After the endless Covid “Winter of our Confinement”, spring has finally come to Europe. Everywhere, monuments, museums and galleries are reopening, and long-awaited temporary exhibits can finally be enjoyed, such as the brilliant, recently inaugurated exhibit at the Hotel de Caumont Art Center in Aix-en-Provence: Zao Wou-Ki – Night Never Falls.

Who is Zao Wou-Ki?

Hangzhou Landscape (1946). Oil on canvas, 38,2 x 46.3 cm. Private collection,

Sunken city (1955). Oil on canvas, 89 x 146 cm. Private collection.

Wou-Ki means “no limits” in Chinese – a prescient name for an artist who was to become a prominent figure of the mid-twentieth century European Lyrical Abstraction movement for his ability to unite multiple artistic traditions within a single abstract work. Born in Peking  (Beijing) in 1920 and raised in Shanghai where his father was a banker, he began learning calligraphy from his  grandfather at an early age. Then, at fifteen, his precaution talent earned him admission to the prestigious Hangzhou National College of Art (now the China Academy of Art). There, in addition to traditional Chinese drawing, painting and calligraphy, he discovered Western art and oil painting, and developed an enthusiastic interest in Post-Impressionism.

In 1946, the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in China and an early champion of Zao’s work, Vadime Elisseeff, arranged for twenty of Zao’s works to be shown at the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, in a major Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese paintings. He also  encouraged him to relocate in France. Zao subsequently obtained French citizenship in 1964.

A Master of Contrasts

Still Life with Apples (1935-1936). Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm,. Private collection.

The current exhibition at the Caumont Art Center highlights the various stages of his career and life, from his youthful, still figurative works, to the exceptional mastery of colors, dynamic lines and expressive freedom of his later works. Central to his artistic journey is his on-going quest for light, which is not only reflected in the construction of luminous spaces and the use of vibrant colors, but above all in his exploration of contrasts made visible by his study of light.

Night Never Falls – Diptych (2005). Oil on canvas, 195 x 260 cm. Private collection.

The scenography of the entrance to the exhibition is a striking metaphor for Zao’s artistic journey . The very Cézannian “Still Life with Apples” reflects the influence that the Master from Aix had on the fifteen-year-old Chinese painter. Seventy years of painting, relentless work, various influences and experimentation separate this work from the 2005 monumental diptych Il ne fait jamais nuit (Night never falls). Exhibited together, these two works show the evolution of the artist and the development of his work with light.


An Artist’s Journey

Sketchbook sheet painted at Saint-Jeoire-en-Faucigny (July–August 1950). Watercolor on paper, 23.5 x 31.3 cm. Private collection.

A Tribute to Cézanne – 06.11.2005 (2005). Oil on canvas, 162 x 260 cm. Private collection.

The contrasts between day and night are first evoked in his watercolors of the 1950’s. Inspired by the style of Paul Klee (himself influenced by Chinese landscape painting), Zao develops his unique style marked by contrasting colors, that views Chinese art through the lens of Western abstraction. Next come the contrast between empty and full spaces, which begins to gain dominance in this canvases and India ink works of the 1970’s.

Then there here are the contrasts between the happy and the difficult periods of this life, his travels, his experience of exile, romantic relationships, relation with his family, bereavement, all are represented on his canvasses through a complex relationship between light and shadow. Zao Wou Ki’s never-ending exploration of light thus enabled him to produce  throughout his long career remarkably harmonious works that straddled the line between figurative and abstract, and East and West, to bring forth his own complex inner world.

This exhibition, which can be seen until October 10, 2021, is organized in collaboration between the Caumont Center for the Arts and the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation. It regroups almost eighty works by Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), dating from 1935 to 2009, a majority of them on loan from private collections and rarely shown in public. It spectacularly highlights the evolution of the artist’s major creative themes: the invention of new forms of spacial representation through his experimentation with color and the representation of light.

A Tribute to A Tribute to José Luís Sert – 14.07.88 (1988). Oil on canvas, 100 x 300 cm. Private collection.

Good to Know

  • Getting There By train: there are frequent TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours) to Aix-en-Provence. The TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. By plane: MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TGV station.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 1 to October 10 from 10:00 am to 7:30 pm. Contact: e-mail. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Hotel de Caumont Art Center