Artist Zao Wou-ki's works bridged east and west

Tributes paid to Chinese-French abstract painter who has died aged 93

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 9:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Chinese-French abstract painter Zao Wou-ki, who died on Tuesday at his home Switzerland aged 93, has been praised by experts and critics as a significant figure in 20th-century Chinese art who perfectly blended Chinese and Western influences.

Art dealer Daphne King of Alisan Fine Arts, one of the first galleries to exhibit Zao's art works in Hong Kong in 1993, said Zao was among a generation of Chinese artists studying in the West.

On graduating from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1941, the Beijing-born Zao went to live in Paris in 1948.

Art dealer Pascal de Sarthe, who opened his Hong Kong gallery in 2011 with an exhibition of the artist, said Zao was warmly embraced by the French intellectual circle upon his arrival in Paris.

"He was a very intelligent man, passionate about art, and he was full of life," said de Sarthe.

Being exposed to Western art changed Zao's artistic course. In 1951, he discovered Paul Klee's paintings at museums in Bern and Geneva and it this was a big influence on him.

"Zao's early works were more figurative," King said. "Zao was struck by the art works he saw, and his works became more abstract characterised," King said.

Zao continued to explore Western modern art, developing a unique brand of oil paintings, drawing on his Chinese ink-painting roots.

De Sarthe said Zao's most significant career break came in 1950 when he was discovered by influential dealer Pierre Lobe, who later introduced him to Galerie de France, the largest gallery in Paris at the time.

An exhibition at the gallery in 1957 was the catalyst for Zao's ensuing success, with his works exhibited in world-class museums including London's the Tate Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum as well as New York's Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Zao sealed his master status in 1981 with a solo exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. The following year, he took exhibitions of his works to Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

But it wasn't until 1983 that Zao began to earn a solid following in Asia with an exhibition of his works at the National Museum of History in Taipei that captured created a passion among Taiwanese collectors. "Taiwan was a catalyst for Zao's Asian market," de Sarthe said.

Only last week, Zao's 10.03.83, a rare diptych, fetched HK$37 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong spring auction.

King remembered Zao, who met his second wife May on a six-month visit to Hong Kong in 1958, as a soft-spoken and humble man despite his fame.

Zao's works were not just about the prices, said King. "Westerners thought he was Chinese, but Chinese thought he was very westernised. His works bridge the east and west," she said.