Lot 1020 Chu Teh-Chun 朱德群 | Harmonie hivernale 盛世雪
“I was travelling in Geneva. The Alps were covered with snow and the sky suffused with clouds and mist. Layers of white between the cloud, mist and snow were clearly perceptible and ever changing. At that moment, my heart was completely filled by these images of clouds and mist meandering on the snowy ground, emerging layer after layer. I felt as though my soul was also afloat, as they drifted, at times denser and at times thinner. Imagery from Tang dynasty poetry came to mind. I was compelled to start painting as soon as I came back.”
How an Alpine Train Journey Propelled Chu Teh-Chun to New Heights
Harmonie hivernale: Chu Teh-Chun’s First Museum-Class Snow Scene Triptych
Snow, an enduring visual symbol, is a philosophical subject associated with a wide range of imagery. Since ancient times, many masterpieces have been inspired by snow, and the ode to snow knows no cultural or national boundaries. In literature, the great Song-dynasty poet Su Shi imagined the flying snow in the wind as “jade dust”, whilst the modern American poet Robert Frost wrote: “Shook down on me / The dust of snow”, verses of timeless elegance expressed in language that is authentic and unadorned. Examples in fine art include the Northern Song dynasty renowned literati painting Wintry Grove in Snow. Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s representative work The Hunters in the Snow praised the virtue of truth through a wintry imagery seen through the eyes of a painting master. The poetry and complexity of these works did not come of fleeting moments of epiphany, but was instead achieved through dedicated cultivation over time, when the cycles of the four seasons could be thoroughly appreciated and experienced, bringing the creator’s mind to its absolute peak. Only then could such an expansive vision bring forth enduring masterpieces inspired by the harshest of wintry landscapes. Chu Teh-Chun, who lived in France for three decades, welcomed the pinnacle of his life’s achievements in the snowy domain.
Chu Teh-Chun’s “Snow Scene” series was born in 1985. These paintings showcase the artist’s mastery over the combination of Eastern and Western artistic concepts and techniques, conjuring enthralling images of wintry skies filled with heavy snow, and taking the artist’s golden era to new heights. Chu’s former classmate from their early days, Wu Guanzhong, was particularly moved by this series. In 1997, for a major solo exhibition, Chu Teh-Chun returned to his home country for the first time. Wu had been closely viewing Chu’s paintings in the show, before writing his review: “This is all the sorrow and good fortune accumulated in life, buried deep within the artist’s heart, suddenly breaking free, a display of the tracks and marks of his long artistic journey. White spots are blurred, not quite flowers and not quite mist, sending all matters of the mortal world to a distant domain, a boundless forest, a white and misty woodland of life.” For several decades, the two masters were oceans apart, yet their artistic connection remained strong; it was not just a snowy landscape that Wu felt in Chu’s paintings, but rather a transcendent state of being Chu displayed through dedicating life’s glory to art. Chu Teh-Chun had a gentle temperament. His paintings not only revealed these delicate qualities but also something decisive and expansive. The yin and yang balance appears on full display in his “Snow Scene” series. Harmonie hivernale (Lot 1020) presented by Sotheby’s this season is Chu’s first museum-grade triptych masterpiece depicting a snow scene. In this representative work, the artist’s supreme talent and unrelenting spirit are revealed, demonstrating the extraordinary breadth and depth of the artist’s inspirations from nature. It is truly a milestone masterwork in Chu’s artistic career, which spanned more than six decades.
According to available data, there are only eight groups of large format polyptychs in Chu Teh-Chun’s “Snow Scene” series. Harmonie hivernale is one of the only three triptychs depicting snow scenes, as well as the only triptych depicting a snowscape to appear at auction from a private collector. In the three decades since the 1990s, when auction records for Chu Teh-Chun first became available, only three diptychs depicting snow scenes have appeared at auction. In particular, La forêt blanche II and Vertige Neigeux, sold in 2012 and 2016 respectively, both setting new world records for the artist at the time of the sales. Market performance of Chu Teh-Chun’s polyptychs has been exceptional, a testament to the series’ prowess. As the first triptych in this series to appear in an auction, Harmonie hivernale is set to go down in history as another legend.
Harmonie hivernale was also Chu’s first snowscape masterpiece exhibited in major international museums.In 1986, the same year the work was completed, Harmonie hivernale was sent to Privas in France for the artist’s solo exhibition. It was the first public appearance of a triptych from this series since Chu’s snowscapes first began in 1985. In that sense, one might even consider it as a launching exhibition for the “Snow Scene” series. Both in terms of composition and format, Harmonie hivernale had no rival in its time, hence establishing the series’ status. Unusually, it was photographed when the artist attended the exhibition’s opening. The next time Harmonie hivernale appeared in public was 2009, when the Suzhou Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary. The museum invited Chu Teh-Chun to select three large-format polyptychs to be exhibited, and the present lot was among the three. Chu’s selection suggests the importance the artist placed on this treasured work over the years. Today, Harmonie hivernale shines in the global auction platform, and no doubt all eyes will be on the masterpiece during Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale.
