In 1948, Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki (1920–2013) moved to Paris. For the following six decades, he developed a unique pictorial language influenced by East and West and has become one of the most well-known émigré artists internationally. From February to June 2017, the Colby College Museum of Art is showing No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, the first retrospective of the artist’s works in the United States. The exhibition is the product of an almost decade-long research project initiated by Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art Ankeney Weitz and research fellow Melissa Waltz with important contributions from many students. Professor Weitz’s article Finding Zao Wou-Ki shed some light on the process of organizing the exhibition. Curious about what parts students had played in the project, curatorial intern Yichen Lu ’17 sought out four extraordinary Colby alumni who had worked on the project—Fiona Braslau ’10 in Paris, Anne-Marie Burke ’13 in Shanghai, Jinghui Yu ’15 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Jacob Zhicheng Zhang ’16 in Washington, D.C.—who were deeply involved in the research and preparation of No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki. What she found through her conversations was both fascinating and inspiring.
Born and raised in Paris, Fiona Braslau ’10 served as a summer research assistant for Professor Weitz after her graduation from Colby. The two traveled to Paris, where they visited the Centre Pompidou, researched in Parisian libraries, and even met Zao in his studio. Fiona remembered the afternoon at Zao’s house when she spoke with the artist, his wife, and his assistant, and toured Zao’s studio and library. “It was such a lovely house with a Chinese garden,” she said. After returning to Waterville from the weeklong trip to Paris, Fiona started researching Zao’s work and investigating its relationship with his Chinese heritage. She learned about the elaborate planning necessary for a large-scale exhibition and spent much of her time discussing with Professor Weitz which work would be included.
Having paid countless visits to Parisian museums while she was growing up, Fiona was completely in love with Western art. But her summer researching Zao Wou-Ki was transformative and ultimately informed Fiona’s decision to delve into Chinese art professionally. Fiona went to London to pursue a master’s degree in Chinese art at Christie’s Education, moved to Taiwan to learn Chinese for a year, and then returned to Paris, where everything had begun. “The Zao Wou-Ki project was the last thing I did at Colby,” she said, “but it definitely got me into Asian art and helped me land where I am now.”
In 1985, Zao returned from Paris to visit his alma mater, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he taught a monthlong workshop on oil painting. His lecture notes from the workshop were later compiled and published in Chinese by his students. Anne-Marie Burke ’13, a double major in economics and East Asian studies at Colby, was Professor Weitz’s research assistant for four years; she, together with Jinghui Yu ’15, was challenged with the task of translating over eighty pages of Zao Wou-Ki’s lecture notes into English. “The translation took most of the 2012 academic year,” Anne-Marie recalled. “We spent a lot of time verifying the Chinese names for less well-known European artists by searching and comparing their works,” said Jinghui Yu. “Through the translation of the lecture notes, I actually learned a lot about oil-painting techniques and had a deeper understanding of the artists of the 1980s.” Jinghui was particularly drawn to the Chinese artists attending Zao’s workshop in 1985: “The insightfulness of their questions and comments at that time was incredible, although they did not have many opportunities to be in contact with Western art.” For Anne-Marie, the most memorable part of the translation project was not, she said, “Zao’s mastery of spatial relationships, or explaining the interaction between colors, but rather how he did not emphasize theory and urged his students to find their own individuality.” Burke continued, “To [Zao], it was not about which one of his students had the best technique but rather who could find his or her own unique way of expression.”
Jacob Zhicheng Zhang ’16 took over another crucial project as Professor Weitz’s research assistant from 2013 to 2016. Jacob translated newspaper clippings about Zao before his departure to Paris in 1948 and letters from Zao’s Chinese friends after his settlement in France. In addition to the translations, Jacob created a timeline of Zao’s activities in China with details of his education and teachings, the people he met, and the places he visited. For Jacob, the most interesting part of the research was reading the historical letters and newspapers. “You can learn a lot about the reaction [to] and interpretation of Western art in China then through old newspapers,” he said. It was also through research on Zao that Jacob became interested in artists with an immigrant identity, and his senior capstone project subsequently followed this interest in cultural exchange between the East and the West. To Jacob, Zao is an exemplar of Chinese émigré artists, whose work reflects the interconnection of the East and West. “Especially through the letters you could see how Zao’s thoughts and emotions changed over time,” Zhang recalled.
In these letters and newspapers, Jacob found his passion in art history and conservation, and subsequently became an intern at Colby College Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art. Today he is a conservator in training in Washington, D.C before going to graduate school for Art History in the fall. “The research I did on Zao Wou-Ki was my first step entering the art history field,” he said, “and I’m here now.”
My conversations with Fiona Braslau, Anne-Marie Burke, Jinghui Yu, and Jacob Zhicheng Zhang unveiled the multifaceted charm of the decade-long process of organizing No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki and revealed the consistent collaboration between faculty and students that went into it. I was truly touched and inspired as Anne-Marie summarized her relationship with the Zao project: “Individuality is the most important quality I took away from Zao Wou-Ki and my time at Colby College. Since I graduated almost four years ago, I’ve found the strength to express my individuality and push myself to continue to challenge myself. Not being afraid to show my true colors is what has propelled me so far. Much of my career still lies ahead, but I know it will be a unique one.”
Despite the closing of the exhibition on June 4th, there is still more to do. This summer Professor Weitz and I will embark on a trip to China during which we will interview twenty artists who attended Zao’s monthlong workshop at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou thirty-two years ago. This will be the first attempt, since the publishing of Zao’s lecture notes in Chinese, to investigate the continuing contributions of Zao Wou-Ki to contemporary Chinese painting. Undoubtedly, the study of Zao Wou-Ki has and will continue to thrive through the collaboration of Colby students and faculty—’10, ’13, ’15, ’16, ’17, and perhaps many more.