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Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró: Aesthetic Affinities

Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró: Aesthetic Affinities

by Salomé Zelic

* Text written for the catalogue of the exhibition “The Youngest Among Us All: Zao Wou-Ki on Joan Miró” (20 May -23 July 2021, Mayoral, Paris).
 

It is rare to have an opportunity to pay tribute to the connections existing between two artists which so accurately reflect the spirit and emulation of an era as those shared by Joan Miró (1893-1983) and Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013). To highlight the parallel trajectory of these two artists, born twenty-seven years apart, is to delve into a relationship of mutual admiration and to uncover conversations that take place within their respective oeuvres which testify to a time when Paris was the centre of artistic life. The city represented a refuge for creation, it was an accelerator of aesthetic and social revolution and, above all, a meeting place for artists who had come to deploy their practices.

It was thus in Paris that Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki met in the early 1950s. Born of this encounter was a long friendship founded on deep respect which punctuated their respective lives with mutual friends, travels and shared inspirations. It is from their correspondence that today we can better understand the dynamic at play between these two great figures of modern art. In 1978, Zao Wou-Ki gifted a watercolour to his Catalan elder on the occasion of his 85th birthday which he dedicated: “To Joan Miró, the youngest among us all.”

Zao Wou-Ki’s choice of words is significant and allows us to understand the place that Joan Miró held within his personal pantheon and thus within Parisian artistic circles at the time. It sheds light on Miró’s ongoing relevance for the generation that followed his own, his constant desire for renewal in his practice, his spontaneous juvenile energy and his openness to the creative influences surrounding him, whether they were drawn directly from nature, his travels, or even the rising avant-garde generation. The culmination of this dialogue reaches its apogee in the juxtaposition of two works: Miró’s remarkable Peinture (Projet pour tapisserie) from 1974 which reveals, among other influences, an engagement with the action painting of the New York School, and Zao Wou-Ki’s delicate canvas 17.02.71-12.05.76, which reveals the artist’s particular interest in gesture and light. The latter also highlights another common interest between the two artists as this work was part of the private collection of Jean Leymarie, reputed curator of lyrical abstraction who organized the first large-scale retrospective of Joan Miró’s work in France in 1974, followed by that of Zao Wou-Ki in 1981.

Joan Miró inspired and was inspired without differentiation, which clearly earned him Zao Wou-Ki’s dedication and explains why these two artists from distant horizons shared multiple fields of aesthetic, pictorial and poetic research.
 

Paris: Place of Convergence

 
Veritable cradle of the great avant-garde movements of the 20th-century, Paris was the catalyst for their encounter. In the 1920s, the city became a stronghold for young artists, poets, painters and sculptors who went there to train and blossom. Thus, a generation of French and foreign artists – commonly referred to as the “Ecole de Paris” – sharing a thirst for both intellectual and ideological freedom took shape. For Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki, Paris proved a pivotal rite of passage in their careers. It was there that they made fundamental discoveries and encounters, some of which they shared, such as their relationship with the gallery owner and dealer Pierre Loeb.

Joan Miró left his native Catalonia to travel regularly to Paris from 1921. His unique works were enthusiastically received and, from 1925, he became one of the emblematic artists of the Galerie Pierre where he exhibited almost every year until 1938. When World War II broke out in 1939, Miró fled to Normandy, then Spain, before returning regularly to Paris after 1945. Although he never completely settled in Paris as he was so attached to his Catalonian homeland, he nevertheless became a key figure for the young generation that settled in Paris after the war.

It was in the postwar context that Zao Wou-Ki arrived in Paris from China in 1948 where he had been trained in painting and calligraphy. Eager to discover the avant-garde develop-ments of western art, he visited the Louvre where he notably developed a passion for the work of Francisco de Goya and Rembrandt van Rijn. He set up a studio next to that of Alberto Giacometti and followed courses at the Grande Chaumière. As Françoise Marquet-Zao wrote in Autoportrait, which she co-authored with Zao Wou-Ki, it is fascinating to see that the artists with whom he naturally surrounded himself became “those who would count” such as Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages.[1] The love affair with Paris was immediate: “Never before had I felt such sudden affection for a big city. Your fellow colleagues instantly become your lifelong friends.”[2] From this city which he quickly made his own, he travelled to neighbouring countries and explored the great centres of European art, first and foremost Italy, London and Spain, from which he returned with notebooks filled with sketches of delicate and striking landscapes.