In recent years, Sotheby’s has achieved a string of remarkable auction results for the artist, further strengthening Chu Teh-Chun’s historical position and academic value. In Spring 2018, Rouge lourd et vert leger sold for 61 million HKD, a new artist’s record for his works from the 1950s. In Autumn that year, No. 268 was sold for 75 million HKD, a new artist’s record for his words from the 1960s. Last year marked the centenary of the birth of Chu Teh-Chun, and Sotheby’s presented Les éléments confédérés, the artist’s only pentaptych and an important masterpiece. In that historical moment, the work sold for 114 million HKD, setting a new world record and exceeding the 100 million mark for the first time. Also during 2020, the Chu Teh-Chun Foundation also announced that a major international touring retrospective exhibition would be held in the Autumn of 2021, with the first stop at the National Museum of China in Beijing featuring more than 100 works. It is at this landmark moment that Sotheby’s presents Chu’s triptych masterpiece Harmonie hivernale.
- Northern Song Dynasty 北宋
- Southern Song Dynasty 南宋
- Ming Dynasty 明
Fan Kuan 范寬Snow-Covered Scene and Cold Forest
Xia Gui 夏珪Finding plum blossoms with snow clogs
Wen Zhengming 文徵明Deep Snow in Mountain Passes
Pieter Bruegel the Elder 老彼得・布勒哲爾Hunters in the Snow
J. M. W. Turner 威廉・透納Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,
Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川廣重Evening Snow at Kanabara
Claude Monet 克勞德・莫奈Rue sous le neige, 1875
Wassily Kandinsky 瓦西里・康定斯基Winter Landscape
Zhang Daqian 張大千Manchurian Mountains
Wu Guanzhong 吳冠中Scenery of Northern China
Chu Teh-Chun 朱德群Harmonie hivernale
A Favourite Across Decades: From Landscape Impression to Abstract Snow Scene
The subject of Chu Teh-Chun’s “Snow Scene” series came from the Alps, but inspiration did not come from a fleeting moment of insight, but represents the culmination of decades-long tangible experiences. Chu Teh-Chun grew up in Baituzhen of the Anhui province, and his hometown was surrounded by mountains. Such a natural environment gave the artist an intuitive sense of a mountain’s formations, and throughout his entire artistic career, he had returned again and again to the subject. In the 1930s, when Chu Teh-Chun studied at the National School of Arts in Hangzhou, he frequently travelled together with his classmate Wu Guanzhong to paint the natural landscape. Jiangnan was nature’s very own great hall of inspirations, an artist’s muse from mother nature. With time, the artist became increasingly enlightened by the profound beauty of the natural environment. From 1949 to 1955, Chu Teh-Chun moved to Taiwan to take up a teaching position. During this period, he continued to visit the countryside for inspirations. Indeed it was in Taichung’s scenic Basianshan area where the artist came to understand the unique rhythmic qualities between the tangible and abstract in traditional Chinese ink paintings. These earlier experiences bore great significance for his later works inspired by nature. In France, Chu Teh-Chun further broadened his horizons by visiting various well-known places of natural beauty. In 1965, he was invited to participate in an art festival in Haute-Savoie. During the trip, he climbed the Mont Blanc which left him completely awestruck. From mid-1960s, Chu Teh-Chun started incorporating different shades of white into his compositions, and though he continued the exploration during the 1970s a major breakthrough did not come until 1985, when he travelled to Geneva to take part in the Five Abstract Painters exhibition. On his return, Chu journeyed by train across the Alps during a heavy snowstorm. That sight made a deep impression on the artist, lingering in his mind for two decades. The images, at first in fragments, ultimately came together in stirring creativity to form the foundation of his “Snow Scene” series.
The snowscape paintings from the 1960s and 70s mainly expressed his impression of the scenic beauty of the snowy mountains, and his expressive approach leaned towards the symbolic capturing of form. Through to the 1980s, Chu Teh-Chun incorporated the phenomenon of heavy snow in the wind into his paintings, creating compositions that drew upon the artist’s natural preoccupation and references to the ever-changing forms in nature. They expressed the endless vitality of the natural world whilst reflecting a philosophy of a thriving cosmos, conveying the artist’s profound vision of nature.
