AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Jun

Zao Wou Ki exhibition theme – Abstract Art


Zao Wou Ki (1920-2013) was a Chinese-French painter. After studying at CHina Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, he moved to Paris to pursue his career in arts. He is known for his abstract paintings, although he occasionally drew landscapes and even created some potteries. What really stood out to me about Zao was his “obsession” with abstract art. I have decided to focus on this form of art, because I thought comparing this to socialist realist paintings will really capture the transition from an oppressive period in the art world (in China) to a more free period.


Background information and Significance of Abstract Art

After the end of the Cultural Revolution marked by Mao’s death, artists in China were now able to paint whatever they wanted, instead of being forced to paint socialist realist paintings. Although there were still some restrictions on the type of artwork that could be posted publicly, this transition led to many artists to try different forms of art, some shown in China Avant-Garde Exhibition: No U-Turn In Beijing (1989).

Understanding how art styles have changed during the period of change is important, and to understand the transition in art styles it is important to realize different forms of art that emerged, such as in the “New Literati Movement-文人藝術”. This movement was led by Western-influecenced artists and sought to create a new form of art that reflected their contemporary world (Negotiating histories: Traditions in Modern and Contemporary Asia-Pacific Art, 2013). The exhibition will showcase one particular theme of art – Abstraction with respect to Zao Wou Ki, although other abstract artists during this time will be mentioned.


Types of Art to be included in the Exhibition

The plan is to have 2 abstract paintings from Zao, 2 abstract artworks from other abstract artists (Wu GuanZhong-painting and Li Huasheng-sculpture) during that time, and 1 socialist realist painting. Here are the artworks:


In order:

[Zao Wou Ki – 04.01.82, 1982

 [Zao Wou Ki – 18.03.2008, 2008]

[Wu Guanzhong – Water village (1982)]

[Li Huasheng – 0112 (2001)]

[Pan Jiajun – I am Seagull (1971)]



Kikuchi, Yuko. “Recentering Craft in Postmodern and Postcolonial rewriting of Visual Cultural History.” (2013).


Art inspired by the cultural revolution. Phaidon. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2017/may/16/art-inspired-by-the-cultural-revolution/ accessed May 11, 2023.


Li Huasheng. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/li-huasheng-li-hua-sheng-0112 accessed May 11, 2023.


Oils Paintings Thumbs. Zao Wou Ki Foundation. https://www.zaowouki.org/en/the-artist/works/oils-paintings-thumbs/ accessed May 11, 2023.


Wu Guanzhong – Water Village (1982). The China Online Museum. https://www.comuseum.com/product/wu-guanzhong-water-village-1982/ accessed May 11, 2023. 


“Fondation” Zao Wou Ki

https://www.zaowouki.org/en/ (“Zao Wou-Ki Foundation”) is a website dedicated to the renowned Chinese-French artist Zao Wou Ki (1921 – 2013). The website features a wide range of information about Zao Wou Ki, including but not limited to his works, biography, bibliography, and public collections. Apart from the artist himself, it includes information of the Zao Wou Ki foundation, including its mission, administration, certificate, catalogue raisonné, and counterfeiting and forgery notice. On top of that, it includes information on ongoing and future exhibitions across the world. The chairperson of Zao Wou Ki foundation is Mrs. Françoise Marquet-Zao, 4th and the latest wife of Zao Wou Ki.

I have come across many information that other websites, journals, and scholarly articles captured, and what’s more was that I was able to locate painting easily as they were organized in a collective manner. For example, I had to visit many sources to locate specific paintings of Zao and some of them were hard to find. However, the website contained pretty much every painting that is needed for my research.

Thanks to this website, I learned that Zao Wou Ki not only painted with inks, oil, and water color, but also created prints and ceramics. My previous analysis of the artist’s work had been limited to paintings, but now I am able to analyze prints and ceramics.

[Service Diane 1979 – ceramic collections created by Zao Wou-Ki]

The additional analysis would either strengthen my views on progress of the artist, or create a new sense of direction in which the artist’s style and vies of art has changed. Regardless of which outcome, it would definitely be a valuable resources to my research.



Zao Wou-Ki Foundation. “Zao Wou-Ki Foundation”. Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, accessed May 5, 2023. https://www.zaowouki.org/en/the-foundation/ .

