Is it possible to be bound by two traditions and not just one? Zao Wou-Ki believed so, and it shows in the late French-Chinese abstract painter’s works, over 40 of which feature in STPI’s annual special exhibition. On loan from a private collection, lesser-known pieces in Zao’s oeuvre – prints, ink work and paintings among them – are on show at the gallery, charting the influential artist’s career from the ’50s to the early noughties.
Bold, calligraphic lines that sweep, leap and fall take centre-stage against, at first glance, a series of watercolours. But look closer, because they’re a reflection of Zao’s mastery of printmaking. He incorporates motifs of the French tradition peintre-graveurs ('painter-engraver'), with Chinese calligraphy – a true fusion of East and West. Art appreciators will also spot influences from Picasso, Cézanne and abstract expressionist Paul Klee.
In 1964, the Beijing-born painter received French citizenship, marking the start of what he calls his ‘artistic awakening’. Among the techniques he employed was lithography, in which an image is drawn on stone or metal with a greasy material then rolled with ink onto a blank canvas. His paintings – they hang today on the walls of major art galleries such as the Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern – are a showcase of his control of the calligraphy brush, each stroke channelling the temporal and spatial shifts we experience in our lives.
So it’s rather apt that Zao himself saw his practice evolve over his career. Because in 2010, three years before his passing, he completed his final piece: a watercolour painting.