- Paris

Zao Wou-Ki on Joan Miró

Mayoral presents an original dialogue between Joan Miró (1893-1983) and Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), highlighting the parallel trajectory of these two great figures of Modern art. Salomé Zelic, the curator of the exhibition, brings together works that allow a conversation between the two artists to emerge. They shared friendships, common inspirations, a particular sensitivity for the gesture, sign and light, and above all, a profoundly poetic approach to their artistic practices.
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Zao Wou-Ki on Joan Miró

Mayoral presents a unique exhibition bringing together two artists with very different backgrounds who developed numerous connections, starting with their first meeting at Galerie Pierre in 1952. Although they were born twenty-seven years apart, Joan Miró (1893–1983) and Zao Wou-Ki (1920–2013) shared a love of poetry, a strong lyrical sensitivity to gesture, sign and light, and numerous mutual friendships – with the dealers Pierre Loeb and Pierre Matisse, the art historian Jean Leymarie, and the architect Josep Lluís Sert, who designed Joan Miró’s studio in Mallorca and Zao Wou-Ki’s home-studio in Ibiza.

The works brought together by Salomé Zelic, the curator of this show, exemplify the elements and inspirations shared by these two artists. The starting point is a drawing that Zao Wou-Ki sent to his Catalan elder in 1978, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, with the dedication: “To Joan Miró, the youngest among us all.”

Paris, capital of the avant-gardes, became Miró’s adoptive home in 1920. Zao Wou-Ki, too, fell in love with this city where the two men met. After the second world war, Miró, who continued to live in the French capital on a regular basis, became a tutelary figure for the younger generation, at the heart of their fervent exchanges. As for Zao Wou-Ki, he soon gained the support of rising figures such as Sam Francis, Hans Hartung, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, and Pierre Soulages, as well as from icons of modernity such as Picasso, Giacometti, and of course, Miró. This was the heyday of the Second School of Paris.

While Paris brought them together, it was their shared admiration for Paul Klee that consolidated their bond. For both men, Klee’s work – which Miró discovered in 1924 and Zao Wou-Ki in 1951 – was both a revelation and a turning point in their move towards abstraction. Both were inspired by Klee’s games with letters to create a repertoire of personal signs that helped them escape the conventional representation of reality. Where Miró brought into play imaginary ideograms based on medieval imagery and the wall paintings of Catalonia, Zao Wou-Ki drew on ancient inscriptions engraved on oracle bones and the bronzes of the Shang dynasty when creating his new visual language. In Femme et oiseau V/X (Woman and Bird V/X) (1960), the sign is extremely abstract. Miró plays with the roughness of the canvas, using the jute as a colour in its own right as he revisits primitive images.

What united the artists beyond their difference of generation was this visual questioning, this use of the sign as a tool of expression, for its possibilities as a new language.

Another fundamental factor shared by Miró and Zao Wou-Ki in their work is their poetic sensibility. Both were surrounded by poet friends: Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Blaise Cendrars, Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara for Miró; Henri Michaux and René Char for Zao Wou-Ki. They made no distinction between painting and poetry.

“My work is meant to be a poem that has been put to music by a painter”

Joan Miró


“In Chinese painting, painting and poetry are intimately interwoven, to the degree that it is not unusual for a poem to be written in the empty part of the painting […] I feel that these two forms of expression are, physically, of the same nature”

Zao Wou-Ki

The exhibition emphasises Miró’s constant striving for renewal. The high point is a surprising canvas from 1974, Peinture (Projet pour une tapisserie) (Painting [Design for a Tapestry]), which, among other things, demonstrates his familiarity and engagement with the Action Painting of the New York School. This work attests the unfailing creativity shown by Miró in the years leading up to his last great retrospective before his death, held at the Grand Palais in 1974. In it he brings together all his influences, evoked by the drips of black ink, the discrete collage of two pieces of red wool, and a black handprint, like a symbol of the soul.

This canvas dialogues with Zao Wou-Ki’s 17.02.71-12.05.76, a work that was acquired for his personal collection by Jean Leymarie, curator of the 1974 Miró retrospective and of the major Zao Wou-Ki exhibition held in 1981. This work illustrates the artist’s acute sensitivity to gesture and light.