“I came to Paris in Spring 1955 to realize my grand ambition. I must understand Western art and practice accordingly, in order to find my own path,”
Tributes to the Landscape: Returning Eastward after a Western Journey
Chu Teh-Chun began studying art at a young age in 1935, travelled to France to follow his dreams in 1955, and commenced his immensely successful “Snow Scene” series in 1985. It has been half a century of reinvention for Chu’s art, as he continued in search of a unique creative approach. Looking back at his stylistic changes since the 1950s, one can trace the various points at which Chu turned towards abstract art, with many ground-breaking achievements that were inspired by generations of forebearers. In 1965, not long after he reached Paris, Chu Teh-Chun visited the retrospective of Russian abstract master Nicolas de Staël. Greatly inspired by Nicolas de Staël’s freely expressive approach, Chu departed from figurative art and began his golden era of Lyrical Abstractionism, with French pioneers such as Georges Mathieu, Hans Hartung, and Zao Wou-Ki among his peers. In 1969, he went to Amsterdam for a Rembrandt retrospective that commemorated the 300th anniversary of the old master’s death, and Chu was deeply moved. The mysterious source of light in the old master’s paintings led the way on Chu’s own journey to create his dramatic mingling of light and shadows, which contributed to his approach post 1970s. There is a saying in Chinese painting tradition that learning from nature ranks above learning from predecessors. Chu’s “Snow Scene” series, born in the 1980s, echoes that sentiment. Through the snowscapes, the artist came to understand the philosophy of nature, and arrived at the third major breakthrough of his artistic career.
Chu Teh-Chun’s art evolved from figurative landscape to abstract nature, and the development was closely connected to his personal experience in the 1980s. In 1982, his first ever solo exhibition at the Musée d'art moderne André Malraux was held, a landmark achievement signaling his position as a major artist in the West and the prestige he enjoyed. In the following year, he was invited by the Chinese University of Hong Kong to serve as an external examiner. Invited by the Beijing Artist’s Association, he returned to visit his home country after a long absence of three decades. During the visit, he was inspired by the majesty of Chinese landscapes, and upon returning to his studio in Paris commenced his work on a 6.5-meter wide pentaptych Les éléments confédérés, a revival of grandeur of the lush, green Tang dynasty landscape paintings. The work went on to become a pillar of his artistic achievements. Two years later, the artist experienced that journey through a snowstorm in the Alps and created Harmonie hivernale. The painting captured the carefree boldness of Western action painting, thus scaling yet another artistic peak.
The sources of inspirations for Les éléments confédérés and Harmonie hivernale were not quite the same, and the differences can perhaps be seen as the duality between East and West. In terms of opportunities for Chu Teh-Chun, both masterpieces carry profound symbolic significance: the subject of Les éléments confédérés comes from the Chinese panoramas. Painted at a time when the artist returned to China after travelling overseas for many years, the painting is a stirring tribute to his motherland, and a reflection that he has never forgotten his very own cultural origin. On the other hand, Harmonie hivernale was inspired by European glaciers, and the work is filled with the artist’s sense of admiration for his second home.It showed his gratitude for having been welcomed by a foreign culture over the years. The two masterpieces were completed in the 1980s, their compositions share the artist’s iconic, expansive horizontal perspective. The two paintings, one relating to his origin and one to his subsequent life journeys, one East and one West, form an intriguing, balanced pair of proud domains. They serve as a metaphor for the artist’s glorious era as he soared between the two worlds, both applauding his artistic achievement with fervour.
Beyond the Form: From Western Classic to Chu-Teh-Chun
As the viewer examines the surging snowstorm in Chu Teh-Chun’s painting, the scene may evoke a sense of the ruthless blizzards depicted by 19th century Romantic master J. M. W. Turner. In particular, Turner’s timeless classic Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps depicts human resilience against unforgiving weather, which may inspire wonder at nature’s formidable power. In contrast with Turner’s evocation of fear and resistance against nature, Chu’s Harmonie hivernale reveals a philosophy that transcends visceral emotions and invites a harmonic integration with nature, arguably a more profound philosophical subject. Another master in depicting snowscapes was Impressionist master Claude Monet. In Monet’s Snow at Argenteuil, the snow scene is one of quiet tranquillity, which attempts to depict objectively the fleeting lights and shadows in nature. Chu’s abstract snow scene on the other hand depicts both the physical and the emotional, in turns uniting the internal and the external, harmonising the objective and the subjective.
