Interview with Emmanuel Guigon
by Jordi Mayoral
* 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).
Jordi Mayoral (JM): As curator of the major retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki in 2001 presented in the IVAM of Valencia and in Brussels, as well as a great connoisseur of Miró’s work, did you have in-depth knowledge of the personal relationship between the two artists, who knew each other and gave each other gifts of works of art?
Emmanuel Guigon (EG): I know that they appeared together in group exhibitions. I remember Pierre Schneider chose to visit the Louvre with both artists when compiling his 1967 book Les Dialogues du Louvre.
In 1986, a couple of years after Miró’s death, several artists responded to a call to donate works to the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona as a tribute to the artist. In 1994 —the year after the anthological exhibition at the Fundació Joan Miró organized on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Miró’s birth— Zao Wou-Ki followed the steps of the other artists by donating one of his paintings to its collection.
It is clear that Miró was an example both internationally and in Spain, especially for the El Paso generation. An example for the painting of freedom, of spontaneity, and of moral freedom against the Franco regime.
JM: They also had many friends and dealers in common… such as, for example, Jean Leymarie…
EG: They even had gallerists in common. On the one hand there is the Galerie Pierre, where Miró participated in the golden age of the 1930s and had extraordinary exhibitions during those years. Zao Wou-Ki also exhibited at the Galerie Pierre with his colleagues, his friends from the generation of Informalism, such as Jean-Paul Riopelle, Henri Michaux and many more, but that was in the 1950s. On the other hand in Barcelona, they both exhibited at the Galeria Joan Prats. And Zao Wou-Ki also exhibited at the Galerie Pierre Matisse in New York, where Miró was exhibiting.
Years ago, when preparing the exhibitions of Zao Wou-Ki, I went to work, and also a little on holiday, with Françoise Marquet and Zao Wou-Ki in the studio that he had in Ibiza, a magnificent studio created by Josep Lluís Sert. Sert is the architect of Joan Miró’s studio in Son Abrines and of the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, that is to say that there is a series of connections, a world even.
JM: I think that the fact that they were both in exile or that they emigrated to Paris is something that can also be considered as playing a part in the characteristics of the artists.
EG: They participated in exhibitions of the École de Paris together. It should be mentioned that there were many immigrants, they were not the only ones, in both the first School of Paris and in the second School of Paris, during the 1930s and those from the postwar period.
In their case, although they are not from the same generation, they both shared a fascination for spontaneity, poetry, etc. It is obvious that Joan Miró has Catalan roots; Miró’s Catalan spirit has a very strong presence (see the books Joan Miró i Catalunya by Joan Perucho and Miró, català universal by Pere Gimferrer). The Asian side and the influence of Chinese culture on his work also have a very strong presence in the work of Zao Wou-Ki. They both invented worlds and this is very important: Claude Roy talked about a country called “Zaowouki” (all together) and I suppose that it is the equivalent of Raymond Queneau who talked about a “Miró Monde”. Each of them had their own world.
JM: Almost a universe, no?
JM: I also wanted to ask you about the importance of light in the two artists’ work.
EG: Light, wind, transcribing what is invisible… There are two fantastic books to read, to understand, to follow their thoughts with phrases which tell us a lot: Ceci est la couleur de mes rêves, which is the interview book that Joan Miró made with Georges Raillard, which is a mythical book, and Autoportrait by Zao Wou-Ki together with his wife Françoise Marquet. I think that these two books have the same status; there are wonderful phrases which tell us a great deal. I am sure that if the two books were compared, a common thinking could be seen.
JM: They both shared a passion, for example, for poets?
EG: Yes, both of them… The first person to know Zao Wou-Ki, the first person who writes about Zao Wou-Ki’s engravings, in 1948 or in 1949 when he has just come from La Hune, the bookshop of the Surrealists and poets: is Henri Michaux. Michaux is one of the most important poets of the 20th-century and is also a painter, a painter who uses ink, who uses paper. He said: “Les toiles de Zao Wou-Ki – cela se sait – ont une vertu : elles sont bénéfiques” (Zao Wou-Ki’s canvases, this is known, have a virtue: they are beneficial). I think that this is a sentence which can also be applied to Joan Miró. This passion is also seen through Miró’s collaborations with his poet friends; there are many books. Zao Wou-Ki also produced a great many books with his artist friends, although they were not the same poets because the two artists were not from the same generation.
Both artists also share that search for légèreté, for “dénuement”, and for transcribing what cannot be transcribed, for what is invisible. Miró, like Zao Wou-Ki, carries out the search for légèreté, for what is never heavy, an exercise in stripping-away which always represents great patience. In the work Mistral, Zao Wou-Ki makes the movements of air visible, their modification of what is invisible: “Monter, se lever vers le ciel, c’est toujours s’alléger, se délivrer de la pesanteur et gag-ner un nouveau statut en gagnant un nouvel espace.” (To rise, to go up towards the sky, is always to become lighter, to lose heaviness and to gain a new status on gaining a new space). This is exactly what Miró does in his “Constellations” from 1940-41. Moreover, Zao Wou-Ki does not trust in certainties and I believe that neither does Miró. Miró, from the brilliant moment when he decides to assassinate painting, is outside certainty… For Zao Wou-Ki at this time technique is not very important.