At that time, Joan Miró, like his contemporaries Max Ernst or Hans Arp, was regarded as a pioneer and willingly engaged in discussions with the younger generation. It was as such that he first met Zao Wou-Ki at the Galerie Pierre in 1952. The previous year, Henri Michaux had presented Zao Wou-Ki to Pierre Loeb who went on to propose an exhibition to the gifted young Chinese artist. He quickly received the support of his peers as well as that of important figures of modernity such as Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and, of course, Joan Miró. In the work of Zao Wou-Ki, Joan Miró recognized a resonance with his own pictorial sensibility, one that sought to capture the poetic essence of the realm. And for good reason, a common link that forged their respective aesthetic paths and proved to be a revelation for both artists was the work of Paul Klee.
 

Paul Klee and the Symbol

 
Indeed, the discovery of Paul Klee acted as a spark and a pivotal moment that marked each of their definitive shifts towards abstraction. Miró discovered the Swiss painter’s work whilst wandering in the neighborhood of Rue Blomet where he lived in 1924. Klee’s works persuaded him that “artistic activity (is) an irrevocable synthesis of art and of man” and that the object represented is simply one feature of the global project of creation.[3] Miró set out to achieve form from chaos, following Klee’s decree, “since at the beginning I myself may only be chaos.”[4] It was a step that gave him the confidence to free himself from Cubism and Fauvism; to liberate himself from reality. As seen in Paysage catalan (Le Chasseur) which Margit Rowell describes as a turning point in the work of Miró, the painter began to draw on purely symbolic imaginary ideograms.[5] This will result in a visual repertoire made up of signs that gravitate towards each other in an almost stellar structure. Miró advocated a creative act in which poetic form appears from the void.

A just as important and similar deflagration occurred in 1951 when Zao Wou-Ki travelled to Bern for his exhibition at the Klipstein gallery organized by Nesto Jacometti. He discovered Klee’s work in another gallery in Bern and was immediately fascinated. While the teaching of western art in China had appeared to end more or less with Jacques Louis David (with some incursions into the impressionists or Marc Chagall), the physical and visual encounter with Paul Klee’s works proved to be a moment of enlightenment. The watercolour that he bought on the spot remained in his personal collection for the rest of his life, before becoming part in 2015 of the major donation of Zao Wou-Ki’s personal collection to the Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch in Issoudun, orchestrated by Françoise Marquet-Zao. Representing a graphic play on the letters from the name Emma, the work Alte Inschrift helped Zao Wou-Ki to understand that he could use symbols to detach himself from realistic painting while maintaining a foothold in figuration. The interplay of letters in Paul Klee’s painting echoed Zao Wou-Ki’s training as a calligrapher, inviting him to cross the threshold between East and West in his artistic practice. He stated, “I spent hours looking at these small colourful rectangles punctuated by lines and symbols, astonished by the freedom in line and the soft, musical poetry released from these small paintings which suddenly became immense through the space which they knew how to create. How had I not known of this painter whose knowledge and love of Chinese painting was so obvious? From these small symbols traced on a background made up of multiple spaces, a world arose which dazzled me.”[6]

Just as Joan Miró had done before him, Zao Wou-Ki used Klee’s teachings, his repertoire of signs, to create a purely pictorial expression, free from the limits of the subject. For both had the ambition to find a language that allowed them to transcribe the emotion of music, of the nature that transcended them and, above all, to create a bridge with poetry.
 

Painting = Poetry

 
This liberation of the sign from the signifier allowed for the opening of a portal towards the conquest of what constitutes the great creative force of these two artists: poetry. Drawing from their own repertoire of signs, each used these tools in their own way to achieve their goal.

Joan Miró made use of native Catalan folklore, medieval imagery and Catalonian murals to develop a new pictorial language which he simplified again and again. From 1923 onwards, perspective all but disappeared from his paint-ings to make way for imaginary ideograms that populate his canvases.

