Zao Wou-Ki

741 1000 Dominique de Villepin


– This article opens the catalog of the exhibition Willem de Kooning – Zao Wou-Ki which took place from 19 January to 11 March 2017 at the Lévy Gorvy Gallery in New York. Through a selection of some twenty paintings, this one puts into perspective the works of the two great contemporary artists, produced between the late 1940s and the early 1980s. Dominique de Villepin delivers his personal look on both painters and their works –

A surprising idea, this summit meeting. Everything seems to herald a silent stand-off: two giants of the twentieth century who never met, never wrote about each other, and were born at opposite ends of a gigantic continent, while their adoptive lands are separated by an ocean.

This exhibition is a monster. Not a match, not a combat, for there would be nothing to gain from their confrontation. They are both too swift, too solitary, too singular for their canvases to lend themselves to such foolish games. It would be just as futile to come looking for windows onto two types of reality, as if we had reached the random intersection of two closed universes. The exhibition is monstrous, first of all, because of the exceptional quality of the canvases assembled here, thanks to loans from leading museums, institutions, and collectors, and thanks, most of all, to the work done by Dominique Lévy to make this event possible. It is monstrous because it carries within itself a matchless demonstrative power: it allows us to see and understand with no need for explanation. The eye can understand on its own. Finally, it is monstrous because it offers a fine setting for icons by two monstres sacrés at the heart of the creative undertaking.

It is clear the moment we enter: there is no point in contrasting them, uniting them, or even comparing them. Of course, it is still tempting to do so; such are the exchanges that these canvases seem to set up, the fleeting and uncertain relations between them. We only have to look at the oldest paintings by each artist: Sail Cloth (page 31) by Willem de Kooning and the untitled landscape by Zao Wou-Ki (page 91), both completed in 1949. There is a kind of kinship, like personal variations around shared motifs: the choice of color and light, the articulation, the density and movement of the line. The works seem to respond to each other as if by enchantment. Later, when their palettes grow apart — one painter exploring the howling colors of exhibited flesh, the other the disquieting golds, lights, and gray tones of eclipses — the assessing gaze continues to seek footholds and is constantly surprised to find them.

Hard as it may be, we must resist this temptation. Otherwise we would drown the true subject of this show in the noise of chance. For, make no mistake, the works here hide what is essential: the summoning of two spirits. The magic of voices from beyond the tomb, speaking of two lives dedicated to art and to passion, two lives caught up in the headlong pursuit of freedom.

These rooms vibrate with the energy that made the canvases possible. Something happens when we are around these sumptuous canvases, among both artists’ finest. One man’s paintings come alive in contact with the other man’s. Between these works, hung just so, voices speak out.

Their resonances suddenly bring home the points where these two lives came unexpectedly into contact. Two excep- tionally long artistic careers, more than a century of painting between them. Two experiences of exile and uprooting. Two lives forged by ordeals, difficulties, illness. The two threads they spin were knotted at the same essential points, the 1940s and the 1950s, when they each forged the style that would make them  famous.

What emerges from this collision is, first of all, the incandescent core of their humanity. That moment when civi- lization turned, that moment of choice when both men, rather than being swept away, rather than clinging to their roots, decided to take their destiny in hand — their own and, as I see it, the world’s. In the whirlwind of history, they stood firm. They grabbed the reins and bestrode a diabolic mount that is still bucking beneath us today: modernity.

At the current moment of globalization, when so many are displaced — tangling cultures and identities, causing clashes and instability, making it impossible to know what will last and what may disappear — the seeds these two artists sowed are more salutary than ever. We must go back to their sources, back in effect to their testimonies, which offer a reason for being and living that is neither the technological platitude of comfort, nor the painful and sterile nostalgia for a closed meaning confined within a self-contained world.

Gradually, at the end of the nineteenth century, like oil spilling across the world, the metamorphosis of modernity spread from one point to another, often accompanied by eruptions of violence. Everything was changing at the same time, as a new world grew and pushed under the skin of the old: ways of life, ways of working, the place of the individual in society, and the organization of families and states went through an upheaval. The most thoroughgoing transformation in the his- tory of humanity since sedentarization was in process, and still is today in many territories. This modernization has had serious effects. After the suicide of Europe from 1914 to 1945, after the collapse of eastern Asia between 1895 and 1979, amidst the self-mutilating spiral of the Middle East, begun in around 1979, and perhaps before the convulsions of Africa or India — even if we may hope that they are spared and immunized— we shall glimpse, or so we hope, the light of an uncertain peace.

These two men will count among those who accomplished the revolution of minds— in other words, the decisive and ultimate transformation. More than chiefs of war, more than empire builders or great lawmakers, we will remember these great creators, these wandering souls who dug deep into the chaos of the flesh and of nature and brought forth  new ways of seeing, imagining, and thinking. For, beyond the paths of exile — and because of them, and no doubt beyond the world’s hurlyburly, beyond the abstraction of forms, they shaped the global art that was still to come. They are on a par with Picasso, Matisse, or Pollock, its pioneers, its pathfinders, and its sentinels. This global art with multiple roots sinking into both earth and sky, past and present, can better withstand the storm. It will be our cure and our recompense after the sacrifices of a century, perhaps two, of modernization’s march.

What touches me so much in these two painters, as revealed here, is indeed the intensity of their human lives, caught up in the tempests of their times, seeking, sometimes desperately, to attain transcendence. As with all great artists, their life and their work are one. Two intransigent quests for freedom leave us these moments of eternity by way of  comfort and example. Two masters of freedom trace for us paths to the future that are more relevant and vital now than ever.

Individual paths, at a time when in our own lives we must confront fears, hopes, and the whirlwinds of change. Collective paths, when art enables us to question history, and sometimes to guide it, to make it intelligible to itself. These two threads of life— the history of the solitary self and the history of all— are, for me, inextricably intertwined in Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning. This exhibition is not about art history but about the power of art itself, that fragment of history which, with each artist, became a spark of freedom. All that endures beyond a man’s life is his freedom, the only effective form of eternity.

The Children of Saturn

Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning share the secret of an extraordinary crime. Like so many others of their time, each took part in the collective murder of the father that made this modernity possible. They helped tear us away from tradition, to break with the figuration within which they had grown up and matured.

A morbid filiation was threatening to swallow its sons, but they started the work of rebirth. Like the children of Saturn, they disemboweled their father in his treacherous sleep. They replaced him with the collective reign of the sons. For the unchangeable god of time, they substituted the law of change, of searching and wandering.

For centuries, art seemed to be following its meanders in both East and West, pursuing— if no doubt with improvements and metamorphoses— a long continuity of works and artists. When Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning lifted themselves up to the level of the greats, the cracks had already spread and grown; transgressions had taken place, from Kandinsky to Braque or Malevich. Abstraction was no longer new. Some even held that it was already exhausted.

But the two painters shrugged this off. The paths they followed were their own. Their youthful works struggled doggedly and patiently with the kingdom of the visible. The transition to abstraction was the mark of a personal choice, an existential crisis, a decision that was in many respects emancipatory. They became seers by breaking free of the visible.

With Zao Wou-Ki, the crucial moment can easily be dated to around 1954, in those violent, dark compositions, steeped in despair. Flights of signs now eddy in clouds of colors, replacing the skeletal human figures and trees that straggled on in his last landscapes. From this time on, the eye was free of the codes of the past and would no longer come back to them, or at least only belatedly, to betoken a symbolic reconciliation and the definitive triumph of the “vibrant lifes” of abstraction over the still lifes of figuration. During these same years Willem de Kooning crossed the frontier, forsaking the representation that he had been following ever since his formative years, devouring like an ogre the visual forms inherited from tradition, making images from every antecedent, be it Uccello, Ingres, or Soutine. Neither of them doomed, misunderstood, and solitary, nor crushed by the grandeur of their predecessors, they managed to carve out their respective paths among forms, sidestepping the intellectual constructions of abstract experiment in favor of an intuitive grasp of the sensorial.

Paris, New York: Wandering Souls

For them, the rupture came in life and not in art. To cast off: this was the shared, concrete, and immediate aspiration that drove the two painters to leave their homelands, to breathe the air of cargo boats and steamers. Both men foreigners and exiles in the two art capitals of the twentieth century: the ascendant capital, New York, and the descending capital, Paris. Here are two privileged witnesses of those ten decisive years in the 1940s and 1950s when the art world completed the transmutation begun half a century earlier. This passing of power over contemporary art, with the baton going from Paris to New York, meant the uprooting of Western art and the coming of an American art that always saw itself as radically new. The two painters appeared in those two metropolises two decades apart, but with the same impression of being naked and at odds with their own time.

