Art
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Tuesday 21 November at 3pm
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