Painter Zao Wou-ki's life comes full circle

Dementia means the watercolours seen in a Hong Kong exhibition are likely to be Zao Wou-ki's final works, writes Fionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 2:06pm

He was a privileged child in 1920s China, the son of an indulgent banker and the grandson of a scholar who taught him calligraphy for two hours every day. In 1935, at the age of 15, he was enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. When he was 27 he sailed for France from Hong Kong (then a 10-week voyage - he claimed to be the only passenger who didn't suffer seasickness). He arrived in Paris at 8am on April 1, 1948, and by that afternoon he was at the Louvre. He has lived in Europe ever since.

Zao Wou-ki, one of China's most esteemed living artists, is now 91. Last year, he moved from France to Switzerland, to the shores of Lake Geneva from where he can see Mont Blanc. The mountains and the water, apparently, remind him of the China he knew long ago. He has dementia, however, and his artistic life-work is over.

"He started to feel diminished and, two years ago, it was almost done," says Philippe Koutouzis, director of Feast Projects, which is staging an exhibition of Zao's last watercolours.

Earlier this year, Zao's son by his first marriage, Zao Jialing, went to the French legal system with accusations concerning Zao's third wife, Francoise Marquet, whom his father married in 1977. The issue touched on Zao's mental abilities (a medical report produced in court stated that his "higher functions" had been decreasing over the past six or seven years) and control of his works. Although Zao still owns both his house in Paris and his medieval fortified residence - as befits a descendant of a Song emperor - at Fontainebleau, the court couldn't rule on the mental capacity of a non-resident.

Koutouzis, who met Zao in the 1990s, has little patience with such shenanigans. "In the 17 years I've known Zao Wou-ki, I was at his house often and I've seen the son four times," he states dismissively. "Zao Wou-ki's been to Switzerland for long stays before. It's not like it was a kidnapping. I was with him and his wife this summer, and he recognised me twice in that week, he laughed, he'd put on colour and weight. He's much, much better there."

The 15 watercolours in the show, painted between 2004 and 2009, have been handpicked by Koutouzis from the artist's studio and he is, understandably, a little touchy about any suggestions that some might be substandard. (Asked to describe Marquet - who is reported as saying the Swiss move was for "medical and financial reasons" - he replies, "Passionate. Careful. Tough. We get along because I'm a bit like that.") A mild observation about an unremarkable depiction of flowers in the selection doesn't go down well: "Then you don't know his work - it is his hand. None of these works were done when he had the mental problem. I would never take works that are not fully realised. Yes, probably he was sliding, yes, he was older … But he was completely free, his sense of colour and his sense of space belonged to him."

It's certainly true that even at the height of his powers, Zao was not a man inclined to make an intellectual fetish of his ability. Marquet, who is a curator, has started to compile a catalogue raisonne - a complete listing - of her husband's work.

"Collecting accurate information is very difficult with a husband like Zao Wou-ki, who couldn't have cared less about that," Koutouzis says. "He wasn't documenting his own work."

As it happens, this writer interviewed the elfin Zao in 2003, for a show of earlier watercolours at Alisan Fine Arts, and he hadn't much interest in what was hanging in the gallery: he was either amused ("Too funny!") or baffled ("Too abstract!") by his older offerings. Neither did he want to analyse his technique. The answer, he always said, was in the work itself.

Anyone who looked properly could see how he'd stepped into the realm of the abstract after he'd left China and his first marriage ended, just as anyone could see how a return to Chinese ink (from oils) had soothed him when his second wife, Hong Kong actress Chen Meiqin, killed herself by drug overdose in 1972. Years afterwards, he described the re-embrace of a traditional technique he'd deliberately been avoiding: "As I spread out those stains, life became easier to live and the pleasure of those gestures prevailed on the traces of my memory."

That vignette of the artist at work in conjunction with his mind seems all the more poignant now that their joint venture has ceased. Viewers will have to decide for themselves where his journey took him. Although Koutouzis has entitled his exhibition "Beyond", he believes Zao's final offerings, inspired by nature, have brought him full circle. "I'm not saying that these are the masterworks of his life. But I think they're great paintings. It's a well-rounded oeuvre that's concluded in this way. No, there's no sadness. I feel privileged that I can do this."

Zao Wou-ki - Beyond , Feast Projects Gallery, Unit 307, 3/F Harbour Industrial Centre, Ap Lei Chau. Inquiries: 2553 9522. Until Dec 15