Their aim in leaving was to enable change. They traveled with a cargo of dreams. Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning both sought to break with a stifling tradition. For Willem de Kooning, commercial drawing school meant thumbing his nose at the dreamy, nebulous, and floating world of Dutch painting. The precision of his line bespeaks a desire for other places, the appearance of a chimney funnel or the sharp edge of a New York skyscraper. Zao Wou-Ki, born into a family of scholars, turned his back on Chinese landscape and took Matisse and Cézanne as his guides. “I wanted to paint differently,” he wrote, simply, in his autobiography, as he recalled his decisive arrival in a Paris exhausted by the war, where the 14th arrondissement was no more than the gleaming ghost of a formerly triumphant Montparnasse.

Like all who leave their homes, no doubt, these two voluntary exiles still had their insistent, atmospheric dreams, memories of the ambience back in the old country. Indeed, Willem de Kooning was reminded of the Netherlands by his house facing the sea in Louse Point, Long Island, a Flemish landscape cut out from the New World. As for Zao Wou-Ki, his garden in the rue Jonquoy gave him a domesticated version of Chinese scenery. Uprooting forced them to open up their own territories at an early age. This is how the Chinese painter entered “Zaowouquie,” that imaginary space of forms and dreams described by Henri Michaux.

Highways and Byways

In the solitude of inhospitable metropolises, they found the vital counterpoint to solitary creation: the camaraderie of young spirits, fellow-seekers of a new art. This radical spirit haunted circles of orphans, the rootless, and the potential parricides. The New York School, the School of Paris— in each instance, in the turbulence of the twentieth century, the sense is  acute: modernity is the failure of the fathers and the order of the brothers. On every side they rejected the fathers, mocked them, gibed at them. And yet all were looking for a guiding hand to help them along their path. But they sought an older brother, not an intellectual guru. Willem de Kooning found his in the figure of Arshile Gorky. “I was lucky when I came to this country to meet the three smartest guys on the scene: Gorky, Stuart Davis, and John Graham.”

Zao Wou-Ki, too, found the warmth of lively discussion soon after his arrival in 1948. A group coalesced, its uncompromising members circulating, meeting, and then parting at a moment of critical debate in the arts: Jean-Paul Riopelle, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Nicolas de Staël, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. All through his life, Zao Wou-Ki kept this prodigious talent for friendship, his capacity to connect with those in whom he perceived a common vibration, a shared artistic energy.

These peer groups spurred each other on. They emboldened each other to break, to be always wilder, more reckless. Often they seemed like groups of schoolchildren, hungry for life and loving to laugh at the bourgeoisie, even if that meant living from hand to mouth. In the solidarity of equals, painters and poets found the strength of a collective action that transcended  individuals.

Significantly, at no moment in the history of art was collaboration between painters and poets as intense and as necessary as it was at this revolutionary moment. Zao Wou-Ki was nourished by the gaze and the words of poets. Part of his art was constructed in confrontation with this prophetic speech. And, all through his life, he illustrated poems by friends or admired poets, such as René Char. In this confraternity, it was Henri Michaux who spurred and supported Zao Wou-Ki’s creative impetus. In 1950 he exhorted him to claim his freedom and thus made possible the bold rupture of the  next decade. Each needed the intervention of other arts to break free of tradition. One could say the same, at the same time, of poets, who searched painting and its frontier zones of Art Brut and the primary arts for the Archimedean lever that would force words free, unleashing them beyond all convention, morality, and even resemblance. The mold of language must be shattered, as Dada and the Surrealists had tried to do.

We cannot forget that in these years the world was in a state of constant upheaval. America was assailed by the tragedies of the Great Depression. Willem de Kooning himself had been a painter with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program instituted as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide employment for those whom the economy had failed. The artist made no secret of his rejection of the established order, railing against the reactionary power of style, vituperating against established artists and their   certainties.

Elsewhere Soviet communism threatened, as did the rise of fascism and the crisis of democracies. On the other side of the world, the collapse of China’s millennial regime ushered in an age of wars and revolutions: the fall of Sun Yat Sen’s republic, the cruel Sino-Japanese war, the civil war between the nationalists of the Kuomintang and the communists of Mao Zedong. Zao Wou-Ki took refuge from it all in the painting school at Hangzhou and in Western painting, which he was discovering. Born into a modest family, Willem de Kooning came to adulthood in a Europe roiled by violence, tormented by revolutions.

Both seem to have been simultaneously at the heart of events and apart from them, singularly impervious to the storms raging round them. By another biographical coincidence, they both acquired the nationality of their host country during the same period: 1961 for Willem de Kooning and 1964 for Zao Wou-Ki (thanks to the intercession of Culture Minister André Malraux).

Men Under the Influence

Deep down, the two men were not so much rejecting tradition as digesting it. The eclecticism asserted by both painters was a kind of dissection. Returning to Hangzhou decades later, Zao Wou-Ki was surprised and dismayed to see those who had stayed on still painting like Matisse and Cézanne. He and Willem de Kooning chose new fathers, but only to break free again. No doubt, when they borrowed their palette from Rubens or Matisse, and their drawing from Picasso or Klee, they must have felt like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. But soon they had jumped from these lofty perches and were raising themselves to the level of their  predecessors.

Rather than imitate or copy, they strove to distill art, to seek its strength beyond figurative forms. Willem de Kooning explained his approach in an interview with Harold Rosenberg in September 1972: “If I am influenced by a painter from another time, that’s like the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice; the smile left over when the cat is gone. In other words I could be influenced by Rubens, but I would certainly not paint like Rubens.”

In exploring these new territories, albeit weighed down by the thousand eyes of their predecessors, the two painters accepted discomfort. They combined the piety of the sons with the solitude of orphans, refusing the easy poses of academicism or revolt for revolt’s sake. “Being anti-traditional is just as corny as being traditional,” said Willem de Kooning with a mixture of humor and instinctive rebelliousness. For his part, Zao Wou-Ki was no less tortured by the demands of his art: the brush as a flimsy oar to take him through the storm.

On these very personal journeys, with all their borrowing, buttressing, and reinvention, the relation to painters of the past was deeply ambivalent. Yes, they were like the rungs on a personal Jacob’s ladder, raised skywards. To continue the unending painting of humanity, they borrowed, reused, diverted. The intense pinks of flesh in Willem de Kooning’s Woman series (for example, Woman in a Garden, 1971) do effectively recall the brilliance and play of light on Rubens’s figures. The dark, vaporous silhouettes of the mountains that rise up from Zao Wou-Ki’s canvases recall the silk paintings of the Song era.

But at the same time, they were digging into the universe of forms, mining the diamonds of vision by stripping off the gangue of realist illusion. From each one they kept only the light captured in the curve of a cloud, on a patch of wall, in the fold of a silhouette. They honed in on the essence of things, both no doubt persuaded that absolute painting is, if not possible, then something one can seek to attain. Louis Marin has emphasized the connections and influences reflected in Willem de Kooning’s work, that Rembrandt-like play of shadow in the 1959 painting titled Black and White Rome M (page 39), but also those Flemish landscapes that invite us to make an almost cartographic appropriation of the real, whereas Italian landscape always constructs a setting that awaits a very human narrative.

As the involuntary heirs of two traditions of landscape painting that were at once opposing and familiar, the Chinese painter and the Dutch painter were constantly struggling in their desire to move beyond the concept of landscape as the simple laying down of things. The two traditions do effectively share the belief in an atmospheric essence of landscape that connects objects laid out in space within a common energy. In those northern clouds heavy with white light, or in those interpenetrating waters and tracts of land, landscape swallows up the human figure and creates the conditions for a presence of being, for a celebration of the power of nature, active and acted, for a proliferation made independent of any creative hand. A breach was opened for the fashioning of a new figuration, since the invention of landscape was the necessary link for the invention of a truly poetic painting. In the dialogue of the canvases presented here, we can still sense the vibrating energy of these lineages of images, each born at an opposite end of the planet, the landscapes of East and West, and the promise of their possible reconciliation.

The paintings by these two masters of modernity struggle to contain creative energy. The paintings become com- positions because they are pieces cut out from reality, raw pieces of creation. These artists painted details of the world, aware of the impossibility of bringing that permanent renewal of the gaze to completion. What strikes us about the paintings here is their solidity. They are structured, in a proliferation that is nevertheless always organized, a disorder held in place on the edge of civilization. In this sense they are very much go-betweens. Intermediaries between worlds, certainly, between the Old and the New, between East and West, but even more between a world of forms and a world of beings,  a world of the living and a world of the dead — that is to say, at once the abyss of shadows and the place of forms freed from time.

These intermediaries create openings. The depth of the canvases’ surfaces is pierced with colors, forms, and movements. Again, here, an impromptu dialogue seems to develop: in works by both artists, vertical compositions — solid, like tempestuous columns— speak to upright bodies, devoid of pose or artifice, in exuberant corporeality.