Turner, Monet, and Chu’s interpretations of the snow scene all reflect stages of artistic revolutions. Turner’s paintings elevated snow scene paintings from purely figurative to a relatively abstract approach in depicting nature, a ground-breaking move for Western fine art that had been until then mainly focused on realistic depictions. However, Turner’s subjects remained within the narrative principles of Classical art. Monet, on the other hand, broke free from the constraints of academic art to prove that the function of art is not limited to religious, mythical or historical narratives, but can also be an expression of contemporary life. In terms of technique, Monet followed an objective, scientific perspective. Both Romantic or Impressionist art remained within the constraints of time and physics, whilst Chu’s snow scenes completely departed from the imitation of nature. In his paintings, he pursued a timeless philosophical spirituality, transcending what one can see or touch. For Chu Teh-Chun, abstract painting was not merely a process of simplification. It explored and developed layer by layer a method, in technique and in ideas, to transform forms into formless whilst representing forms with the formless. This achieved a subliminal state described in Daoist philosophical concept that “grand phenomena have no form”.
“In the West, such features of the natural world as rivers and oceans have often been treated in painting, but such natural phenomena as snow, rain, and wind were hardly ever used as themes before the modern era as they were in the East. There were many painters of the Song Dynasty who excelled in the depiction of intricate, swirling gusts of wind and subtle effects of light…”
A Western Expression of a Chinese Principle: From Eastern Calligraphy to Abstract Expressionist Art
After World War II, Western artists in their intense disillusionment turned away from the pursuit of beauty. Emerged in Europe was Art Informel, which promoted a philosophy against traditional senses of aesthetics and went on to inspire Abstractionism. In America, Action Painting declared a similar desire in the subversion of forms. In their exploration of abstract art, some Western artists would discover the potential of calligraphy. For instance, Jackson Pollock developed the dripping technique by placing a large canvas on the ground, while Pierre Soulages used black brushstrokes to create unique domains. From the same period, abstract masters such as Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis and Jean-Paul Riopelle active in Europe and America all found inspiration from Eastern calligraphy. Gestural paintings reflect the most contemporary post-war approach. British art historian Herbert Read wrote in A Concise History of Modern Painting that “Abstract Expressionism, the exciting movement in Modern Art, is but an extension and elaboration of Calligraphic Expressionism which has a close relationship with the Oriental art of calligraphy.”
In the 1950s, Chu Teh-Chun arrived in Paris at a time when the wave of Abstractionist art was at its peak. With a profound understanding in Eastern culture, he realized that calligraphy offered an important opportunity for the East and the West to reach an aesthetic common ground befitting modern times. Abstract art values freedom, exceeding boundaries of time, geography and media. The Wild Cursive style in Chinese calligraphy would find its echoes throughout art history. Post-war Abstract paintings in the West sought to break away from an aesthetic philosophy in which realistic depiction was key, whilst Chu’s oil painting reflected the xieyi (freely expressive) calligraphic style, at the same time promoting the liberation of Eastern art from its own traditional constraints to integrate with modern ideas.
Since the 1950s and 60s, artists began to incorporate calligraphy techniques into abstract art. In the compositions of the 1980s “Snow Scene” series, the expressions of lines were not limited to the superficial forms, the clashing lines, full of dramatic tension, in the past gave way to new, fluid rhythms, within which the metaphor was fundamentally different from the anti-art nature of Western abstract paintings. Abstract Expressionist art led by Jackson Pollock valued the unrestrained expression of subjective feelings, as liberal splashes of colours on the canvas broke free from all possibilities to interpret any object or phenomenon, allowing the viewer to focus on the purely personal release of emotions by the artist. In Harmonie hivernale, Chu’s splashes of white pigments were just as carefree and expressive, powerful Running Script calligraphy gave rise to the majestic forms of grand mountains. Although the techniques were similar, the approach was different. Expressed in Chu’s paintings was an organic and unburdened state of being in which the self was forgotten. Eastern painting had always followed an aesthetic philosophy in which the subjective and the objective were integrated, whilst traditional Eastern landscape paintings usually employed a multi-point perspective. In every step and every scene, the external world and one’s own self merged together, reflecting the Daoist idea of mortal and nature becoming one. Chu’s paintings also pursue the harmonic coexistence with nature, and such spirituality was cultivated over decades of reflection, profoundly expressed in Harmonie hivernale.
