Latest Stories

Most important Chinese artist based in the West passes away

The Paris-based Zao Wou-ki kept diary of an emotional life through his paintings


His Sotheby’s art catalogue

Zao Wou-ki, a name familiar especially to art collectors who competed in bidding for his prized paintings at major auctions, passed away in Switzerland on April 9. The modern art master, who was acclaimed in his adopted homeland of France, was 93.

Viewing a retrospective painting exhibition of Zao Wou-ki was virtually going over his diary. That was what I discovered back in February 1993, or 20 years ago. The artist visiting Taipei at that time himself  said that his paintings were like entries in his diary.

“When I feel good and happy,” pointed out the then 72-year-old Zao, “it shows in my work. But there are times when my anxiety finds expression on my canvases. Occasionally my paintings reflect a violent streak. But lately I have mellowed down. My recent works tend to be calm.”

The then still active and Paris-based Zao Wou-ki, considered for many years the most important living Chinese artist in the West, admitted that his emotional life always had an effect on his paintings. He married thrice.

A son from a previous marriage was reported to have fought a legal battle with his third wife over the guardianship of the artist. This was when Zao moved to Switzerland in 2011.

“I was very unfortunate in my emotional life,” he explained. “My turbulent experiences were not of my own choice. I looked at the turn of events as my fate. In my first marriage, my wife walked out on me. My second wife passed away at the age of 41.”

Each relationship lasted between 15 and 20 years, he reckoned. The woman in his life at the time of the interview and until his death was French.

Limited output


Love was a powerful force that kept the Chinese artist going. At least he could say  he was not lonely. There was always a woman in his life.

Zao said  his creative output was limited. He did only 4-12 paintings a year. His works at the time of the interview were enormous in size. When compared to his output that time, his early paintings were of miniature size.

“I paint every day,” he said then. “I start at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 6 p.m. Whether the result of my effort is good or bad is another matter.”

His atelier tucked away in Paris looked impressive. It had an elevator of its own. His actual working space had a very high ceiling. The roof had a window to let ample natural light in during the day.

ZAO Wouki in 1993.

Zao liked working while bathed in daylight. When evening shadows fell, he had difficulty seeing clearly.

“I can’t seem to find the right color at night,” the abstract painter and resident of France since 1948 remarked.

He studied at the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts in China before he moved to the West.

He also loved music, tuning in to Radio Classique regularly. While the music played, he painted on his canvas.

Looking back at his personal experience, he noted: “Abstract art expresses feelings and emotions better.”

He added: “I never give titles to my paintings. I don’t want to restrict the human imagination.”

Zao’s works expressed color, light and shadow as understood in Western art while embracing the finest elements of the Yuan and Sung dynasties’ landscape paintings.

His painting fetched a bid of 45.5 million Hong Kong dollars (US$5.89 million) at an auction in Hong Kong in 2009. On another occasion, an abstract 1968 painting drew a bid of 68.98 million Hong Kong dollars (US$8.8 million).

Discovering Klee

Zao Wou-ki’s retrospective exhibitions before his Taipei show in February 1993 received a lot of attention. But the one-man show in Taiwan’s capital until then was his most extensive one. It covered his painting career from 1935-1992.

In the past, he was very reluctant to bring out the works done in his youth. He got convinced to do it for the Taiwan public.

By 2008, no less than the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume presented Zao in a major retrospective show.

Zao was born to an old patrician family in Beijing in 1921. He learned to appreciate beauty early in life. His banker father devoted his leisure time to painting. But it was his grandfather who first taught him painting and calligraphy.

At age 14, Zao entered the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where he was a student of famous brushwork artist Lin Feng-mian.

Zao and his wife, Lan-lan, left Shanghai for Marseilles on Feb. 26, 1948. He eventually decided to set up residence in Paris.

While he was still in China, the artist already painted under the influences of Renoir, Matisse and Picasso. But once in Europe, he discovered Klee. In his lifetime, he counted artists like Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miro among his friends.

As a painter, he tried to combine Chinese painting techniques and Western art influences. In fact, he was to rediscover calligraphy on foreign soil more than 24 years after he put it behind him.

Zao held an art show at the National Museum of History in Taipei in 1983. In 1993, he was able to hang up his masterpieces at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

In his last years, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and stopped painting.

