Much has been made, in art and elsewhere, of the “East meets West” cliche. Here in Japan in the latter decades of the 19th century, the Meiji government sent boatloads of painters to Europe to study yoga (Western-style painting). They brought back oils and chiaroscuro, but their work — as with the Japonisme then in vogue with Western artists — was frequently derivative or superficial.
Other Asian cultures, too, have had their influence on the West, and vice versa, in the increasingly interconnected world of modern art. Again, this has yielded mixed results.
One painter who got it right — goes the consensus among critics, curators and collectors — is Zao Wou-Ki.
Some 70 works in oil and ink by the Chinese-French painter are now on display at the Bridgestone Museum of Art in Tokyo. Though they vary in size from quite small to several meters across, all are exceptionally atmospheric and evocative.
The 52-year-old Bridgestone takes its art very seriously, and good lighting and presentation, interesting archive photographs and a thorough catalog (with English translations) complement the museum’s simple but elegant decor — all wood floors, thick carpets, Art Deco leather chairs and benches, plus a cozy reading room — to make this an all-round superior exhibition.
Born to an aristocratic family, Zao was enrolled in the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 13. He studied there for six years and became a lecturer when he was only just out of his teens. Then, in 1948, Zao traveled to Paris — and spent the entirety of his first day in the Louvre. But for a brief stint in New York City, he has lived and worked in France ever since.
Zao is now 82, and was in Tokyo for the opening of the Bridgestone show. In a sitting room at the museum, we were joined by a group that included his wife Francoise, Bridgestone director Hideo Tomiyama, visiting lecturer Daniel Abadie, and a number of friends and associates from France and Japan. We had Japanese biscuits and English tea and chatted in French — Zao, a smile always on his face, laughed frequently as he reflected on his life in art.
“When my father sent me to the academy,” he said, “the professor was a Parisian. So, voila — I was already immersed in a study of Western art!
“When I went to France, right away I met so many important artists — Henri Michaux was my neighbor, and I became good friends with the Canadian abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle [who had arrived in Paris at about the same time]. Also I came to know other painters through my travels in Europe — for example, in 1950 I went to Switzerland and discovered Paul Klee. I would characterize the time as ‘wonderful’ — we were all friendly, there was a camaraderie among us.”
In Paris, Zao’s work evolved from figurative painting, based on Parisian subject matter but with frequent Eastern motifs, to an abstract style in which elements of representation and abstraction coalesce on the same canvas — a la J.M.W. Turner. As Zao’s work moved to abstraction, he abandoned the use of titles, which earlier had referred to subject matter, and began cataloging his paintings only with the date they were made.
The influence of Klee and others can be seen here, but somehow Zao is never imitative. He paints to capture the spirit — a building, for example, inanimate though it is, can seem to breathe from the canvas. Zao’s paintings reflect a place or a thing but they also reflect themselves, that is, their own painterly qualities. Even the large works are more than gestural. They also reward close inspection, revealing how the artist’s hand scratched, smudged and detailed the canvas (many of the pictures here are displayed without glass coverings).
It is hard to imagine Zao communicating in any way other than painting, and at a time like now when an artist’s rap can be as, or more, important than their creations, Zao remains a happy exception — an artist who lets his paintings communicate for themselves.
Zao’s work expresses the freedom he found not only among the bons vivants in the Ecole de Paris, but also in the process of painting itself. It is a way of working that continues to inform what Zao is doing; an affirmation of life that is felt even in the somber or darker paintings.
“I paint always with joy,” he said, “I always thoroughly enjoy myself in the act of painting. I really have no choice, I couldn’t do it any other way!”
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