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13th Webinar - Painting Borders: the Art of Zhao Wuji

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Report by Selina Martino

For our thirteenth webinar, we had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Antonio Mezcua López, expert in Chinese art and specialized in dynastic Chinese landscape, gardens and painting, to which he dedicated most of his academic research. The webinar was moderated by Ana Sánchez, member of the European Guanxi Webinars Team.

The speaker started off by illustrating the life and works of one of China’s most original and prolific painters, Zhao Wuji (or Zao Wou-ki as he was known in France), active especially during the second half of the 20th century. He was born in 1920, a time when both the world and China itself were in a state of crisis that later became one of the main influences for the artists in that period. Zhao learned the art of calligraphy from a young age, but he began his artistic training in Hangzhou, where he studied oil painting.

Even though he was Chinese, he felt a very strong attraction to European modernist art, particularly the works of Swiss artist Paul Klee and French artist Henri Matisse: this aspect characterized his works from that moment on, which featured elements from both Eastern and Western culture. As a matter of fact, Dr. Mezcua López explained that Zhao moved to Paris by the end of the 1940s, where he met other fellow artists, but he never abandoned his roots, which were predominant in his works and became the source for the evolution of his style, rather than an obstacle. For this reason, Zhao started to incorporate more traits from his Chinese heritage in his paintings, among which calligraphy and landscape art, that as a result produced a fascinating mixture of abstract and figurative art. Towards the last periods of his life, his technique evolved once again, since he moved to the use of lighter colors along with ink painting.

The speaker was able to convey his knowledge and expertise about the topic not only through his words, but especially employing an interactive approach by showing the audience some of Zhao’s most relevant works of art throughout his presentation. This way, one could literally observe the artist’s evolution in time by analyzing his paintings with the help of a skilled academic. Seeing Zhao’s works proved particularly useful when the speaker touched upon other themes that came up during the Q&A section of the webinar. One of them had to do with the artist’s legacy in Europe which, according to Dr. Mezcua López could be traced in the presence of the opposite yet complementary elements from East and West. In particular, the speaker used one specific painting as an example of this: on one hand, it represented the wilderness of the Western world and the concept of sublime in relation to nature; on the other hand, it portrayed the calmness of Chinese culture, heavily influenced by Daoism and its precepts about living in harmony with nature.

A follow-up question was about the current state of art in China, to which the speaker replied with a very complete summary of the major currents and artists that are shaping contemporary Chinese art. From Ai Weiwei, probably the most renowned in Europe, to other interesting artists who don’t enjoy the same reputation in the West but are still worth mentioning: for example, Huang Yongping, Zhang Huan, Xu Bing and Cai Guo-qiang, only to name a few, whose common feature consists in taking elements from Chinese traditional art and using them as tools to create something new and unique and that can resonate with today’s world. Unfortunately, as our speaker informed us, the Chinese government does not provide much funding for the arts, that can survive only thanks to private collectors who keep the sector afloat.

In conclusion, this webinar offered a deep dive into the world of one of China’s most prominent artists who was capable of blending aspects which belonged to seemingly far-away cultures in his works. By taking the best of both worlds, he managed to make remarkable pieces of art that carry two artistic traditions at once, thus connecting them in a way that can be everlasting. If you’re curious about Zhao Wuji and Chinese art, you can watch the webinar on European Guanxi’s YouTube channel.


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