JM: Emmanuel, are these two artists -who were obviously fundamental in the 20th-century- still relevant today? Do they continue to move new generations of art lovers, historians, critics, gallerists…? Do you think that they are two artists of the future or that they are only the past?
EG: Today they are geniuses! Miró is one of the great classics of 20th-century art. He is untouchable; he was always renewing himself, from his Catalan origins, from the period with Fauvist France, from the year 1925 when he painted Ceci est la couleur de mes rêves. The period of the murder of painting is a time that he shared with a great many artists and which is, as Aragon said: “la peinture au défi” (the challenge of painting). All of Miró’s periods are incredible and he is an artist who had great influence. Miró was a great painter, a great sculptor, a great inventor of objects. Like Picasso, Miró reinvented ceramics. And he also reinvented engraving. He was an artist who, without doing political painting, did a great many things against Franco. We could also talk about the fascination for engraving of both of them, of Miró, and in this case also of Tàpies and of others.
Zao Wou-Ki, who is more or less from the generation of American Abstract Expressionism and who spent a little time in America, is a painter who completely integrates Informalism, abstract painting, the reflection on his time, but with the influence of the East, of his China, and he is one of the few painters who know how to paint on a large scale. Zao Wou-Ki was extremely successful in his time; he had great recognition and he is now a great classic of 20th-century painting and of painting in general.
JM: Both Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki developed small and large-format works. They knew how to resolve both types of work with great quality, didn’t they?
EG: Yes; they are two artists who know how to create huge things and who know how to make miniatures. This is the case with both of them. We associate the revolution of the American painting of postwar Abstract Expressionism very much with large sizes because it began there, and they were both recognized artists in the United States, who displayed in Pierre Matisse and in big galleries. On the other hand, Miró’s “Constellations” from 1940-41 had poetic and political influence, because it is the search for what is absolute, for evasion. Some years later, one of the poetic texts published by Pierre Matisse, in 1959, refers to this issue.
JM: In relation to this idea that you mentioned that Miró was constantly reinventing himself, that he was always trying to return to his new Miró… Did Zao Wou-Ki also have this impetus, this desire to break with himself again and to take steps forward, not to repeat himself?
EG: Yes, completely. He came from the oriental tradition of China and discovered Paul Klee (many artists from his generation were fascinated by the “majísimo clásico” [classical congeniality], as Cirlot said about Paul Klee). Zao Wou-Ki reinvented himself with the death of his second wife, reinvented himself with sizes, with techniques. At the end of his life, he reinvented a certain realism of the landscape and returned to a poetics of the landscape which had been a poetics of his paintings, of his watercolours at the end of the 1940s. It is what Chateaubriand said about Nicolas Poussin and which can be said about all great artists: “l’admirable tremblement du temps” (the admirable tremor of time), the people who at the end of their life reinvent themselves completely. This is also the case of Picasso.
JM: We have considered the watercolour that Zao Wou-Ki gives Joan Miró that we will have in the exhibition as a starting point in this dialogue.
EG: You are holding an exhibition devoted to Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki which is evident starting from the watercolour that you mention and from there you analyze the dialogue that it is necessary to make. This dialogue is not at all formalist because a Miró is not like a Wou-Ki and a Wou-Ki is not like a Miró. They use a completely different language, despite the fact that they may have techniques in common, have common fascinations for wind, for paper, for stains, for ink dreams, for large sizes, for the atmosphere… There are undoubtedly many things in common. The dialogue does not synthesize; it comes within the fascinations that they could have.
I also wanted to add that there is something else that they had in common, beyond the personality, but which also has an influence; it is chivalry, generosity and kindness. They were artists who always listened to the others and who were generous with the younger generations. This is something psychological but I am certain that it influenced the painting.
JM: Linked to the gift that Zao Wou-Ki offered to Joan Miró with the dedication “le plus jeune parmi nous tous” which forms part of this exhibition, I would like to know how you interpret this phrase, what your opinion is.
EG: In my opinion it refers to the infancy of art. “Le plus jeune parmi nous tous” refers to the fact that Joan Miró seeks the infancy of art; but it is not the art of children. Miró, who is not a theorist, says: “la peinture est en décadence depuis l’âge des cavernes” (painting has been in decadence since the cave men). So, with “Le plus jeune parmi nous tous”, I understand that Zao Wou-Ki says that it is he who is closest to infancy, to the origin of art.
JM: Finally, to mention the importance of the studio…
EG: Yes, undoubtedly. They also have the studio in common. It is wonderful to see photos of the studio because it is the place of the search, of intro-spection, of the dream.
JM: Emmanuel, it has been a pleasure to listen to you and to share these reflections with you. Thank you very much!