China Academy of Art
The Way Is Infinite: Centennial Retrospective Exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki
Sep 20, 2023 - Feb 20, 2024
Art Museum of China Academy of Art, Hangzhou
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Zao Wou-Ki was a world-famous Chinese-French painter. Born in Beijing in 1920, Zao was admitted to the Hangzhou National College of Art (now the CAA) in 1935 and worked as an instructor at the school after graduating in 1941. He traveled to France for further studies in 1948 and was invited by the Ministry of Culture to give lectures in his alma mater in 1985. He was elected a lifelong member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 2003, and died in Switzerland in 2013. Zao blended Chinese and Western elements to create a distinctive artistic style. With his artworks included in the collections of more than 150 major museums and art galleries worldwide, such as the Centre Pompidou in France, Tate Modern in the U.K. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the U.S., Zao has made unique contributions to cultural exchanges between the East and the West.

Zao Wou-Ki once said: “I hailed from China so I could go back to China.” Deeply rooted in Chinese culture, he maintained a close connection with his homeland and the people there throughout his life. He dedicated his life to interpreting the Chinese art spirit in modern language, as a fervent champion of creative development of Chinese traditional culture. As an art scene linking tradition and modernity organically, the exhibition embodies a leap from the former to the latter, a practice transformation of Chinese modern cultural forms through the combination of these two elements. With an aim to demonstrate the open-mindedness of Chinese culture in absorbing world civilization, the exhibition fully utilizes valuable cultural resources to strengthen intercultural communications, exchanges and integration, and jointly explore future-oriented innovations in theory and practice.

His artistic journey began in Hangzhou, a place where he his artistic talent was nurtured. On the tenth anniversary of his death, his masterpieces finally returns to Hangzhou. As Asia's largest retrospective exhibition of Zao Wou-ki held in China and the highest standard one featuring Zao Wou-ki's art, the exhibition, with a total exhibit of over 200 paintings and literature works (including 129 of his oil paintings), can be considered a salute to the roots of Chinese civilization by this most globally influential Chinese artist as well as a presentation of the outstanding outcome of China-France exchanges. 

The exhibition, divided into six sections, showcases Zao's oil paintings, watercolors, lithographs, and porcelain paintings, and relevant visuals in the hands of Zao's wife Françoise Marquet, prominent collectors and art institutions across the globe, including the Centre Pompidou, Le Centre national des arts plastiques, the Musée Cernuschi, National Gallery Singapore, Hong Kong Museum of Art, M+ in Hong Kong, China Art Museum, Suzhou Museum, Deji Art Museum,and Art Museum of CAA, presenting Zao's artistic journey of different periods in every possible way. Significant works to be on show include Hangzhou-themed pieces, such as My Home in Hangzhou, and My Father's Garden, as well as his representative works like the triptych Homage to My Friend Henri Michaux, and Homage to François, and the diptych Homage to Cézanne.

*Attached below is a textual introduction of the six sections of the exhibition.

I. Two Traditions

Everybody is bound by one tradition—I, by two. 

 —  Zao Wou-Ki

Zao Wou-Kis art embodies Chinese and Western cultural traditions. He received traditional Chinese education and calligraphy training from childhood. In his early years, he enrolled at the Hangzhou National College of Art, where he embraced the artistic principles of Lin Fengmian  and Wu Dayu, blending Eastern and Western influences. In the meantime, he was deeply influenced by Impressionism and paintings by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.


In 1948, he went to France for further study. When he first arrived in Paris, his paintings were still expressions of memories of life. However, in 1951, while in Switzerland, he saw the original paintings of Paul Klee, leading to an epiphany about the creative potential of traditional Chinese culture. Inspired by oracle bone script and bronze inscriptions, he used imaginary characters to create forms and space in his paintings as compositional elements.

II.  A Synthesis of Chinese and Western Art

I sought to express movement, its slow, haunting motion, or its dazzling flashes. I wanted to make the surface of the canvas vibrate thanks to contrasts or the multiple quivering of a single color.