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Tags: Art , Death , Lifestyle , Obituary , painting , Zao Wou-ki

Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
  1. How Zsa Zsa Padilla found Conrad Onglao; Sharon Cuneta played Cupid
  2. Noli Yamsuan, Cardinal Sin’s ‘official’ photographer: ‘I could smell the aftershave lotion of the Pope’
  3. Palawan favorite getaway of show biz celebrities
  4. Fashionistas flock to designer’s wedding
  5. Joe de Venecia visits the Queen Mother of Cambodia
  6. President Quezon was born here–and so was Philippine surfing
  7. A tale of two Priscillas: my mother Prissy and Chona Recto Kasten
  8. This is not just a farm
  9. ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  10. Levine designs womenswear with help from fiancee
  1. Why is the lifestyle set now afraid to wear jewelry–before Kim Henares?
  2. Are your favorite malls open this Holy Week break?
  3. Sarah Geronimo and Matteo Giudicelli sing ‘All of Me’–and we all swoon
  4. How Vitamin B can be a remedy for ‘manhid’ and neuropathy
  5. 90 percent of Filipino households don’t practice proper toilet hygiene, sanitation
  6. ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  7. Boots Anson-Roa to wed in Eddie Baddeo
  8. Prince William fuels speculation of second royal baby
  9. Marcos grandson to wed beautiful Rocha scion
  10. This is not just a farm
  1. Mary Jean Lastimosa is new Miss Universe Philippines
  2. Did Angara ruin Pia Wurtzbach’s chances at Bb. Pilipinas?
  3. Dominique–Gretchen and Tonyboy Cojuangco’s daughter–now an endorser
  4. Manila in shock over model Helena Belmonte’s death
  5. Vinegar test helpful vs cervical cancer
  6. From Jeannie to mom of suicide victim
  7. San Vicente beaches hidden but not for long
  8. Borgy and Georgina are back; others are off–again
  9. Sen. Angara: I thought Pia Wurtzbach gave a good answer
  10. Why is the lifestyle set now afraid to wear jewelry–before Kim Henares?


  • Pope Francis, huge crowd joyously celebrate Easter
  • 4 French journalists freed from Syria captors home
  • Thousands celebrate Easter in Holy Land
  • Transcript reveals confusion over ferry evacuation
  • Pimentel wants Balikatan-type drills for PNP
  • Sports

  • Red-hot Alaska rips injury-depleted San Mig Coffee
  • Pacquiao courtesy call to Aquino set for Monday
  • Nick Calathes suspension a reminder of supplement risk
  • Teague scores 28 as Hawks soar past Pacers in Game 1
  • Warriors beat Clippers in playoff opener
  • Lifestyle

  • Angono petroglyphs in danger of disappearing
  • Britain’s baby Prince George visits Australian zoo
  • Noli Yamsuan, Cardinal Sin’s ‘official’ photographer: ‘I could smell the aftershave lotion of the Pope’
  • Simplifying and lightening life
  • Where to go for Easter night-out
  • Entertainment

  • Show-biz celebrities’ other choices of summer getaway
  • Why ‘Noah’ can’t dock his ark at Philippine theaters
  • Acclaimed artist goes wild while on holiday
  • Believing in this mermaid
  • Missing Xian
  • Business

  • Top-selling insurance agent opens her dream café
  • Connecting and transacting with one another
  • Building wealth for health
  • Why Mandaue Foam buys, rather than rents, space
  • A workplace of new possibilities
  • Technology

  • Nasa’s moon-orbiting robot crashes down
  • Netizens pay respects to Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Nokia recalls 30,000 chargers for Lumia 2520 tablet
  • Facebook rolls out ‘nearby friends’ feature
  • Netizens seethe over Aquino’s ‘sacrifice’ message
  • Opinion

  • Epiphany
  • Unpaid creditor vs distressed debtor
  • Moving on
  • From culinary desert to paradise
  • Response to China: ‘Usjaphil’
  • Global Nation

  • Tim Tebow’s charity hospital in Davao seen to open in 7 months
  • OFW died of Mers-CoV in Saudi Arabia, says family
  • Aquino, Obama to tackle US pivot to Asia during state visit
  • Asia seeks Obama’s assurance in territorial spats
  • Cesar Chavez movie sparks memories of Fil-Am labor leaders