The Spell of Imagination

Choosing depth against surface meant the obligation to redefine what a painting really is. Ultimately, the great formal revolution of the mid-twentieth century was a triumph of abstraction only on the surface. For abstraction was just a byproduct, a fleeting way of engaging in a much more intense battle, that of the immanence of the truth of painting. “The drawing of a face is not a face,” insisted Willem de Kooning. “It is the drawing of a face.”

In their quest for freedom, these men also had to strip painting of its chains, the chains that for centuries had tied representation to the constraint of mimesis, to the imitation of a reality which calibrated and measured a painter’s talent. The painted work could only be creature and not creation, so dependent was its truth on something outside it. Let us be clear, the spell of painting’s transcendence, which in fact is the painting’s subordination, did not cease with the end of the cult of representation as resemblance. The struggle is permanent because it is a constant process of learning about oneself. It is the continuation within ourselves of the Enlightenment program, of that sapere aude proclaimed by Kant, which defined the emancipation of mankind as the purpose of philosophy.

The forces tempted to enslave painting are always at work. Once the obligation to represent the visible had been abandoned, there were those who wanted to compel painting to represent an idea, exchanging an easygoing master for a more violent subjection. The very word abstraction, the convenient names of the schools— action painting or lyrical abstraction — give a glimpse of the danger of totalization. In their fundamental, abiding aspiration to freedom, both Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning were constantly rejecting all new forms of domination.

Therein lies a founding paradox of art. For while it is held by the ties of filiations and heritages that produce, little by little, a history of art, a progress of forms, each artist must also keep waging, over and over, the battle for human freedom within the limits of an individual life.

In this sense, every painter who attains his freedom can claim to have totally accomplished art. This applies to Giotto just as it does to Cézanne. Every great painter, whatever the period, manages to go beyond representation and transmute it into presence. Imagination is, in this sense, humanity’s highest faculty, above even reason, because it is the capacity to produce freedom, to break the glass wall between object and subject, between thought and thing. This is what bestows a sacred dimension on the work of art, something that no other human undertaking can hope to attain. Only imagination can subvert the immutable order that separates human beings from gods, mortals from immortals. It embodies the élan vital. And for that reason too, it disturbs and isolates.

The paintings brought together here are, for this reason, all alive. They speak for themselves, invite us to think, but remain impenetrable by nature.

The Quest for the Concrete

Because they imagine life, these canvases collide frontally with matter. What, really, is abstraction? What do these canvases, which made their way from figuration to abstraction, have in common?

“The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes.” This maxim of Willem de Kooning’s shows just how conventional are the commonly held ideas about the origins of the two artists’ abstraction. It seems intellectually satisfying to suppose that one forged his abstraction from landscape, and notably from the tradition of the water-and- mountain landscapes of ancient Chinese painting, while the other pulled on the figurative thread of the human body and pushed the female nude towards abstraction, yet always letting fragmented forms come to the surface, allowing the appearance of compositions of flesh to open to desire. And yet Zao Wou-Ki forcefully rejected the idea that he was a landscape painter and for many years refused to paint after nature, for fear of being held in thrall to the visible. He painted nature. Willem de Kooning, for his part, intermingled forms and subjects in his paintings— sometimes referring to the human figure, indeed, and other times to landscape. A Tree in Naples (1960, page 41) plays with chance elements in the motif, the tree in question being both indefinite and precise, like a detail out of a painting. It thereby becomes an event and not just a piece of matter extracted from the real. This avoidance of the motif is far from incidental. It indicates the will   to show something else and to designate  differently.

That is why the detour via the sign was so necessary — those swarms of characters often devoid of meaning in Zao Wou-Ki, the “sign painter” practice of Willem de Kooning, who in his early days painted industrial signs. What he took from this practice was a certain loss of distinction between ground and figure.

Color and Line

The battle against matter effects the transmutation of the sign into color. It announces the victory of painting, the transition to the regime of seeing. The entry into illumination. There is in the two painters brought together here a celebration of color that simultaneously involves its negation. In 1948 de Kooning owed his fame to the series of Black and White works that he continued for nearly a decade. As for Zao Wou-Ki, he was loath to give up color and to return to the water-drowned shades of India inks. And yet, despite all this avoidance, for all his efforts— and once again at the instigation of Michaux, in relation to poetry, espousing its play of black lettering drunk in by the white paper — he eventually threw himself body and soul into the inks on paper of the 1970s, giving them more and more time and energy. He found, in a moment of despair and creative crisis, the energy to resume, to revive his palette, to open up new horizons. From now on, his colors would never be the same. This opened his more contemplative, almost stellar, later period, in which deep, serene blues are married with the golden light and green flourishes seen as early as the painting 05-03-76 (1976, page 122).

Willem de Kooning’s paintings appear to be in perpetual motion. The brushstrokes vibrate. They fill all the space of the painting, having no precise origin, no definitive organization. They shrivel and twist on the canvas, infusing it with life. The line is buttressed by color and color radiates, projected by line. The painter plays with our eye, compels it, perturbs and guides it round the tracks of the canvas. He captures and records our gaze which, out of habit, and in disarray, cannot keep itself from clinging to the lines, from following them and believing in them.

The situation is different in the canvases of Zao Wou-Ki. Here, truth is uncompromising. Yes, the gaze is guided too, but by other artifices and other scaffolding. Closer to realist landscape, Zao Wou-Ki allows us to believe in the existence of vanishing lines, of perspectives hidden in the depths of the canvas. His canvases captivate and bewitch. The eye is always attracted in a movement in the major mode, reprised in a minor key by the painting’s details. 09-01-63 (1963) shows a horizon of light propelled forward from the painting, seeking contact and confrontation with the dark shadows that edge and delimit it, above and below.

The Conquerors of Freedom

It is surely no coincidence that these artists both settled in cities that symbolized a new sense of freedom, replete with universalist promise. Something drove them, something beyond art that defined their existence. Willem de Kooning’s brushstrokes, it seems, evoke Antonin Artaud’s wild figure of the “crowned anarchist.” Both de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki painted instinctively to save what was dearest to them: their freedom. Of this, de Kooning said in his first public state- ment on art, “A Desperate View” (1949): “The idea of order can only come from above. Order, to me, is to be ordered about and that is a limitation.” Chaos is internal, projected onto the world like an army.

The Pound of Flesh

Often, the price of freedom is solitude. It forces us to tear out a part of ourselves. For these two great painters, the path of creation took them through whole deserts of solitude.

Seeing their paintings, we are filled with instinctive respect for the sacrifice. This is what art contains, what the canvas retains: squares full of hurricanes cut from seas of oil. “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure,” de Kooning declared. The combat he waged in his art was continued in his life. He sank into alcohol. Perhaps this soothed him for a while after the exhaustion that always ensues when visions are too  intense.

For these shooting stars in the history of forms, the work that they undertook of deconstructing the figure could not endure. Their ruptures called for other transgressions. Both have been without successors— a few imitators, a few pale reflections, no doubt, but nobody to continue, to improve, to go  deeper.

They learned to journey with despair at their side, and despair was often the direct cause of the great ruptures in their work. Here we see the dark storms of Zao Wou-Ki’s life in several of his most accomplished canvases from the 1950s (pages 94–101). The paintings compel us, yet for him these were years of doubt, of his divorce from his first wife, his relationship with May, his second wife, and then long years at her side confronting illness, instability, fear. The landscapes of La nuit remue (1956, page 97) were found in the gulf of an inner night, from which he  drew.

Paintings of Desire

The paintings assembled here tell us that there is no image without desire, without that encounter between the painter’s desires and the beholder’s. Painting is a play of drives. It exists only in the space of the imagination, capable of moving, of wrenching soul and spirit: a desire more radical and primordial than eroticism, the will to power, or the thirst for knowledge. The painter cloaks all desire in visible form. He reigns over a kingdom of forms. It is not surprising, therefore, that Willem de Kooning’s painting should evince such a physical drive, that he should make the body the matrix of this art endlessly rehearsed — as is visible in his Marilyn Monroe (1954). The painting is a fetish and a talisman.

A desire is the sole image capable of movement, because it is the canvas of creative dissatisfaction, of the back and forth of action and correction, of approaching form. Willem de Kooning’s technique bears the stigmata of this, alternating countless successive phases of drawing and color, returning to line, thickening a new layer of pigments. Zao Wou-Ki, too, tirelessly refined and revisited. Whole days were spent in front of the canvas, in a quest for perfection in the potent artisanship of mystery.

In doing this, they both chose to gamble with their lives in the assertion of their freedom, for the freedom of painting is sometimes synonymous with the painter’s own enslavement. He is confined in the studio and, even more, within the four edges of his canvas. Hence the intensity of the composition, which is not an intellectual exercise but a gesture of despair — that of the horse straining at its harness or the wild beasts whose impatient pacing behind the bars of their cages Rilke memorably  observed.