—  Zao Wou-Ki

In 1957, while traveling in the United States, Zao Wou-Ki became acquainted with abstract artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, which broadened his painting horizons. Starting from 1958, he no longer gave a title to his works, only marking them with their creation date.

In the 1960s, he liberated himself from images and characters, embracing the gestural freedom of Abstract Expressionism, responding to the brushwork and rhythm of cursive calligraphy. He immersed himself in his paintings, turning the act of creation into a physical battle with the canvas. Through spontaneous and expressive brushwork, he gradually cultivated the imagery of abstract landscapes.

III. Stone from Another Mountain

I paint my own life, but I also try to paint an invisible space, a dream space, a place where one always feels harmonious, even in the turbulent form of opposing forces.

—  Zao Wou-Ki

In the early 1970s, when his life was a struggle, Zao Wou-Ki, with the encouragement of his friend Henri Michaux, rediscovered the ink painting,  an art form he had once been wary of and even ignored when arrived in Paris.

In 1972, Zao Wou-Ki returned to his homeland after an absence of 24 years, where the landscapes and scenery of his homeland awakened the spirit of traditional Chinese art deeply rooted in his heart. 

Among the objects arising from the nourishment of ink, and the breathing rhythm of the flowing oil colors, his paintings absorbed an Eastern essence. His paintings increasingly embodied the close fusion of Western and Eastern influences and the interplay between strength and contemplation.

IV. Infinite Vitality

Every morning, when I enter the studio, even if the light is dim and somber,  the unfinished paintings left on the easel or lying on the floor always provide me with the strength to pick up the brushes again. 

If the paint has dried, I can attempt to recreate various illusions and realities, feeling the vitality of the remaining years and expressing the happiness that painting has never abandoned me.

— Zao Wou-Ki

Since 2000, Zao Wou-Ki's paintings have become more closely connected to nature, leading to a revival of artworks with figurative titles. Homage to My Friend Henri Michaux embodies the emergence of radiance and the flourishing of all things. From abstraction to landscapes and back-to-life drawing, in the "happiness of painting," his late-life art exudes richness and boundless vitality.

He remained loyal to painting, and his final oil painting, 18.03.2008, allows us to join him in recalling the "flow of air on the calm surface of West Lake" and experiencing the harmony of life in the presence of the wind.

V. As Poesy as Painting

Watercolor is a wonderful medium. The way colors diffuse in water gives me an incredibly free feeling.

Poetry and painting in nature are interlinked, conveying life.  

—  Zao Wou-Ki

Zao Wou-Ki’s watercolors and oil painting creations mutually validate each other. On April 2007, Zao Wou-Ki returned to paint from life using watercolor pigments. Within the rhymic strokes, mountains, oceans, flowers, and trees transformed into ethereal forms, making watercolors his last happiness of painting.

Since 1949, Zao Wou-Ki continuously experimented with lithography. This section showcases lithographs and books collaboratively crafted by Zao Wou-Ki and esteemed writers like Henri Michaux, René Char, and Claude Roy.  The intertextual relationship between paintings and poems will directly express the painter's poetic heart and present the realization of life.

VI. Becoming Wou-Ki

Indeed, who knows how much time I've spent on Cézanne and Matisse before a return to the paintings of the Tang and Song Dynasties, which, I think, are the most beautiful in Chinese tradition.   

— Zao Wou-Ki

In 1985, Zao Wou-Ki was invited to return to his alma mater to host the "Zao Wou-Ki Painting Workshop," which taught his painting process and insights, uniquely contributing to contemporary Chinese art and art education. 

This section presents the documents, documentary images, and more, giving the credible, beloved, and respected artistic world of Zao Wou-Ki at significant moments and events in his artistic life. 

Spanning two centuries in the river of art, Zao Wou-Ki, with a global perspective, observed two traditions and carved out an infinite path in the world of art.

