To obtain exceptional results in printmaking, the artist must possess a good hand and particular sensitivity to the medium. Among contemporaries with an international reputation, Zao Wou-Ki has had an extraordinary career. He is one of the few artists that has interlaced the great Chinese tradition with the occidental one. Both concepts are present in his artworks and are profoundly assimilated with one another.
Zao Wou-Ki arrived in Paris on April 1st 1948. During the beginning of 1949, before having resumed oil paintings, he went to the Desjobert work shop in order to learn and produce graphic works. From that moments, through his printed work, his entire story will crystallize. He notes:
“The idea of throwing color on a large white porous stone, like on China paper, pleased me… As with Indian ink, using a lot of water, which is not at all to be recommended. Edmond Desjobert, a remarkably skillful lithographer, criticized me for it and told me the outcome would be poor, because one could not mix so much water with the lithographic ink. Even so I tried, and while the proofs were being printed he became enthusiastic “.
In other words, he was able to print something quite different from traditional lithography prints. Zao created worlds that often seem to be on the edge of reality, and he was eager to experiment and discover more from the realm of printed works. Zao’s early printed works are often delicate scenes levelled on the surface of the paper. Landscapes resembling lost paradises with images of trees, woods and forest. These landscapes are often populated with symbolic animals such as fish, birds, wolves, cats and deer. In the background, terraced hills and mountains brings depth into his prints while reminding us of the etymology of the world. Among these naturalistic elements of his early work, he also includes the couple, man and woman, reminiscent of Adam and Eve, being concealed and accepted by Mother Nature. Zao’s early works depicts nothing less than the creation of the world.
In the middle of the 50’s, with a dramatic change in style, Zao transformed his works beyond his usual figurative forms. With the canvas that Zao exhibited at the Salon de Mai in 1954, he did away all figurative references. This can be marked as one of the most important steps that Zao took as an artist. As he departed from the graphical system of his work, which had previously been its most prominent aspect. The sudden disappearance of figures in his canvas suppress all allusions to reality. From this moment all his artworks becomes structured on the basis of colored masses. Until the beginning of 1960s, his constant experimentation with the techniques available to painters was characterized by the use of chiaroscuro in his works, a technique that was specifically western. Simply by playing with color, Zao was able to construct the sensation of depth that was apparent in his early works. Figures are substituted by oracle-bone symbols and by fragments of the ancient Chinese characters. Even without the expressiveness of figuration, Zao was able to go beyond the level of expression that was present in his early works.
At the end of the 50s, Zao moved on from the achievements of his oracle-bone period and, during the 60s, he concentrated on the construction of abstract landscapes. Often created around a specific tonal center, precisely modulated and filled up by firm and strong lines. In these years, highlighted by an absolute quality in each single piece of the many he created during this first mature phase of his career, his control and calibration of colors of his etchings and lithographs reached the highest possible human level.