This labyrinth of time, open to contradictions, to unfinished efforts, to desperate attempts, is the seal of a new human condition, of the destiny of a humanity left to its own devices. We know that we have the power to create and destroy. Nature, which we have domesticated, is dying within our embrace. We have no refuge now. We are in a world with no end, no way out. A Beckettian desert.

These wounds that gape in the canvases of Zao Wou-Ki and Willem de Kooning, these long gashes that lacerate their paintings and open onto the other world, are the living sign of our collective greatness and fragility, of our liberty and our lapsed nature, which are inextricable. In that century of crimes, in that century of crises and convulsions, we learned that to step forward was also to stumble. Therein, no doubt, lies the tragedy of the modern condition, now shared by a humanity assembled under the sign of this responsibility: to know is to wound.

1024 671 Dominique de Villepin

ZAO WOU-KI – Into the maze of lights

Torrents of air. Roaring waters. The very motion of the world runs across the triptych from left to right. As if it were overcome by an immense unsteadiness. The matter laden sky, the frothing stream, one urging the other drifting along the tide of Creation. Entire eras shivering in the grip of monstruous rockings. Time is dead, killed by the fluctuations of being and nothingness. An entertainment for the gods? No. Man stands right in the heart of the event. Here he is, a frail barque, lost on the edge of the stream.

This return bears in itself its own revolution as in his triptych of 2004 entitled Le vent pousse la mer (The wind pushes the sea). It is representation coming back into Zao Wou-Ki’s light and in its wake the figure of all figures: man. He assesses the immensity of things, a helpless witness of the combat of matter. He is the mark of insignificance. The unsteady barque materializes the caesura between the sky and the sea, between the instant and eternity. It is Zao Wou-Ki’s revolution, like a star completing its whirling to resume its initial position. Another painting adds a powerful evidence: Le temple des Hans (Han’s temple) in 2005. For who has wandered along with Zao Wou-Ki’s work, what a bewilderment! Landscape re-emerges, a structured mass of lines, through lines and strokes, a suspended Acropolis, halfway between Greek and Chinese temples. The entrance to the mysteries seems to be guarded by a dark silhouette, a mulberry tree or an olive tree. The color has become blurred. Sepia shades have turned to shadows, already becoming volumes. Fifty years of obliteration of the figure draw to a close, because the artist has walked his path of light, color and matter to come back, as the initiated he became, and now shows us man just as he is. Because it is not a simple return, the eye henceforth shows us the world of shapes from within the forms themselves.

Something is assuaged. The conflict between opposites has always been the source of everything. But this struggle is different from the one in previous paintings, the dark ones dating back to the beginning of the 1970’s. No principle expects to triumph. No inexorable hatred. A tenderness, celestial nuptials mix between two elements that inter-penetrate and run the risk of blending. We have slided towards the waters of the river in which you never go bathing twice. Color itself nourishes its brightness. It approaches its own light and no longer exhausts itself in contradictions. The whole pre-Socratic knowledge has accumulated on the canvas and concentrates here in a beam of truth: struggle and love are the two principles in every painting, in every life, because they are the same thing.

Le vent pousse la mer (The wind pushes the sea) has been entrusted with Zao Wou-Ki’s multiple facets, the painter of elementary forces and of the sudden looming up of the being, a man’s life spent probing and scrutinizing the shapes and the meaning by throwing the Orient and the Occident in a mutual encounter, seeker of the absolute that encloses in the color the landscapes of the mind, shaman of initiations and metamorphoses.

The traveller from Orient

The path followed by Zao Wou-Ki’s painting is the route of a painter from the Orient to the Occident and return. It is not a journey, there are no stages nor ranging-poles. He did not follow any itinerary. Only horizons and between them the world stretches out. Directions originating in a cosmology, a solar path guiding the life of a man.

From his training years at the Academic Art School in Hangzhou, he retains a feeling of incompletion, of limitation, even may be of ineluctable inertia. The art he is taught is full, complete, enclosed within itself. The elementary, floating landscapes of Song painters, he admires them and feeds on them but he can no longer bear the rigid code they became. They no longer belong to this world, they only perpetuate a conventional vision of it. He feels in them the decaying of an already dead art. Yet, almost reluctantly, reminiscences re-emerge, like the power of the hand over the mind, the recollection of the teachings of his paternal grand-father, a well-read man during the Qing empire, a shadow from another world, from before the Deluge.

‘I wanted to paint differently’, he writes. The key, it is this alteration, this desire of changing, this inadequacy of what stiffens. What was he looking for when he went westward? Matisse and Picasso. What did he rediscover when, some thirty years later, he met with his fellow students of the Art School showing him their paintings? Matisse and Picasso. ‘Since I left, they had not changed, they were still trying to paint like Matisse and Picasso.’ But him, he had discovered his true self on the way, between horizons.

Born in 1920, Zao Wou-Ki is the child of a sick, divided China, racked by doubts. It gets on his nerves, he deplores it, commits himself, helplessly witnesses the woes of poverty, of humiliation, of civil war, of occupation. A time when artists cannot be satisfied with only transmitting the wisdom of the elders, a time when they are assigned to giving a meaning to what is disintegrating in full view of everyone. Formulae are no longer sufficient.

Because imitation has had to be discarded, as it prevents the awareness of the inner man. The paintings preceding his departure look like calls, like reminiscences. Zao Wou-Ki is feeding, he absorbs everything he can, relying on post-cards given by his uncle and on reproductions found in American magazines. He soaks up novelty. Strictly speaking, it is not a matter of copying but the progression of both the eye and the hand, towards the distant. In the melancholy Portrait de ma femme (Portrait of my wife) in 1949, the attention slips from the blue flowers of the dress that seem as real as the evanescent features of the face, to the yellow background which vividly outlines her, like instinctively, thus revealing Matisse’s attraction power.

Each painting of this period unveils its own influence, Chagall in Noce (Wedding) in 1941, Modigliani for the Portrait in 1947. But more than with anyone else, it is with the painter of Aix-en-Provence that Zao Wou-Ki’s mind spontaneously starts resonating. The body looks suspended between air and light, freed from gravity, rocking on an impossible stool, diluting into the world. ‘It is Cezanne who helps me take up with myself again as a Chinese painter.’

This painting, more than any other, weaves invisible threads towards the future; the nascent refinement of forms; the opposition of primary colors, concentrated on themselves, emerging purer from the confrontation; the flower printed material of the dress anticipates the quiver of forms, the yellow streaks announce the quest for brightness that, among many others, can be found in a painting dated 1995, 07.06.95. A language is arising, still unaware of its own birth.

The journey to Paris in 1948 stands out like a caesura, like a wound bursting open. A sore still festering under the scar that suddenly pours out. A stream of creation wells up. Discoveries multiply and so do the friendships. In his quest, Zao Wou-Ki joins other absolute seekers. He strikes up a friendship with Jean-Paul Riopelle, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Nicolas de Staël, Maria-Elena Vieira da Silva. He becomes the fellow traveller of Lyric Abstraction but the label does not stick well, it does not reflect the ceaseless evolution of his creation. The cultural profusion of Parisian post-war years becomes Zao Wou-Ki’s real school, an invitation to choose his own path and his own perception.

Places emerge, like a craving for the materialization of the spaces he scoured. He makes his way in post-war Europe and grasps, in the ruffle of an endless journey, objects and moments. He goes off to discover Spain, Italy, Holland, England. Italian cities rise. Mountains. Bridges stretching across the Seine. The Sacré Coeur. It is the days of the Carnets de Voyage (Travel notebooks) where the experience of European landscapes accumulates. Zao Wou-Ki starts his progression towards the inmost depths of the world, from these arbitrary edges, from these mental forms recognized even before seen.

There are these Italian cities that are like vedutte brought down to their framework, straight lines, dark crackings, drowning in changing luminosities. Let us look at Arezzo in 1950, planes withdraw, we perceive steeples, edges, sections of walls even a human figure fading out like the architectures. Zao Wou-Ki already strives to extricate the elementary world from its gangue of semblances. Color is still fighting with the drawing but it is already willing to take it up and totally absorb it. Perspective, this key stone of Occidental art, disintegrates, worn away by the addition of classical Chinese compositions in successive veils. Zao Wou-Ki builds within this conflict his own space by dismantling the illusions of perspective, because they prevent him from seeing the world. ‘I have always had a great admiration for Cimabue and the way he treated space’. As he is trying to free himself, while respecting his heritage, of the painting of the Song era, he looks for a genuine faithfulness to Italian inventions.