As for Zao Wou-Ki, he borrowed symbols from one of the oldest forms of Chinese calligraphy, such as archaic engravings in divinatory bones and on ritual bronzes from the Chang Dynasty, for a series of paintings known as the oracles realized in the early 1950s. Inspired by the formal and plastic quality of these highly spiritual inscriptions, Zao Wou-Ki dissected, reorganized and created a repertoire of unique symbols. He completely abandoned figurative painting. The imagery present in his works freed itself, and his use of colour and light became more fluid and rhythmic.

For Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró, the symbol was a tool used in the quest for harmony and contemplation. Thus, how could one ignore in the delicacy of the Constellations that Miró created between 1940 and 1941, an echo to the “orchard of signs”[7] that Henri Michaux evoked when describing the charac-ters that populated the paintings of Zao Wou-Ki from 1954? These stellar compositions are cosmic presences that opened a portal to the poetic lyricism which was so dear to them.

As Jacques Dupin explained, Miró made no difference between painting and poetry, asserting that “my work is supposed to be a poem put into music by a painter.”[8] The porosity between these two creative fields remained a leitmotif throughout Miró’s career and the artist was often surrounded by his poet friends such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Blaise Cendrars, Paul Éluard, Tristan Tzara, as well as the Catalans J.V. Foix, Salvador Espriu, Joan Brossa and Salvat-Papasseit, who added to his po-etic repertoire already populated by Symbolists like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, whom he admired.

The same was true of Zao Wou-Ki whose first allies in Paris were Henri Michaux and René Char who assured him that his work resonated with the western audience with which he was now confronted. Zao Wou-Ki himself said, “In Chinese painting, painting and poetry are intimately linked to the point that it is not unlikely that a poem will be written in an empty part of a canvas. I have read poetry since I was a child. I learned to read when I learned to write. I feel these two means of expression as being physically of the same nature.”[9]

The poetic sensibility is one of the fundamental themes that connects the work of Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki. When Zao Wou-Ki wrote to Miró in 1982, he encouraged him to discover the work of one of his masters, Chinese painter Xu Wei (1521-1593), a great poet and calligrapher from the Ming dynasty who was a key figure in the history of Eastern art. The poetic preoccupation proved to be multiple in the work of Joan Miró, and allows us to understand part of his contemporaneity. In Peinture (Projet pour une tapisserie) (1973-74) which features a prominent handprint, he appears to have drawn on several symbols: “Hands are perfectly made. The wrinkles of the hand, the lines of the palm are like a strange branch fallen into the earth, they are full of poetry (…) hands are almost like the soul…” he said.[10] If Miró saw a calligram of the soul in this motif, Peinture (Projet pour une tapisserie) similarly provides us with an insight into his inexhaustible creativity which allowed him to absorb and adapt the techniques and lessons from the younger generation and make them his own.
 

Gesture

 
Executed in 1973-74, Peinture (Projet pour une tapisserie) demonstrates the unrelenting creativity of Joan Miró in the years leading up to his final major retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1974. The works executed during these years display an increasingly expressive technique. Miró relished the accidental-ly-derived innovations in the handling of his brushes and paints that resulted from spontaneous improvisation. The work from this period reveals a vehement vitality. A striking example of Miró’s abstraction at its climax, this work combines a radicality of gesture with frenetic splashes and drips of paint, the col-lage of two strands of red wool and the silhouetted imprint of a single black hand. It is, as Jacques Dupin comments, a composi-tion that “unfurls as if the body has taken over the hand’s task of conducting the energy and tools used to describe its traces.”11 [11]

Peinture (Projet pour une tapisserie) also highlights Joan Miró’s trajectory and the influence of his international voyages on the incredible artistic innovation that he demonstrated in his later works. In 1959, he travelled for the second time to the United States to attend the opening of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He reconnected with the young generation of artists that he had met during his first trip in 1947 who were by then experiencing great success. The encounter with these young artists and their thirst for spontaneity had been a crucial awakening in Miró’s career. And while several representatives of the New York School, notably Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, credited Miró as a vital inspiration for their wild paint-splattered canvases, Miró acknowledged the influence they too had had on his work to Margit Rowell:c “It showed me the liberties you can take and how far you can go, beyond the limits. In a sense, it freed me (…) When I saw those paintings, I said to myself … You can do it, go for it; you see that it is allowed!” [12]