As part of this free gesturality, particularly noteworthy is the use of black ink, which refers to calligraphy, but also the use of signifying emptiness, as in Zao Wou-Ki’s large-format Untitled from 2007. This piece was lent by the Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch in Issoudun, which received a donation from the artist’s personal collection.

Here, for the first time, is an exhibition showing all the things these two artists from very different backgrounds had in common, their shared aesthetic, pictorial and poetic concerns.



Sans Titre
Zao Wou-Ki, Sans titre, 1978
Ink wash and India ink on paper
38,3 x 28,2 cm
Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, Mallorca

Joan Miró, Peinture (Projet pour une tapisserie), 1973-74
House paint, oil and wool on wood
197 x 122 cm

Zao Wou-Ki, 17.02.71-12.05.76, 1971-76
Oil on canvas
73 x 100 cm




Having worked as an independent art critic, Salomé Zelic joined the South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art department at Christie’s in New York as a specialist from 2017 to 2020, and spent three years at Christie’s Paris in the department of Asian 20th-century and Contemporary Art where she worked closely with the foundations and experts of Asian artists who had a connection to Europe, and to Paris in particular. She worked on several projects with the artists Patrick Rimoux, Edgar Sarin, Marie-Luce Nadal and Nikhil Chopra, and on exhibitions including Voir Paris: Une Aventure Chinoise in April 2017 and with the research group La Méditerranée of which she is a member. She has studied non-Western modern art history and markets in South Asia in particular, as well as conducted research on Bombay-based artist Shilpa Gupta.

The Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró playlist

Music was a major source of inspiration for both Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró. We have thus selected a couple of songs that reveal certain connections between the artists and composers. This playlist accompanies the exhibition “The Youngest Among Us All: Zao Wou-Ki on Joan Miró”, on view at the Mayoral gallery until July 23, 2021.

Erik Satie, Yuki Takahashi: Gymnopédies: I. Lent (1988)

Gymnopédies are three piano compositions with which Erik Satie tried to cut himself loose from the conventional 19th-century “salon music”. The piece’s melody uses deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which is to play the piece “painfully” (douloureux). Like Joan Miró, Satie was a revolutionary artist. In 1969, Miró engraved four etchings and aquatints to illustrate Erik Satie: Poems and Songs, a book that Louis Broder wanted to publish but that never saw the light.

Pierre Boulez: Incises (1994)

Incises for solo piano is a piece by Pierre Boulez composed as a test in 1994 for the Umberto Micheli Competition in Milan. In 1998, he created a developed version (for three pianos, three harps, three percussions) called sur Incises. In 1954 Zao-Wou Ki, for whom music was an important influence on his creations, joined the “Domaine musical”, the concerts at the Petit Théâtre Marigny organized by Boulez. The cover for Les Concerts du Domaine musical (Disques VÉGA) in 1960 was based on an original sketch by Zao Wou-Ki.

Edgar Varèse: Poème électronique (1958)

Zao Wou-Ki painted Hommage à Edgar Varèse a year before the composer’s death. It is a key work in his oeuvre, the first in a series of large canvases begun in the 1960s. Like Varèse, Zao Wou-Ki plays with dynamic, rhythmical stresses and shifting masses of colour to create interpenetrating spaces opening onto mystery.

Duke Ellington: Jive Jam, Live at the Côte d’Azur (1966)

In July 1966, Duke Ellington (piano), John Lamb (bass), and Sam Woodyard (drums) paid tribute to Joan Miró in Saint-Paul de Vence at the Fondation Maeght by playing the fantastic piece Blues for Joan Miró. During that summer, Duke Ellington, alongside Ella Fitzgerald, participated in a jazz festival on the French Riviera, between June 26 and July 29, where he played this Jive Jam piece.

Watch on Youtube the interpretation of Blues for Joan Miró by Duke Ellington in 1966.

Claude Debussy, Alain Planès: Suite bergamasque : I, Prélude, Moderato (composed  c. 1890)

This is one of the composer’s most famous works for piano, inspired by his friend Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de Lune”. Debussy played an undeniable part in the rejuvenation of symbolic writing and instrumental music. Pianist Alain Planès, a good friend of Joan Miró, who has described him as the “most musical painter that exists”, interprets Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque.

The Youngest Among Us All