Water Music

Zao Wou-Ki and Global Music

Artist Zao Wou-Ki  nurtured a lifelong passion for European classical and 20th-century avant-garde music. In celebration of the exhibit, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, the Colby Museum will be hosting a concert on Thursday, April 13th featuring some of Zao’s favorite pieces, including George Frideric Handel’s Water Music. Zao, in fact, completed two paintings of the same name, one of which is currently on view in the exhibition. Ahead of Thursday’s event, take a look at co-curator Melissa Walt’s essay on this painting, reprinted from the exhibition catalogue. We hope you’ll join us!

Fig 1. Zao Wou-Ki, Water Music, 1957. Oil on canvas, 20 x 28 in. (50.8 x 71.1 cm). Chao 2000 Trust.


Zao Wou-ki painted two works entitled Water Music. This one is dated 1957 (Fig. 1); the other is slightly earlier, dated 1956-57 (Fig. 2). The two works differ in size, color and composition, but share in common more than the title. Though Zao was moving increasingly toward abstraction, his imaginary Chinese character-like forms continued to animate his works, as they do in these two canvases.

The Water Music of 1956-57 is a large, vertical composition painted in rich yellow-brown tones. This 1957 work, by contrast, is smaller, horizontally configured, and painted with an intense blue palette that Zao returned to intermittently throughout his life. Here, individual strokes are less legible, and the forms have begun to dissolve into gesture. Rather than deriving from the oracle bone script from which Zao’s “signs” began, these appear spiritually closer to “grass script,” a type of rapidly written cursive script. Compositionally, the work features an element Zao explored in many of his oil paintings: an area of light pigment that glows from the center of the work, in this case white overlaid with reddish-brown glyph-like forms.

Fig 2.Zao Wou-Ki, Water Music, 1956–57. Oil on canvas 63 3/4 x 51 1/8 in. (162 x 130 cm). Private collection

Why Water Music? The painting’s title recalls George Friederich Handel’s 1717 composition of the same name. In fact, music and performing arts were lifelong passions of Zao’s, and in both his personal and professional lives, he surrounded himself with music, performers, and composers. So ardent a music lover was he that one of his first purchases upon arrival in Paris was a radio, for the express purpose of listening to music. Throughout his working life, music soared throughout Zao’s studio. And even in his final years, after he had laid down his brush, music and opera filled his days.

Zao himself was an ardent, if amateur, student of music and singing. His musical tastes were broad, encompassing classical and modern composers, orchestral as well as operatic works. In Paris, he was an early patron of Le Domaine Musical (1954-73), the concert society founded by Pierre Boulez, whose performances featured an eclectic mix of classical, modern, and contemporary works. Zao’s fondness for contemporary music took a personal turn in his friendship with composer Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). Zao and Varèse met in 1954, and in spite of the 40-plus year difference in their ages, the two developed a close attachment. Their shared interests included ancient Chinese music, a subject on which they enjoyed long conversations.

To lovers of Chinese poetry, Water Music evokes a different association – a poem by the Song dynasty poet Su Shi (Su Dongpo, 1037-1101). Prelude to Water Music (水調歌頭) is a traditional Chinese melody for which a number of ci-style (詞) poems were composed. Su Shi’s is the best known of these. The poem’s first lines, “When did the bright moon begin to shine? I raise my cup and ask the blue sky…” are suggested in the blue palette and luminous effects of Zao’s painting.

The double allusion of the painting’s title is typical of Zao Wou-Ki. His paintings, like the artist himself, operated on multiple levels. Zao’s Chinese world bore traces of the elite literati culture of traditional times; his Paris world revolved around Western cultural idioms and modernisms. The breadth of Zao’s interests and talents meant he moved easily among the cultural and literary circles of post-war Paris. The multiple references suggested by Water Music – Chinese and Western, poetry and music, ancient and not – are typical of the myriad levels with which Chinese painters have long inflected their works, and to which Zao gave his own twist in Water Music.