And then in 1951, he discovers Klee, this deep affinity with a worlds passer-by working on the form of dream itself to turn it into the matter of image. Zao Wou-Ki sharpens his eye. He dismantles the world. The dialogue between drawing and color goes on but in another universe, mythical, primordial, like in Chasse et Pêche (Hunting and Fishing) in 1952. Cruel scene with accents of rupestrian initiation. What we look for within the red streams, sole light amidst the surrounding gloom, is man confined in the cavern of his long gestation. The whole creation is summoned, huge fishes, birds, suggested beasts, while men are relentlessly moving, everywhere.

Klee’s painting badgers Zao Wou-Ki. For a few years it will be his anchor and his curse. The answer to his searches seems to be there, within his reach: color and line jointly leading to the absolute. In his Théorie de l’art moderne (Theory of modern art), Klee writes: ‘The artist does not attach to the obvious side of nature the same restricting importance as numerous detractors do. He does not feel so much submitted to them, as he does not consider fixed forms as the essence of the creative process of nature.’ He thinks he has found the space he has been looking for when he only fleetingly glimpsed at its threshold. He hurts, feeling that he only is an ‘under-Klee’. He will free himself from this voluntary servitude. But he will still retain the influence of the paintings of the German master. His theory about color seems to creep into the paintings of the 1970’s, when colors initiate a new coexistence after years of conflict in the chiaroscuro. The rediscovery of greys in the 1970’s can recall the grey point theory, this place in the chromatic system absorbing and generating all colors. What Zao Wou-Ki will keep in mind, in 01.12.75 for example, is mainly the dynamic of colors that create one another, that enclose their own strength, that are energy and not a layer on a surface.

The journey to Occident makes him turn his back on his remembrances from Orient. Every choice he makes signifies his will to break off. Zao Wou-Ki pursues the fierceness of colors on the oil paint thickened canvas. He mistrusts the uncertainty of wash drawing, the liquid imprecision of shapes and shades. In Occidental art, he seems to be above all seeking what thwarts, what delimits, what can free him from the traditions he wants to evade. A very personal itinerary.

And it is this very path that will lead him, like an inner necessity, to a slow return towards Orient. The reverse of the initial breaking off will be the slow reconciliation of a life where Zao Wou-Ki works towards the unification of his own world. Orient will come back to dwell in large oil paintings. The ghosts of ideograms will haunt them after the disappearance of figures. But before, only just arriving in Paris, lithography had already given him the signal for a first reconciliation. A technique standing halfway between the harshness of Occidental drawing and the Oriental stumping. His painting lives under the sign of the temptation of watercolor where dilution is the principle of life and death. The motion of the waters gently rocks the world. Sans titre (Untitled) in 1954 locks us in a water cage with bars of color runnings sheltering or confining the density of black forms, like an infinitely reflecting basin where we would look at the winding shadows of carps, broken by the unexpected ripples of its surface.

On the occasion of joint works with poets, he returns to inks. He regains possession of the games between water and color, confident in his freedom. And later he will even slide towards the return to landscapes, towards gentle figurations all made of the evanescence of elements and natural harmonies. Sea landscapes, drifting grasses, sweet pleasures of flaming gardens, keep the power of accumulated chaos, invisible, in the background, underlying the new mysteries of creation. I am thinking about the magnificent watercolors entitled after the Jardin de la lanterne (The garden of the lantern) that inspired them. A moment of stillness in the motion of the world and yet, nothing else but movement, the matter withdrew behind the apparition. Light is no longer color laden. It no longer crashes down on the support like the thick, oily pigments on the canvas. Color sublimates itself in a glow. The matter is subtilized. A return towards China, an inner reconciliation with duality, with the strain of a dual horizon, have happened. Zao Wou-Ki abandons his pilgrim’s staff and comes back to the scene of the origins. In 1985, he goes back for some time to Hangzhou Art School to be a teacher. He increases the number of his journeys as he finds his own stability.

This path in Occident is more similar to Phaeton’s wild run than to the inexorable course of the sun. It is full of breaks, of existential outbursts that always mark the stages of his creation. A long career favors the feeling of permanence, of retrospective convictions, the evidence of the drawing. In the sweltering heat of a life, nothing like that. There are only doubts, reversals, moments of fragile coherence where suddenly arise recurrent shapes, obsessions, clear searches, to once again vanish as soon as drawn forth. Each moment in a life must be given back its own meaning.

The 1950’s are the first example. He walks on the brink of abysses. Feelings of dissatisfaction, virtual standstill, unaccomplishment, dwell in his life as in his paintings. Is he able to separate one from the others? His divorce from Lalan, his first wife, will be the turning point. A period of darkness plunges onto his painting. Color has to struggle. It only emerges for an instant in precise spots. It can no longer occupy space. 1957 and 1958 are the years of a triumphant chaos. Let us have a look at Nous deux (Both of us) in 1957. The distressing title is explicit enough. In the cloud of a reddish glow two black forms stand face to face. They seem to strive towards fighting, bristling with movement and red and white spatters. The primordial couple is united by nothing else but the blaze of the in-between and the weight of a darkness that falls down from the top of the canvas.

Another break at the beginning of the 1970’s. Sorrows accumulate around him, the death of his second wife, May, he had met her in Hong Kong in 1958, after years of a painful illness, the death of his mother, the pains raging in his own body. En mémoire de May (To the memory of May) in 1972 keeps the mark of this period. The confrontation of elements, the commotions that drive the previous years seem to yield to the exhaustion of his strength. Struggles withdraw behind more haunting sorrows, may be more inexorable ones. Orangey shaded horizons offer the perspective of the distant. There is some sort of vanishing point, unusual in Zao Wou-Ki’s compositions. The painting is from after the threat, beyond the fears, in a lifeless sadness that these shapes represent which for the first time lengthen. They are simplified like pruned trees lying on the earth.

Zao Wou-Ki’s painting accompanies his life and his thinking. They can hardly be told apart one from the other. The painting shapes its concept and studio work reveals it little by little. The paintings do no emerge from nothingness, suddenly, easily, they are extricated from it, patiently, during whole months of attempts and meditation. That is why there is always a part of experimentation. Zao Wou-Ki changes supports, gets free from the disciplines he had imposed upon himself. He goes from large canvasses to small format papers. He takes pleasure in lithography. ‘I would only love to have enough time left to complete the last painting on which I am working, more daring, more liberated than the one I have just finished.’ His painting strives after life, and vice versa. He projects himself into the future, towards improvement, towards the uncertainty of the outcome and in this sense his painting is wisdom. ‘The joy of painting’ he repeats, no doubt because painting is feeling alive, fully integrating the very nature of Creation.

Where is Zao Wou-Ki then? The traveller from Orient remains unfound. Halfway there? No, he walks on between the rifts, the chinks, within the unthought-of side of the world, in the bare world of before the traditions but with their weapons, with their eyes. A rupestrian world where he summons the world from above and where he creates a new light.

Zao Wou-Ki is not a time interval. Nor a milestone in a history of painting. He does not conform to schools, to fancies, always opening up his own furrow. He does not have the makings of time, he is made of matter into space. That is why it is illusory to try and approach him through the unfolding of the dates of a biography. He must be chased out in those infinite spaces, sometimes serene, sometimes frightening, where he takes refuge. On this shapeless scene of the Creation of the world.

To enter in ‘Zaowoukia’

The great rupture, the most obvious of all is the relinquishment of figuration. Expression was not sufficient. It might make believe that, before, the subject imposed its presence. This is wrong. From the very start, it aimed to withdraw, it always seemed on the verge of sinking into nothingness and insignificance. It was the case with post-war nudes, but also with those ethereal trees, pathetic cuneiforms that bristle on the mountains sides. The fading of the subject within the world was done little by little, as the drawing gave precedence to light and color.

But, there really is a point of no return. It had to be discovered through the détour of immateriality. Zao Wou-Ki hunted in the subject for the essence of its materiality. He wanted to denude it but never quite succeeded, a prisoner of the heritage of senses, of the legacy of objectivity. But this is not what interests him, it is the motion of the matter, its inner turbulence, its original din. Vent (Wind) in 1954, is the dark gate to the world of creation. On the background of obscurity featureless shapes stir, as the wind itself is a perceptible but invisible movement. Two columns of red and black flecks, in the halo of a glow they generate, fall down from and rise out of a common knot, at the foot of the canvas. It is ‘the first painting that did not tell a story but was only the evocation of the rustling of the leaves or the foaming of the surface of the water under a passing breeze.’ This discovery will develop like a revelation endlessly deepened for forty years without a figure. But nothing is abstract there. It would be a misinterpretation. On the contrary, it is the figure that is abstract, the figure that perceives the sense of the matter, that denies the intertwining of the world.

