AUCTION UPDATE: Chu Teh-chun's divine masterpiece Genesis sells for HK$9.04 million/US$1.16 million, while Sans Titre sells for HK$87,500/US$11,286.


HONG KONG
- A Hong Kong Television special on Chu Teh-Chun – part of a series on Outstanding Chinese People – aired during prime time on 23 December 2007. It was an event worthy of recording in the annals of modern Chinese art history, for no other Chinese abstract oil painter has received the same treatment. The series put Chu on a pedestal alongside Nobel laureates, scientists, architects, writers, musicians, dancers and global business leaders.

At the time, Chu had not yet developed into a hot name in the auction market. Nonetheless, the director, Chung Ka Wai and his team scoured Brussels, Paris, Marseilles, Taipei and Baitu town in Anhui province, where Chu was born, in order to conduct in-depth interviews with relevant people. They gathered footage in key locations, from Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris to Chu's own bedroom.


Chu Teh-Chun Genesis, 1993, will be offered at Sotheby's Hong Kong in the Modern and Contemporary Asian Art Evening sale on 5 April.

Chu Teh-Chun was born in 1920. A man of imposing stature, he enjoyed playing basketball, but his artistically inclined father, a doctor, forbade him from pursuing a life in sports. In 1935, at the age of 15, he was admitted to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where Lin Fengmian was principal. Zao Wou-ki was admitted the same year.

Chu encountered the diminutive Wu Guanzhong during military training, and the two discovered that they shared an interest in painting. Chu convinced Wu to apply to CAA as well, and the latter ultimately enrolled one year after Chu did. The CAA curriculum was based on that of Paris's École des Beaux-Arts, in which students spent the first two years gaining a strong foundation in sketching. Wu and Chu often sketched together at West Lake, and gradually formed a lifelong bond of friendship.


Chu is immersed with his painting.

Then fate intervened: the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 7 July 1937 set off the protracted war between China and Japan, and the academy closed its doors. Chu travelled to the interior and became a grade-school art teacher; Wu Guanzhong received a government grant to study in Paris in 1947.

In 1951, 31-year-old Chu found himself in Taiwan, where he became the director of the Art Department at National Taiwan Normal University. The university still possesses portraits that Chu painted for political leaders at the time, including Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Before long he had the opportunity to hold his first solo exhibition. Every painting in the show sold, giving Chu the resources to fulfil his dream of relocating to Paris.

Chu left Taipei by ship in 1955. Tung Ching-Chao, a female art student from NTTU, was aboard the same ship, headed to Spain on a scholarship. When the boat stopped in Hong Kong, student and teacher took the opportunity to explore the city together. After disembarking in Marseilles, they travelled to Paris together to visit the city's art museums before taking leave of each other.


Chu The-Chun and his wife Tung Ching-Chao.

At the time, all sorts of luminaries could be found at Académie de la Grande Chaumière, including Picasso, Miró, and many others. Chu, who often went there to paint, was able to stay abreast of the trends in Parisian art. He was seriously affected by a Nicolas de Staël retrospective in 1956. The Russian abstract painter's vigour and freedom struck a chord with Chu, whose work subsequently grew increasingly abstract. The rest is history.

In 1957, Chu's portrait of Tung Ching-Chao, who he eventually married, won the Silver Award at the Paris Salon du Printemps. Forty years later, in 1997, he was elected as a lifelong academician to L'Institute de France – the first Chinese person to receive this honour. Then, in 2006, the European Union awarded him the European Gold Medal of Merit.


Chu Teh-Chun’s Sans Titre, 2000, will be offered at Sotheby's Hong Kong in the 20th Century Chinese Art sale on 6 April.

Chu Teh-Chun was also a skilled ink painter and excellent calligrapher; he deeply understood the essential spirit of art. Having mastered the nuances of brushwork, it was not difficult for him to produce brilliant colour and rich content once he turned to abstract oil painting. His paintings are subtle and penetrating; they possess a poetic eastern charm. In his smooth transition from realism to abstraction, he learned an invaluable lesson, summarized concisely in his immortal words: "The marvellous lies in the inexplicable." His death in Paris on 26 March marked the end of the era of the three great French-Chinese painters (Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-ki, and Chu Teh-Chun).


Chu Teh-Chun’s Flying High, 1992, will be offered at Sotheby's Hong Kong in the 20th Century Chinese Art sale on 6 April.