Along with many of his European-based contemporaries, including Zao Wou-Ki, Joan Miró found an impulse in the transgressions of the New York School’s action painting that gave new life to his practice. It released a renewed energy, prompted an irruption of forms and spontaneity. If this influence is felt in Miró’s canvases of the 1960s, Zao Wou-Ki also travelled across the Atlantic in search of renewal in 1957. During his stay, he met the dealer Samuel Kootz and became friends with artists such as Franz Kline, Conrad Marca-Relli, Philip Guston, Adolph Gottlieb, Saul Steinberg, James Brooks, and Hans Hofmann. This journey was as crucial to Zao Wou-Ki’s oeuvre as Miró’s was to be in 1959; his pictorial material became more fluid, his gesture freer and his formats more imposing, which offered a new physical dimension to Zao Wou-Ki’s canvases.

Despite belonging to two different generations, Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki followed parallel paths that led them to question their practices based on similar paradigms and find aesthetic solutions that allowed them to absorb and redirect the innova-tions of the latest avant-garde using a repertoire of their own.

Black and the Void

Another journey reinforced the artistic interrogations shared by Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki. In 1966, Joan Miró travelled to Japan for a retrospective of his work in Tokyo and Kyoto. He spoke to Margit Rowell of this trip’s impact on him: “I was fascinated by the work of Japanese calligraphers and it definitely influenced my own working methods. I work more and more in a state of trance, I would say almost always in a trance these days. And I consider my painting more and more gestural.”[13] Japanese calligraphy instilled new concerns in Joan Miró’s work and echoed those that were already present, such as the notion of the void, a corollary of the use of ink, and black: “An empty space, an empty horizon, an empty plain, anything pared down, these things have always fascinated me… in my paintings, what matters is the empty space populated by something tiny: it gives me a sense of vastness.”[14] This tension between emptiness and materiality can be seen as early as 1960 in the painting Femme et oiseaux V/X which hails from a rare series of ten works painted on roughly woven burlap sacks. Miró plays with the texture of the burlap, the materiality of the surface that he incised with signs traced in black against a background of coloured forms suspended in the void which recall the stellar compositions of his earlier work.
The sensual texture which emanates from the interplay of the extreme economy of form and the dynamics of transparency finds an echo in the practice of ink painting and calligraphy which lies at the heart of Eastern art. Yet again, a temporal correlation takes place between the two artists as Zao Wou-Ki made a return to ink in 1970 which he had previously abandoned for oil paint. The body and volume that emerged from these inks would subsequently infuse his paintings whose compositions became more fluid and mineral. Thus, at the centre of 17.02.71-12.05.76, we notice a textured form incised with symbols, almost calligraphic in nature, which illuminates the rest of the canvas. The space that surrounds this telluric centre appears to be void but, upon examination, reveals a particularly worked and sensual texture. As Leymarie notes: “The void plays a prominent role and takes on a new meaning. We know how essential this active notion of the void is for Chinese thought and aesthetics. (…) For Zao Wou-Ki, the void is a plenary surface requiring a more complex and worked material than the other parts, and whose resonance changes pole based on the void found in western painting.”[15]

Artists of light and space, Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki shared a path that allows us to understand the historical issues and artistic forces at play for artists of their time. Defied by common interests, their paths would cross regularly in Paris, but also in Spain and the Balearic Islands where each occupied a home-studio designed by their friend Josep Lluís Sert, the architect who had notably designed the Fondation Maeght. In 1956, Sert built a studio in Palma de Mallorca for Joan Miró – with whom he collaborated on many occasions – according to the dreams and ambitions of his friend. It became a turning point for Miró who had long imagined and wished for such a space: “My dream, once I’m able to settle down somewhere, is to have a very large studio, not so much for reasons of brightness, northern light, and so on, which I don’t care about, but in order to have enough room to hold many canvases, because the more I work the more I want to work.”[16] As for Zao Wou-Ki’s home-studio, built in 1967, it was part of a project conceived for nine villas – including one for Sert himself – on the cape of Punta Martinet in Ibiza. Clinging to the slopes of a hill, each villa subtly reinterprets the vernacular architecture of the island by combining it with the principles of Le Corbusier’s Modulor, in a series which is considered a jewel of Sert’s oeuvre. For each artist, the Catalan architect carved a unique and exceptional setting to house their work, and reflect their rigour and ardour. Later, when Sert came to design the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, Zao Wou-Ki wanted to participate in this ambitious project and donated a masterful canvas, 10.6.62, in memory of his long friendship with Joan Miró which had defied the decades that separated them.

