Zao Wou-Ki

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Zao Wou-Ki
Born1 February 1920
Beijing, China
Died9 April 2013(2013-04-09) (aged 93)
EducationChina Academy of Art (Fang Ganmin, Lin Fengmian)
Known forPainting, drawing
Spouse(s)Xie Jinglan (謝景蘭)
Chan May-Kan
Françoise Marquet
Zao Wou-Ki
Traditional Chinese趙無極
Simplified Chinese赵无极

Zao Wou-Ki (Chinese: 赵无极; pinyin: Zhào Wújí; Wade–Giles: Chao Wu-chi; 1 February 1920 – 9 April 2013[1]) was a Chinese-French painter. He was a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.[2] Zao Wou-Ki graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he studied under Fang Ganmin and Wu Dayu.

Early years[edit]

Zao was born in Beijing with family roots in Dantu, Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province.[3] In his childhood he was brought back to his hometown Dantu where he studied calligraphy and gained acceptance to the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts.[3] From 1935 to 1941, he studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, where he was taught by Lin Fengmian, Fang Ganmin and Wu Dayu. In 1948, he went with his wife Xie Jinglan (謝景蘭), a composer, to Paris to live on the same block in Montparnasse where the classes of Émile Othon Friesz took place. His earliest exhibitions in France were met with praise from Joan Miró and Picasso.

Personal life[edit]

Zao and his wife Lalan (artist) (Xie Jinglan) pursued their own careers, their son having stayed in China with Zao's parents. In the mid-1950s, they were divorced. In 1957, Zao decided to visit the United States where his younger brother Chao Wu-Wai was living in Montclair, New Jersey, close to the art scene of New York City. He wanted to learn more about "pop art". While in the US, he painted seven canvases at his brother's house. There are relatively few items dating from that year (1957). Years later, the largest canvas was given by his brother, Chao Wu-Wai, to the Detroit Institute of Arts.[4]

He left the U.S. after a six-week stay, traveling to Tokyo and then to Hong Kong, where he met his second wife Chan May-Kan (陈美琴, May Zao), a film actress who had two children from her first marriage. Under the influence of Zao, she became a successful sculptor. In 1972, she committed suicide at age 41 due to mental illness.[5] In 1972, he also visited his family in China who he had not seen since 1948.

In 1997, he married his third wife Françoise Marquet, who now serves as president of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation.[6]


Zao's works, influenced by Paul Klee, are orientated to abstraction. He names them with the date in which he finishes them, and in them, masses of colours appear to materialise a creating world, like a Big Bang, where light structures the canvas. He worked formats in triptychs and diptychs. While his work was stylistically similar to the Abstract Expressionists whom he met while travelling in New York, he was influenced by Impressionism. Zao Wou-Ki stated that he had been influenced by the works of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne.[7][8]

His meetings with Henri Michaux pushed him to review his Indian ink techniques, always based in Chinese traditional drawings. Zao was a member of the Académie des beaux-arts, and was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime.

In 1982, he was invited to paint for the Fragrant Hills Hotel in Beijing, designed by I. M. Pei. I. M. Pei had a fellowship to Europe in the early 1950s and he met Wou-Ki at Galerie Claude Bernard, the gallery that represented Wou-Ki.[9] In 1983, he returned to his alma mater, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou to give lectures.

Former French President Jacques Chirac was offered a painting by Zao Wou-Ki by his ministers during their last meeting.

By the end of his life Zao had stopped producing new paintings due to health problems. He died on 9 April 2013 at his home in Switzerland.[10][11]


  • Grand officier de la Légion d'honneur
  • Commandeur de l'ordre national du Mérite
  • Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres



In 2018 the Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris, held an exhibition of around 40 works by Zao.[12]

From September 2023[13] to February 2024, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou held an exhibition of almost 200 works of their alumni and former teacher Zao.[12] It consisted of 129 oil paintings of the artist. A floor was devoted to showcase his entire life from birth in China to life in Paris.[12] The exhibition was part of a larger cultural programme attached to the 2022 Asian Games and China–France Year of Culture and Tourism in 2024. Therefore, the exhibition was sponsored by China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Zhejiang government with support of the French and Swiss embassies in China.[13]

Art auctions[edit]

Between 2009 and 2014, the value of his work tripled, leading to a scarcity of paintings and to prices rising even higher.

  • In 2017 Zao Wou-ki's 29.01.64 (1964) was sold for HK$202.6m (US$26m) at Christie's in Hong Kong, setting a new auction record for the artist and the world record for an oil painting by any Asian artist.[14] The record for the artist was previously held by 29.09.64, another large painting that was sold for HK$153m (US$19.6m) at Christie's Hong Kong in May 2017.
  • In 2018 Juin-Octobre 1985, the largest size that Zao Wou-ki ever worked on, was sold for HK$510m after premium, setting the record for the most valuable painting sold in Hong Kong auctions, as well as the auction record for an oil painting by an Asian artist.[3][15]

In popular culture[edit]

Literary anthropologist Andrew Brandel's book Moving Worlds: Literature, Memory, and Migration in Berlin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2023) uses Zao's 1957 painting Water Music as its cover image. The book cover is designed by Val Cooke.


  1. ^ a b "Le peintre franco-chinois Zao Wou-ki est mort" [The Franco-Chinese painter Zao Wou-ki is dead]. Le (in French). Le Monde. 9 April 2013. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  2. ^ Biographie Zao Wou-ki (1920 - 2013) at Applicat-Prazan - Paris
  3. ^ a b c Holland, Oscar (31 March 2020). "Zao Wou-Ki, the Chinese abstract painter who sells for millions". CNN. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  4. ^ "Untitled, 1957 (oil on canvas) by Zao Wou-Ki". Bridgeman Art Library. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  5. ^ Gu, Mei (26 April 2013). "赵无极的第二任妻子陈美琴". Sina. Retrieved 9 April 2014.
  6. ^ Molcard, Eva Sarah (17 September 2018). "21 Facts About Zao Wou-Ki". Archived from the original on 1 April 2020. Retrieved 19 November 2019.
  7. ^ Leymarie, Jean; Marquet, Françoise (1979). Zao Wou-ki. Rizzoli. p. 309. ISBN 0847801802. OCLC 6220229.
  8. ^ Studio International. 154: 152. 1957. {{cite journal}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ "Li Chung Pei Recounts Friendship Between I.M. Pei and Zao Wou-Ki | Feature Series | THE VALUE | Art News". Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  10. ^ Vitello, Paul (11 April 2013). "Zao Wou-ki, Abstract Painter, Dies at 92". New York Times.
  11. ^ "Franco-Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki dies aged 93: lawyers". France 24. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  12. ^ a b c Lemaître, Frédéric (23 November 2023). "China is rediscovering the painter Zao Wou-ki". Le Monde. Retrieved 7 March 2024.
  13. ^ a b Wu, Huixin (27 September 2023). "Bridging East and West: a retrospective show of Zao Wou-ki at his alma mater". SHINE. Retrieved 7 March 2024.
  14. ^ "Zao Wou-ki 's 29.01.64 Sold for US$26m, New World Auction Record for Oil Painting by Asian Artist | Auctions News | THE VALUE | Art News". Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  15. ^ "Sold for HK$510m, Zao Wou-ki's Largest Work Becomes Most Expensive Oil Painting by Asian Artist | Auctions News | THE VALUE | Art News". Retrieved 15 June 2020.

External links[edit]