His progression resembles the one of a Turner, in the recurrence of the look, in the return of the hand. The subjects turn to themes. Then laboratories where pure light is distilled, an epiphany of colors, going back up the thread of the world to reach creation. Let us think about these sea paintings, where the iridescence of the light in the foam becomes its own subject. Let us think about this programmatic painting, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge. Moses writing the Book of Genesis. Here there are traces of men, but it does not matter. What is offered to the eye, is the apotheosis of light. I find a deep affinity between these two searches. The light is struggling against the darkness. As a matter of fact, the paintings around 1957 – 1959 are under the threat of gloom, the titles show the scars of monumental confrontations, Aube (aucun soir, ni aucun matin) (Dawn no evening, nor any morning). A cold stellar light freezes in an endless night, unable to pierce the hopeless opacity from which rise black sparks, the heavy curls of a world turned to ashes.

To find a liberated light, we have to drift further downstream, towards later and more serene experimentations. Till we reach the mouth of the Hommage à mon ami Jean-Paul Riopelle (Homage to my friend Jean-Paul Riopelle) in 2003, where light and life shatter to permit to glimpse at the most magnificent sights of nature. The blinding brightness of foliages bursts, slashing right through the triptych, propagating like a wave. Blue, yellow and green. The blazing is hardly struck by the complementarity of violet clouds. Yellows, behind their green veils, reach extraordinary intensities.

The being, in Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings, is transfigured. It suffuses the mystery of its own presence. A new rupture, the paintings lose their titles after 1958. They no longer designate, they no longer tell stories. They remain silent. But they do not stop showing, pointing a mute finger. Because they keep a date, the date of the day when Zao Wou-Ki considers that they are finished, the act of will that severs the cord between the artist and his painting. And yet a day that does not stop their making, long and patient. But a day which becomes, in a sense, the very moment when we talk about the world. A point, unique and crouching around itself to lever up the world, as Stephen Dedalus’ enclosed day, in the maze of the world that James Joyce offers us to travel in his Ulysse (Ulysses).

Another major turning point is reached with the conquest of large formats. It represents more than a change of support, it is different from a stretching of the frame. The artist discovers what is preying on his art, he gets down to cover spaces, liberated from the location, from the here and there. Miniature spaces, on the world scale, impressive formats on the human scale. The Hommage à Edgar Varèse – 25.10.64 (Homage to Edgar Varèse – 25.10.64) is a landmark. In all respects. The canvas is large. It opens a period of widening of the eye, of extension of the composition that will go on, later, with the triptychs, allowing formats over seven metres long. ‘Important surfaces requested that I would fight against space.’

The painting in homage to his friend, the Franco-American composer he met in 1954, introduces the overstepping of another boundary. Matter renounces the things of the world. It reaches its deep inner substance, the resonance of a music in the universe, the constant vibration of the Whole. Color and sound are united in the same energy. Already the search of winds, the fascination for sea masses showed him the way to these turbulences that offer color quite another function. Now, they no longer represent, they incarnate, in the sense that they loaded the light contained in the spirit of the world with the infinity of the being’s shades. The canvas becomes a mirror, this ‘tumultuous back of the mirror’, René Char evoked when talking about his friend’s painting, or rather, stained glass window interposing itself between the experience of the world and the contemplation of truth.

Because right into the heart of the composition, there is the void. That is what separates Zao Wou-Ki from Occidental pictorial tradition, which he distrusts. Himself, as Song artists did, in the manner of Chinese cities, he domesticates it, he endlessly pursues a new balance, precarious and hesitant, between solid and void. Braque, in a disconcerting inversion of terms, had evoked it: ‘Void gives its shape to the vase as does music to silence.’ Zao Wou-Ki’s debate with cubists and fauvists is about void, which they do not know where to place when he asserts: ‘I only thought about spaces linked together, at the risk of painting the void.’ In 19.11.71, the composition collapses under orangey and black sparkles. Contrast alone remains to guide the eye, the organization of the shapes is powerless to lead us. Color abandons all volumes and withdraws from the surface to become deepness and part of the veils of the mystery of an empty world haunted by the solid.

We enter in ‘Zaowoukia’, this territory that Henri Michaux has been the first one to explore. It is reality that Zao Wou-Ki recomposes piece by piece that he explores and pursues: ‘Each painting, from the smaller to the larger, is always a piece of this dream space.’ It is an invitation to discover the inventory of the world. His friend Henri Michaux did not make any mistake in his ‘readings’ of Zao Wou-Ki’s lithographs. ‘There is’, the litany of the being tries to resist metamorphoses. The red storm and the two wolves interpenetrate, but they are still there. Not depicted, nor imagined, but present forever.

We rush towards essential landscapes. Art had conquered landscapes, from different sides, in Orient and in Occident. It has tried to capture nature. On one side, the objective nature of juxtaposed beings, placed and bathed in the world, in the fickleness of forms, on the other side, subjective nature, generating principle of all things, a mystery that creates solid from void. With Zao Wou-Ki, the climbing tracks join. New faults are explored. We get ready to touch nature. Paysage dans la lune (Landscape in the moon) in 1954 – 1955 allows us to catch a glimpse of a disconcerting world. A dark forest launches an attack on the sky. An acid and yellow sky surges down to earth. Rockets meet in the white halo of a summit. The artist goes deeper into the fault he has discovered. Now he walks alone, with no boundaries and no borders. He accepts to struggle with elements. 10.03.76: flashes turning blue, heavy and thick, seem to undergo the immaterial gravity of a grainy atmosphere, alive with streakings. A suspended landscape, with no centre, nor any vanishing point.

And what if the world repaired itself? If the very first morning of the world were slowly rising from the decentred swirls of the ‘ethereal and telluric’ landscapes evoked by René Char. Triptyque 2000 – 2001 (Triptych 2000 – 2001) soothes at once. The painting immediately invites to dwell in it. The landscape has recomposed itself. Planes loom up. Masses too. Sea, mountain, sky. Even shapes with these crackles of trees. We have the feeling of a reconciled landscape, miraculously cured, showing through its surface both an Italian perspective and the drifting mists of Song landscapes shivering on tissue paper. We begin to think about Li Tang’s painting: The breeze blows through the pines in the valley. With streams everywhere and breaths of wind that seem to sap the fierceness of the central rock. The landscape is the very scene of the struggle of opposites. Its name itself, mountain-water, shanshui, gives an account of it. To feel the bedazzlement of the survivor, we have to find behind the painting all the ancient landscapes, the shattered mountains, from the times when earth was shapeless.

Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings are all landscapes. Not because of a deliberate choice but because of evidence: men and nature remain inseparable. Friends have to be taken care of as bonsaïs and orange trees. The Hommage à mon ami Jean-Paul RiopelleHistoire de deux érables canadiens, 21.06.2003 (Homage to my friend Jean-Paul Riopelle – The story of two Canadian maples, 21.06.2003) evokes man in the flaming yellow of an autumnal maple. The barriers between culture and nature collapse, sink under the elementary cataract, dilute themselves in this water that propels the wheel of cycles and returns. We have to draw all the inferences of this union. Zao Wou-Ki paints landscapes with no viewpoint. He abolishes perspective not only as a method of illusion but as a principle. We must strive to see the landscapes as they see themselves. The world contemplates itself as world.

Forests, rocks, sky, waters – the landscape is the very nudity of the universe. The immense simplicity of forms has had to be tamed, when others fled it in narration, in human figures, in abstraction. To paint, sometimes, is to confront fear. Zao Wou-Ki conquered his own sight by a hard-fought struggle.

He has worked on the world, journey after journey, in his notebooks. He must have gone through a period of doubt and crisis, in the fascination and obsession of the subject. Forms, during the two years preceding his major turning point, have invaded him. The crackings and breaks of the fir trees, the scraping of the rock, he borrows them from Klee. When he believes to see an end in them, they become for him a way to open the world. Pictograms are the missing link he must accept before unveiling a world in his own way. Because the fault leads him further. Towards the heart of ‘Zaowoukia’, in the depth of space where the mystery of creation continuously occurs. He had to, as he confessed it himself, ‘defeat the surface of the world’, to reach the core of the world.

‘So much milk surrounds the dead star!’ Henri Michaux’s verse, even if it evoked a particular lithograph, encompasses the whole of Zao Wou-Ki’s work. Cosmic dimensions, jolting cycles of life and death, trepidation of the eye carried away.

Elementary compositions are replaced by more essential struggles. The solid and the void clash, round after round. Zigzaging cracks in 19.10.76, longitudinal quartering, strange meioses in 15.12.76 – Triptyque (15.12.76 – Triptych), kinetic jumble in Hommage à André Malraux (Homage to André Malraux) in 1976, Zao Wou-Ki, in the 1970’s, tests all the forms of the combat he observes. He is amazed by what is happening right before him, by what passes on through him. A form keeps coming back, obsessive fear of a ‘shattered earth’, the dark smothered explosion that dwells in the horizon, compressed and confined between masses of color, under and above it. Since the Hommage à René Char (Homage to René Char) in 1973 to 03.01.80 – Triptyque (03.01.80 – Triptych). The canvas becomes the laboratory of the world, where are artificially recreated the conditions of the appearance of life, where the collisions of the particles burst.

