Zao Wou-Ki, master of light

Hommage a Varèse, 1964, photo Dennis Bouchard

Hommage à Varèse, 1964, photo Dennis Bouchard

Everytime I go to Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny (Switzerland), I undergo the same choc. The very powerful museum opened by Léonard Gianadda 37 years ago, appears against the mountains in its brutal concrete form. And once inside, I am mesmerized by the art seen from the  balcony, in this huge private exhibition space. This time was no exception. After a five hour train trip from Paris, we arrived and literally dove into the Zao Wou-Ki show, taken around at high speed, by curator Daniel Marchesseau, who not only knew the artist very well, but has also been a faithful curator here, for more than twenty years.

10.09.72 - En Mémoire de May, 1972,Centre Pompidou

10.09.72 – “En Mémoire de May”, 1972, Centre Pompidou

It was all a story of friendship. Painter Sam Szafran (who hates openings), was there to please Léonard Gianadda, the indefatigable foundation’s president, who was also inaugurating the new Sam Szafran Pavilion. It is a very pretty space devoted to the genius artist, who paints mostly stairs and philodendrons.  Zao Wou-Ki’s last public appearance was in March 2013, for Sam’s opening in Martigny. He died three weeks later.

Writer and Nobel Prize winner, Gao Xingjian, a friend of Wou-Ki’s since he emigrated to Paris in 1979,  was attentive to the inks. Many collectors had driven from Geneva in heavy traffic and everyone celebrated.

Pierre Gianadda and Daniel Marchesseau his long time acolyte

Léonard Gianadda and Daniel Marchesseau, his long time acolyte

His widow, modern art curator Françoise Marquet, who lives near Coppet, and created the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation in 2012, was present with its artistic director, Yann Hendgen, co-curator of the exhibition. But she did not speak. Instead, Former French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin spoke about terrorism and International politics, slightly “hors suet” (as we would have been told at school),  instead of telling us about his close friendship with the Chinese artist, who was made a French citizen by André Malraux. These words seemed strange in this quiet little town near Verbier, where no invitation cards were asked and no security officers were to be seen.

Daniel Marchesseau tours the exhibition with Dominique de Villepin

Daniel Marchesseau tours the exhibition with Dominique de Villepin: behind him “Hommage à Henri Matisse”, 1986

I was lucky to sit next to Isabelle du Saillant, a friend and a collector of Wou-Ki (as his close friends like to call him). She was still fascinated by the  impressions his inks made on her, at the first exhibition of his she attended in 1978, at Galerie de France. Everyone mentioned his kindness, another guest told me how keen a golfer he was, all remembered his generosity and sense of friendship.

Born in a very aristocratic family, Zao Wou-Ki was studying art in Paris when the Cultural revolution took place in his homeland. He never saw his father again and did not see his son grow up. He now is highly considered in China of course.

A picture of Zao Wou Ki by Didier Gicquel who was present at the opening

A portrait of Zao Wou-Ki by photographer Didier Gicquel, who was present at the opening

Daniel Marchesseau told us how important the hanging space was in order to exhibit fifty or so triptychs and large paintings by the master. I personally found the lighting exceptional and the dramatic colours riveting. After spending the afternoon quietly looking at the works, I realized how Zao Wou-Ki’s art grows on you and permeates you in a soothing way.


The tiled wall of the Sam Szafran Pavilion, next to the Foundation, matches the autumn leaves in the mountain

After marrying Lan Lan very young in Shanghai, and travelling to Paris in 1948, the artist married a Hong Kong actress, May, and her daughter Sin-May was there. A former model for Givenchy and Cardin, she is great fun and entertained us all through dinner, telling us how hard it was for her to start studying at Ecole Alsacienne at age 10.

Detail of Hommage to José Luis Sert, 1988

Detail of Hommage to José Luis Sert, 1988

Zao Wou-Ki was exhibited at Musée Cernuschi  in the late 40’s by Vadime Elisseeff who acquired one of his paintings very early on. He therefore, always kept a soft spot for this precious museum devoted to Asian Art, to which Françoise Marquet has already given some paintings.

Sam Szafran, the most unpretentious artist I have ever sat next to, was infinitely grateful to Zao Wou-Ki for letting him work in his studio (where he discovered philodendrons) and being such a good friend over the years. His emotion was palpable all evening.
What I remember most from my visit, are the two very large paintings dedicated to his second and third wives.

Nobel Prize winner and friend Dao in front of an ink by Zao Wou Ki

Nobel Prize winner and friend Gao Xingjian in front of an ink by Zao Wou-Ki

The dramatic yellow and brown triptych painted after May’s suicide which, for him, represented salvation through painting (he had stopped painting for a year), and the very bright and happy red one dedicated to Françoise, his French wife of 38 years. Also the amazing “Hommage à José Luis Sert” (the architect he met in Ibiza), a mediterranean blue painting.

"Hommage à Françoise", 2003, is strikingly happy

“Hommage à Françoise”, 2003, is strikingly happy

What I also learned  is that he loved Mozart and sang himself as a tenor.

« Zao Wou-Ki was an ambitious painter, with a chromatic pulsion » says Marchesseau. « I tried to show here how immense his work is. » And he succeeded!

(Fondation Pierre Gianadda is in Martigny, two hours from Geneva by train, until June 12 th 2016)

IN the Szafran Pavilion, a large "Escalier ville", 2015, was given to the Foundation by Daniel Marchesseau

In the Sam Szafran Pavilion, a large “Escalier ville”, 2015, was given to the Foundation by Daniel Marchesseau

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