Colours of the East: From Yin-Yang, the Five Elements to Modern Aesthetic
Modern oil painting offers endless potentials. Chu Teh-Chun ingeniously manipulated the thickness or concentration of the oil pigment to create the five-colour effect in ink and wash paintings, to differentiate mountains that are distant or near. This was also combined with dripping, flowing and splashing techniques to create a scene of flying snow, resulting in a perfect aesthetic embodiment of yin-and-yang symbiosis. Beyond black and white, the artist also mixed in pale colours when creating Harmonie hivernale, referencing the fundamental five elements of the cosmos; white, green, black, red, and yellow correspond to metal, wood, water, fire and earth, each interacting and balancing each other on the canvas. Chu Teh-Chun’s grand vision went beyond natural inspirations – nature was analysed and the natural order was followed. From Eastern cosmic philosophy, a grand vision was distilled. Chu’s vision traces its source to an ancient Chinese philosophical system of yin and yang and the five elements, whilst through the medium of oil painting, the artist discovers a fresh, modern interpretation.
French poet and art critic Jean-Clarence Lambert once commented that Chu was “a painter of fire – of Air and Fire, with, besides, something indefinable to which pertains that particular mystery, that personal magic power qualifying him as an unparalleled figure in a general survey of Ecole de Paris … Chu Teh-Chun’s painting conveys lyrical meditation about the world seen as a living, moving, boundless space, through which each single painting cuts out a full area where man and the element enter into an agreement.” Lambert’s discovery of elements in Chu ‘s works, echoes with the composition of Harmonie hivernale, in which we observe the coexistence of Five Elements. The author used “fire” as a metaphor for the artist’s personality as expressed in his passionate brushstrokes. Even though the current lot depicts a snow scene, viewers can still feel the vigorous vitality of the universe from within.
Chu Teh-Chun attracted the attention from the international art scene with his new Snow Scene series in the 1980s. He successively held solo exhibition at many important museums, and numerous group shows in various locations, all of these paved the way for his election as the first Chinese-French academician of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of France.
- Rouge lourd et vert leger 《紅肥綠瘦》
- Composition 《構圖》
- No. 268, 1967-68 《第268號構圖》
- Les éléments confédérés 《自然頌》
Rouge lourd et vert leger 《紅肥綠瘦》Chu Teh-Chun, Rouge lourd et vert leger, 1959, oil on canvas, 87 x 116 cm, sold for HKD 61,554,500 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale on 31 March 2018, currently the top auction record for the artist’s works from the 1950s. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
朱德群《紅肥綠瘦》油畫畫布，1959年作，87 x 116 cm。2018年3月31日香港蘇富比現代晚間拍賣，成交價61,554,500港幣，現居藝術家五〇年代作品拍賣紀錄首位。
Composition 《構圖》Chu Teh-Chun, Composition, 1961, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, sold for EUR 3,267,300 at Sotheby’s Paris Art Contemporain Evening Sale on 16 December 2020. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
朱德群《構圖》油畫畫布，1961年，130 x 162 cm。2020年12月16日巴黎蘇富比當代藝術晚間拍賣，成交價3,267,300 歐元。
No. 268, 1967-68 《第268號構圖》Chu Teh-Chun, No. 268, 1967-68, oil on canvas, 150.2 x 300.5 cm, sold for HKD 75,706,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale on 30 September 2018, currently the top auction record for the artist’s works from the 1960s. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
朱德群《第268號構圖》油畫畫布，1967至68年作，150.2 x 300.5 cm。2018年9月30日香港蘇富比現代藝術晚間拍賣，成交價75,706,000港幣，現居藝術家六〇年代作品拍賣紀錄首位。
Les éléments confédérés 《自然頌》Chu Teh-Chun, Les éléments confédérés, 1983-84, oil on canvas, 162 x 650 cm, sold for HKD 113,688,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale on 8 July 2020, breaking the artist’s global auction record. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
朱德群《自然頌》油畫畫布，1983至84年作，162 x 650 cm。2020年7月8日香港蘇富比現代藝術晚間拍賣，成交價113,688,000 港幣，刷新藝術家全球拍賣紀錄。
朱德群以畫雪景的妙筆之手闖出名堂，於八〇年代的國際藝壇惹來極大迴響，其先後於多個重量級博物館舉行個展，成功走進各地最高學術殿堂，而多項大小聯展的足跡更是遍佈歐亞，可謂為其於1997年獲選為首位華裔法蘭西院士鋪墊鴻圖。絕頂之上風光無限，藝術家才華橫溢而兼具詩人的瀟灑風雅，此時順遂的人生際遇、與日俱增的知名度，宛如唐代高適所寫一首雪景詩《別董大二首》中盛讚友人文質翩翩時所道：「千里黃雲白日曛，北風吹雁雪紛紛。 莫愁前路無知己，天下誰人不識君。 」而《盛世雪》的萬里雪景，正如反映此詩中讓人陶醉的意境，天降瑞雪為藝術家送行，迎接璀璨的盛世光景，廣受景仰。