The brightness of the being is always full of disaster. Catastrophe threatens. Everything disintegrates. A blind man gropes along in search of balance. His life leads him from abyss to abyss. Dark periods invade the paintings, concentrating a thick magma on entire sections. Clear periods express the hope for the union of opposites in a colored brilliance. More disturbing paintings do not express an opinion on the outcome of the encounter. Such is 07.05.2002. A dark block, opaque and mysteriously agonizing sinks into the heart of the painting. Nearly a quadrilateral. A composition with an interlocking that has never been seen yet in Zao Wou-Ki’s work. We worry. The dark thickness stands out on a blue serene background, like the sky in a clear morning. Those two frames cannot coexist. There is no hope nor fight, no union. We are beyond intelligibility. He no longer paints the being only but the being to the world in its ludicrousness. Executed during the Spring of 2002, the painting keeps the trace of haunting images, of flaming towers in a cloudless morning, of the feelings of a suffering body too because the artist just only recovers from troubles with his health. Creative disaster withdraws, very subtly, behind an insane catastrophe rising to the surface.

Space changes once more in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The energy of the artist intensifies. It recovers from the deep crisis of 1972 – 1973. Space shelters new lights. It welcomes new forms. Step by step, they organize it. We find ourselves discovering rhizomes and dendrites that take possession of the painting, that suck the depth of the space. A mushrooming of the being that fully blooms in the Quadriptyque décembre 1989 – février 1990 (Quadriptych December 1989 – February 1990). Red, blue and black fibrous strainings travel through the yellow space. Interlinks or smothering of the matter. The eye hesitates, for a moment before toppling over.

These metamorphoses are indissociable from the rediscovery of a technique, wash painting with China ink, the mystery of ink drank by paper, of forms able to organize themselves, of the assembling of the world. Of course, he always knew how to use it, but from 1972 and especially after 1979, he discovers new potentials, a new dimension of his space. In his autobiography he tells how, from 1971 to 1973, after the death of May, his wife, it is impossible for him to endure, in his studio, the hours of reflection preceding the painting of a canvas. He has to liberate his hand. He needs distractions. It is almost by chance that he takes his inks. He revives a whole tradition of freedom for his brush and of acceptance of the game between paper and ink, dictating its law to the artist’s hand.

The result is a new world of interpenetrated surfaces. The patch wins. Former struggles turn into blendings and meetings. The project executed at the request of his friend Ieoh Ming Pei for the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Peking travels the whiteness of the paper with galaxies of splashes. Ink associates, separates, isolates. It has the consistency of a cloud, the flexibility of smoke. Only a pure harmonization of forms is left, a dust swirling in an invisible wind. The path travelled since Vent (Wind) in 1954 is only more noticeable.

Ink comes back towards a space devoid of the dimensions of writing. It reveals another devouring strength that pierced, since the beginning, through Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings, the power of the sign. It is Michaux, once more, attentive to the incessant breathings between Orient and Occident, who had the best perception of this ‘orchard of signs’ growing into Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings. Here the sign is natural, a shooting up of the being that must be tamed, controlled, domesticated the way a garden is nature kept at one’s mercy. An enclosed orchard, enriched, worked in exchange for the promise of a crop.

On the tracks of signs

Beyond the changes in his painting, a deep continuation emerges. Zao Wou-Ki’s painting is inhabited by signs. Little by little he extricates them from their gangue of matter and flesh, he pursues them. In Zao Wou-Ki, it would be vain looking for the cut separating the sign and its meaning. Here signs are traces and impressions, betraying the deep roots of the world. It conveys the teaching of Chinese well-read men of his family, it passes on an understanding of the world, it draws its strength from the source of a mythical tradition. Creation in China is not the Word, but the Sign. They are the traces left by the Creator that are the access roads to the universal.

In Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings, they are always there, lying in wait on the surface. But they had to be gradually liberated. They show through the floral print of the dress, wrapped around the Femme sur un canapé (Woman on a sofa) in 1947. But it is the encounter with Klee’s painting that flares them up. Suddenly, from 1951 onwards, the drawing becomes pictogram. It breaks the chain of representation to turn to the arrangement of the sense. The pictogram is not a natural form worked by fate, nor is it a purely conventional sign endlessly reproducible. It is a unique, tangible sign. A sign that signifies itself. During a few years, colors grow dim, smooth out as if they were becoming backdrops for the shadow theatre of the signs. The crackings of arranged lines call the whole attention on the Great Work, reality transubstantiated into sign. In Golden City in 1952 suddenly appears the convex net of a city brought down to a symbolic weft, hurling towards us, in a reddening halo, the strange circle where parades a procession of schematic figures.

During this period, the whole world undergoes a complete change. Zao Wou-Ki seems to be willing to exhaust all the subjects, to obsessionally struggle with them, every day, to find the right one, to find this access to signs. The universe becomes an inexhaustible forest of signs, resisting the eye. The Forêt verte (Green forest) in 1953 – 1954 keeps the trace of this confrontation of the landscapes, of this dissociation between the limits of the form and the drifting of the color, lunar halo that turns into veils of emerald mists. In the pictogram, the subservience to the world remains immense, he only realizes it gradually.

The assumed rupture of 1954 must be re-interpreted accordingly. Is it really the renouncement of any figuration? In reality, the refusal of representation has already occurred. The artist is only taking the consequences of his choices. He accepts the sense. He accepts the materiality of the sign. Foule noire (Black crowd), this same year, translates this toppling over. The world was sign, as of now the sign will be world. One feels the self-arrangement of ideograms having no conventional significance and yet already familiar. The sign thickens and condenses, it organizes itself. Is not it said that Chinese ideograms have been drawn to the resemblance of constellations? Here is the revolution that took place and that announces Zao Wou-Ki’s great freedom. They spring out of the shadow lurking at the bottom of the canvas, ascending into the upper brightness, still quite heavy with the darkness they emerged from. It is their nature, pure matter that only becomes visible once extracted from the indeterminate, in the light of the spirit.

A deep quest is launched, inseparable from the years of torments and doubts he already went through. It imposes a first return to Orient. Stèle pour un ami (Stela for a friend) in 1956 expresses the remembrance of these funeral votive steles of archaic China that condense the very significance of the sign, recall the absent one, make lifeless matter speak, stone of the stela and relic of the departed one. On the painting, the stone figuration shows two distinct profundities of the sign. On the right, a column of ideograms is erected like the stela itself, whereas from the brown and ochre square with infinite shades, on the left, a cloud of turbulent signs emerges, as if they were drawn towards the depths of an imaginary space. The reminiscence of a Chinese landscape, in its terracing, its fragility and its evanescence.

The painting puts an end to a reflection about the materiality of the sign; it thus opens new paths but above all, it announces the period of signs-worlds that violently burst and devour the space of the painting. Nuage (Cloud), that same year, leaves suspended two red threatening signs, like storm clouds ready to pour. 18.12.59, inverts the relations. An aggregate of dark splashes clings to the painting that seems to be resisting the drowning into the red streams encircling it. The combat is unequal. It is nearly over, unfinished. A stabilization has occurred, with these immense dark arrangements, signs or clouds of signs, that are so characteristic of the painting of the following years. The sign comes into conflict with the surrounding matter. The paintings close around existential stakes. How can sign persist within chaos? How can it endlessly blend into it and re-emerge from it, always just the same as before?

The sign pursues its adventure, from painting to painting. Zao Wou-Ki has found his essential bullfighting, this fight between soul and body that is the union of opposites and the origin of movement. He rescues the sign from dilution, from explosion, from fraying. Little by little, emergency gives precedence to experiences. The sign is fragile, but the verdict of its vanishing seems suspended. And there, new surprises await us. The sign is able to re-create the world of appearances. The passage exists. As if matter were organizing itself, starting from the sense, without any rupture comparable to the one that had to be endured to get free from appearances. In Et la terre était sans forme (And the earth was shapeless) in 1956 – 1957, an aggregate of signs explodes in a barely suggested blaze. It will conquer all the undifferentiated spaces that present themselves on its path. The symmetry is perfect. Like a tree that would grow on both sides of the black horizon, the two sides of a mirror of the world. The re-creation of the world out of signs is possible. Let us also look at 01.05.98, the dark mass has exploded, the world of forms has come out filtering through it. Fragments get organized and suggest a quiet morning, snowy mountains, trees laden with night shadows that still cling to their branches. The glow became dawn. Zao Wou-Ki walked through the night to show the first morning of the world.