Zao Wou Ki , Juin Octobre, 1985

    Juin Octobre, 1985 was painted by Zou Wou-Ki in 1985, but it is not clear if the artist had started painting this masterpiece in June, and ended in October. The painting itself does not depict a certain object, group of people, or even a landscape like traditional Chinese paintings do. As a matter of fact, it shows nothing but bodies of colors. To be specific, it only shows a blurb of bright yellow in the center, with bluish darkness and some green filling up the edges and the corners – leading to the conclusion that this is an abstract painting. The colors in this painting are not separated by a definitive border, but there is a sense of depth and sophistication, where the yellow part of the painting is hollow. The colors merge together where they connect, as if blue, black, and green drops of paint have been dropped in a body of bright yellow colored water. This single painting on a single canvas followed Zou Wou Ki’s signature style in painting – oil on canvas. 

[Image of Juin Octobre, 1985. Obtained from https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-largest-ever-work-by-zao-wou-ki-leads-sothebys-hong-kong-autumn-sales]

    Expert opinions lead to the conclusion that Zou was greatly affected by the ideology of Zen Buddhism and Daoism (also known as Taoism) (Shnin, Yang 2021, 129). Zen Buddhism emphasizes present-moment awareness and non-conceptual understanding (Suzuki 1991, 34), and Daoism beliefs generally assume nature is what controls things, not people (Kohn 2009, 20). Zao has also lectured his students to “forget the topic and forget about everything in the world (Shnin, Yang 2021, 129)” and emphasized the importance of “nothingness”, which led to an art-work like Juin Octobre, 1985. The painting is quite massive, measuring about 10 meters in length and 2.8m in height, and from my understanding of the beliefs that Zou had in mind when he was painting, I came to the conclusion that this majestic size of the painting probably represented the vastness of “nothingness”. The fact that nothing, except colors, were shown in the painting without any figures or symbols in such a large painting is what made me think this way. The feeling of depth (yellow part) created by Zao also creates a sense of hollowness, which to me allowed me to focus on the presence of me looking at the painting, as if the void was supposed to be filled with my (the viewer) awareness. 



Kohn, Livia. Introducing daoism. JBE Online Books, 2009.

Shin, Ryan, and Xuhao Yang. “Culturally Responsible Approach to Teaching East              Asian Art in the Classroom.” Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education              38, no. 1 (2021).

Sotheby’s. https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-largest-ever-work-by-zao-wou-ki-leads-sothebys-hong-kong-autumn-sales.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. An introduction to zen buddhism. Grove Press, 1991.


Zao Wou-Ki

  Zao Wou-Ki (赵无极), was a Chinese-French painter. He is known for is abstract paintings that combined traditional Chinese calligraphy with  Western modernist techniques. His early works were heavily influenced by Chinese landscape paintings, but later incorporated elements of Western art, such as use of color and abstraction.

He born in Beijing in 1920, but his family moved to Shanghai shortly after. He graduated from Hangzhou School of Fine arts in 1941, which was forced to relocate to Chongqing in 1938 due to the second Sino-Japanese war. In 1948, he ended up in Paris to extend his artistic studies. This period of time is also known as the Chinese civil war period between the nationalists and the communists. He was also present in the May 1968 protests in France, and the Tiananmen square protests, both having great on French and Chinese culture and politics, respectively.

Although not strictly aligned with any artistic movement, he was a member of”Chinese School of Artists”, a group of Chinese artists in Paris between 1950-1960 who were looking for ways to merge traditional Chinese art techniques with Western modernist approaches.

[June-October 1985, one of the most well-known artwork by Zao Wou-ki. Source: https://www.sothebyscn.com.cn/en/articles/zao-wou-ki-by-the-numbers]

Zao was one of the first Chinese artists to achieve global recognition for his art, and his art can be found in numerous museums and collections in more than 20 countries. His cross-cultural and innovative combinations of painting techniques have inspired a lot who came after him.



“Inside the Mind of an Introvert.” YouTube video. Posted by TED-Ed, January 8, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2u3K5xewOM

Pollack, Barbara. Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

Zao Wou-Ki foundation. Biography. Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, n.d. https://www.zaowouki.org/en/the-artist/biography/

About Jun


Hey everyone, my name is Young Jun Chun but I go by Jun. I am from Korea but lived most of my life in Europe. I am a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering. I chose this course because I am interested in Chinese culture overall, and thought learning about art with respect to social situations would be interesting since it’s an area that I am not so familiar with. In my free-time, I love to read or hangout with my friends. I also enjoy horseback riding. Excited to take class with you all!

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