Exhibition organizational structure


Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People's Republic of China 

China Federation of Literary and Art Circles

The People's Government of Zhejiang Province 

Special Supports:

Embassy of France in China 

Embassy of China in France 

Embassy of China in Switzerland 


Publicity Department of the CPC Zhejiang Provincial Committee 

China Artists Association

Zhejiang Provincial Federation of Literary and Art Circles 

Zhejiang Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism 

Zhejiang Provincial Department of Education

Hangzhou Municipal People's Government 

China Academy of Art

Curatorial Institutions:

Art Museum of China Academy of Art 

Zao Wou-Ki Foundation


Consulate General of France in Shanghai

Institut Français de Chine 


General Advisors:

Xu Jiang

Jin Yibin

Dominique de Villepin

General Planners:

Gao Shiming

Françoise Marquet-Zao


Yu Xuhong

Yann Hendgen

Curatorial Team:

Ma Nan, Lu Jade, Xue Jiayin, 

Arthur de Villepin, Xia Shangzhou, Ludivine Cottier

Lenders to the Exhibition:

Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

Centre national des arts plastiques, Paris, France

Musée Cernuschi, Paris, France

National Gallery Singapore, Singapore

Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, P.R.China

M+, Hong Kong, P.R.China

China Art Museum, Shanghai, P.R.China

Suzhou Museum, Suzhou, P.R.China

Deji Art Museum, Nanjing, P.R.China

Françoise Marquet-Zao and all the private collectors


Reception Office of the CPC Zhejiang Provincial Committee and Provincial People's Government

Zhejiang Provincial Department of Public Security

Department of Foreign Affairs of Zhejiang Provincial People's Government

Hangzhou Customs District P.R.China

Zhejiang Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences          

Zhejiang Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau

Zhejiang Provincial Archives

Zhejiang Media Group

Zhejiang Daily Press Group

Bank of China (Zhejiang Branch)

Publicity Department of Hangzhou Municipal Committee of the CPC

Shangcheng District People's Government, Hangzhou City, P.R.China

State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power Company, Ltd.

Overseas Chinese Holdings Group Ltd


Réunion des musées nationaux - Grand Palais

Institut national de l'audiovisuel

Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Hong Kong P.R.China

Poly Auction Hong Kong

China Guardian Auctions


FAC, Foundation for Art & Cuture

Soka Art Center

Kwai Fung Hin

AXA Group

Helutrans Artmove

Huaxie Int’l Fine Art

YangDa anti-reflective glass

SELF Lightning

Artron Art Group

Exhibition Team:

Collection Management: 

Zhang Suqi, Zhao Yi, Dou Yajie, Gao Yuan, Sha Juan 

Exhibition Execution: 

Cai Kecheng, Wang Jianhong, Liu Genqun, Zhang Yaowei, Jin Xiaoyi,Jiang Liang,  Zhao Yixuan, Zhu Ling, Jin Tian, Feng Yuchun, Li Jiliang ,Yang Qianye, Cheng Zhaohe, Wang Xuhao, Song Zhengyu, Wang Yihang,Zhu Yuting, Chen Haonan, Tao Dean 

Administrative Coordination: 

Ke Jinfeng, Chen Yu, Li Dujin, Chen Rufu, Zheng Henghui,Zheng Siqi, Chen Yanqin, Wang Yufeng, Wei Haiyang, Zhang Weizhen, Ding Jianfeng, Chen Guozhu, Zang Zhicheng, Wang Jianying, Yan Kan, Li Hongyan, Sun Jie, Zhou Shuang,,Zhang Shunren, Liao Yuan, Chen Weiqing, Ni Ling, Ma Ying, Wang Na

Foreign Affairs Liaison: 

Zhou Diliang, Qian Feiying, Xia Qian, Zhuo Min, Hu Haohua, Zhang Lei 

Promotion and Publicity: 

Xu Yuan, Fang Zhou, Liu Yang, Shen Bo, Hu Xinyun, Hu Qingying, Liu Peixu, Fu Jiangjie

Visual Design: 

Yuan Youmin, Chen Zheng, Luan Jiahui, Jiang Hang 

Spatial Design: 

Ren Tian, Xie Tian, Lin Weiyi, Kou Shuguo, Lam Yik Ching Gigi

Copyright© "All works by Zao Wou-Ki: ⓒ Zao Wou-Ki - ProLitteris, Zurich" 

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