Zao Wou-Ki does not tell a story, he designates. He shows. His deep affinity with poets is born there, and it will accompany his whole life. Their dialogue stands at the level of the very being. The first of all these encounters, may be the one that opened the door to all others, was with Henri Michaux. A manly friendship, but also the collision between works that gives birth to Lecture de huit lithographies de Zao Wou-Ki (Reading of eight of Zao Wou-Ki’s lithographs). The poet immerses himself into the images and extracts from them armfuls of flung about words. He understands the artist’s work : ‘Zao Wou-Ki, too , has abandoned the concrete. But his paintings have kept a family likeness with nature.’ A reading, because the dialogue is established from one book to another, not on both sides of the cut between arts, the Image against the Poem. An exchange of signs flows from the painting to the poem and vice versa. He acknowledges Zao Wou-Ki’s painting for what it is, the arrangement of signs towards the bursting of the sense, in other words an essential poem. A wonderful painting appears, an answer of the artist to the poet. La nuit remue (The night moves) in 1956, proposes a painting such as it has never been seen before, a thundering turmoil of blue and red, caught into the conflict between darkness and light.

Zao Wou-Ki acquires a liking for illustration. With him it never is a submission to words, but an illumination, a beam of light that melts into the matter of words. The artist increases his works. He accompanies poems by Michaux, Char, Saint-John-Perse, Rimbaud, Jaccottet or also Ezra Pound. These poems are like the breath that nourishes his creation. In certain cases, it becomes a common work, as equals. This is what happened with Rene Char’s collection of poems entitled: Effilage du Sac de Jute (Fraying of the hessian bag) in 1980, accompanied by long years of dialogue and common work. The Hommage à René Char (Homage to René Char) in 1964 reveals the early days of mutual friendship and admiration. Entangled expanses of lights from where a shadow only just emerges. The sign subsided, lost into the brightness and the stripes of light of a world pulled out of nothingness.

It is an entrance in poetry that will go on with many other encounters. Zao Wou-Ki’s art is woven with friendships and sharings, that accompanied him with advice, that stimulated him in his search. It is André Malraux, for example, who encouraged him to multiply large formats, to lay out on them blazing spurts. He surrounds himself with creators, musicians, like Edgar Varèse and Pierre Boulez, or poets, like Rene Char or Henri Michaux. Remaining true to Chinese tradition, he etches these relations into the very heart of his art, through the practice of Homages, where he expresses his feelings for his close friends and relatives. Personal and harrowing paintings, that very often belong to a bereavement process, like Hommage à Edgar Varèse – 25.10.64 (Homage to Edgar Varèse – 25.10.64). Life and creation remain indissociably linked in the same quest, because he shares with his friends the desire to plough an always deeper furrow, to reach together a superior wisdom. It really is the intimacy of creation that is revealed during these friendly encounters, these hours spent together in the studio.

Zao Wou-Ki’s painting has deep links with magic. He throws his signs on the canvas like so many divinatory sticks; he shows us the crackles on the burning shells of tortoises; his bewitchments, with twists and turns, clasp us in this painting. Henri Michaux was the first one to feel it. ‘Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings – it is a renowned fact – have a virtue: they are beneficial.’ The spells invoked unravel and unveil the world. But they also set it in motion because he has his contacts with the ‘department of thunder’.

Let us look at Nuit – Mi-nuit (Night – Mid-night) in 1955. Darkness and light are there and the fight looks unequal, because the blue stained glow only pierces through a few gaps, vertically cutting the middle of the painting. Everywhere around, darkness. Or nearly everywhere, because reddish signs are the agonizing lights in this heart of the night. The sign resists darkening. It recasts the world. Like two magic paintslides, on both sides, plunging into a red lake at the bottom of the painting. Now it is a matter of showing us magic at work, the dance of the shaman who is transforming around embers to maintain the order of the world.

Because here is what is at stake with all this magic. Is it so certain that the world would keep into itself, if sharp minds did not strive to maintain it there? Zao Wou-Ki does not belong to any school of painting, but to a circle of workers of the spirit who set themselves the incredible task of saving the world every day. When freeing himself from Klee’s language, he nonetheless fulfills their common expectation, as described by the German artist, of ‘an art as phenomenon emitting source, projection of the supradimentional original element, symbol of the Creation. Clairvoyance. Mystery.’

Enthusiasm dwells in Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings. It is a possession, some sort of communication with the world, an extraordinary union between soul and matter. In his paintings, creative strength never parts from life itself. On both sides of the canvas are spun the threads of related experiences. They cross and interpenetrate, without ever blending. The witness is snatched up. He has to conquer his freedom, to fight in an arena of colors, before emerging transformed, like rescued from the waters. The witness, the artist and the painting are caught in a common relationship that becomes the threshold to the collective enchantment of the world. Here we go against Occidental tradition, in which the painting is narration or sacrifice. Here, it is spell, song of the very principle of nature, ‘the aerial and telluric magic spell of Orpheus travelling’, evoked by René Char.

Salutary paintings indeed. Remedies against confusion. We enter into the enclosure that ‘a snow circle keeps in its inexorable locking’, taking it from Henri Michaux, having shed strains and exhilarations, nude and alone. This is Zao Wou-Ki’s terrible strength. He does not come out unscathed either. To paint, he has to cross thresholds; the walls of his Parisian house; this discreet façade that reveals nothing and filters outside rumors, reviving the air, taming time. Inside other spaces link and fit together. The studio is a sensory caisson with restrained lights, a womb where the works patiently await to be given birth. They all keep a trace of it.

How to find the clue of the riddle? The maze of a painting proves to be the mystery of a man. Zao Wou-Ki asserts it. His whole life is contained within his paintings. It tries to confine itself there and nonetheless always spills over. It settles there. It engraves itself in it. It inscribes itself in it. Sign and sense only fully meet in one unique point in the extreme crash of a man’s life. How many pains and doubts to approach the truth in a painting! All these paintings designated to the witness as homages, really more dedications than titles, bear this testimony. He portrays, not a person, nor any ephemeral being, but the relationship he maintains with a being. Relation of admiration for a deceased artist or for someone he never personally met like Matisse. Relation of creative friendship as with Henri Michaux or René Char. Love relationship, as in Hommage à Françoise (Homage to Françoise). Lucky are those who enter into the circle of truth of a painting revealing the being. The Hommage à Jean – 15.04.2006 (Homage to Jean – 15.04.2006) in memory of his deceased friend, Jean Leymarie, marks the fulfilment of a period in Zao Wou-Ki’s work. Color surfaces blend in subtle shades, a deep opaque blue being gradually conquered by a rising swell. A relief. Hardly a few lines. The world comes down to white specks, particles organizing in a deep ocean. Sometimes at the origin of these homages, there is a situation, a common place, a shared and accepted view like a common point of view on the world, even if a fragile one. Zao Wou-Ki’s friendships do not let themselves be disembodied. They blend into the world, they express themselves from day to day, according to feelings and moods. The advice he gave to young Chinese artists when he taught them in Hangzhou, was not a vain word: artists must accept to be cyclo-thymic. The artist absorbs the world in an endless elementary breathing. His painting is the struggle of life against annihilation.

And it is not like fighting an already lost fight. Let us have a look at this wisdom that gradually settles, beyond bereavements and pains; the dark works, where the world seems to be about to drown, recede before the profusion, the brightness of colors. As time goes by, Zao Wou-Ki’s world quietens down. Like a river which flow spreads out and subsides, its swirls concealed into the depth of its waters. ‘Why not paint from the kingdom of the dead that Asia travels like a giant fish the color of black sulphur?’ Harmony is possible. The torn veil of nature seems to re-weave itself to become the very skin of the being.

It is a hand-to-hand fight. The canvas and the artist are made of the same stuff. Animated matter. The experience of the painting drinks life from the very hand that feeds it. And he answers. ‘Little by little I understood that what I was painting looked like what was happening inside me.’ In short, all paintings in Zao Wou-Ki are emotional paintings. The secret is well hidden. Modestly. As a return to essences. And yet, the subject of his painting really is the never ending tempo of passions, the inconsistency of experienced moments, the discontinuity of our perception of time. It is not the original world designed by God, but the eye of man returning towards the origins of the world, heavy with all his remembrances, with all his hopes and all his fears. One cannot love Zao Wou-Ki’s painting without loving mankind. This surprising union is not easy.

Nothing like that here. His painting cannot lie. It re-draws the boundaries of what art represents, a technique without stylistic tricks, an image devoid of illusion. In a sense, he is related to those icon painters, who live in the permanent exchange between their creation and their existence as creatures. They do not paint, they pray the icons. They do not represent, they imagine. But the intercession is more immediate. No need for a religious communion. The eye of man looks into the inner depth of the being, because he is part of it. There is no rupture.

That is probably the mystery of the ‘joy of painting’ that Zao Wou-Ki claims, a way to be a part of the world and to blend into it with all his energy.