Considered simultaneously an equal, a mentor and an inspiration, “the youngest among us all,” Joan Miró held a unique place in the eyes of Zao Wou-Ki and an entire generation of artists; he in-spired within them a spirit of unrelenting innovation and artistic commitment of extraordinary intensity.

As a final link between Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró, curator and advocate of lyrical abstraction Jean Leymarie described Joan Miró’s vitality in his 1974 retrospective exhibition catalogue as follows:

“Joan Miró, contemporary of the cosmonauts and cavemen, an octogenarian with a child’s eye, whose name means to see and to marvel. No painter in the world today has had more numerous and varied exhibitions, accepted as stimuli for new impulses. (…) The vivid reminder of the past necessarily included in a commemoration of this kind, even inflected in spectacle and celebration, has raised its energy by summoning it to respond to the proven rockets of the retrospective with powerful new bursts, to oppose the accomplished course of half a century, to the consecration of the museums, his most recent audacities and the shock of their surprise on his widest register. Such is the generosity of genius and his heroic approach to break with history and maintain himself in the present. The meaning of the presentation of the works is thus reversed, demonstrating, in his emergence or recurrence, a creation always in action.”[17]

Four years after having penned these words, Jean Leymarie published the first major monography dedicated to the work of Zao Wou-Ki before organizing his first important exhibition in a French museum institution at the Grand Palais in 1981. A poetic synchronicity that defies time and established narratives arises from the confrontation of the works of Zao Wou-Ki and Joan Miró, bringing forth an unprecedented archaeology of modernity whose conversational possibilities seem infinite.

 


[1] ZAO, Wou-Ki and MARQUET, Françoise. Autoportrait. Paris: Fayard, 1988, pp. 75-76.

[2] Quoted in: LEYMARIE, Jean and MARQUET, Françoise (documentation). Zao Wou-Ki. Paris: Édition Hier et Demain, 1978, p. 17.

[3] PRAT, Jean-Louis (Ed.). Joan Miró [exh. cat.]. Martigny: Fondation Pierre Gianadda, 1997, p. 45.

[4] Quoted in: ROWELL, Margit. Joan Miró: Peinture=Poésie. Paris: Editions de la Différence, 1976, p. 45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ZAO, Wou-Ki et MARQUET, Françoise. Autoportrait. Op. cit., p. 103.

[7] MICHAUX, Henri. Quoted in: ZAO, Wou-Ki and MARQUET, Françoise. Autoportrait. Op. cit., p. 103

[8] DUPIN, Jacques. Joan Miró. Paris: Flammarion, 2012, p. 431.

[9] ZAO, Wou-Ki and MARQUET, Françoise. Autoportrait. Op. cit., p. 79.

[10] CELA, Camilo José (dir.). In: Papeles de Son Armadans, year II, vol. VII, no. XXI. Palma de Mallorca: Papeles de Son Armadans, 1957, p. 230.

[11] DUPIN, Jacques. Joan Miró. Op. cit., p. 339.

[12] Interview with Joan Miró by Margit Rowell. Quoted in: PRAT, Jean-Louis (ed.). Joan Miró [exh. cat.]. Op. cit., p. 124.

[13] ROWELL, Margit (ed.). Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1992 (first published: Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986), p. 279.

[14] Joan Miró in 1958. Quoted in: ROWELL, Margit. Joan Miró: Peinture=Poésie. Op. cit.

[15] LEYMARIE, Jean and MARQUET, Françoise (documentation). Zao Wou-Ki. Op. cit., n.p.

[16] MIRÓ, Joan: “Je rêve d’un grand atelier”. Originally published in: XXe Siècle, Year 1, no. 2. Paris: March-June 1938, p. 27. Reproduced in: ROWELL, Margit (ed.). Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews. Op. cit., p. 162.

[17] LEYMARIE, Jean: “Introduction”. Joan Miró [exh. cat.]. Paris: Grand Palais, 1974.
 


 
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 Contem-porary 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.

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