Modern Art | Asia

Happy Birthday, Chu Teh-Chun: Sotheby’s Presents the Artist’s One and Only Pentaptych to Celebrate Artist’s 2020 Centenary

By Joyce Chan
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of French-Chinese abstract artist Chu Teh-Chun, who was born in 1920 in the province of Jiangsu, China. In 1997, Chu became the first ethnic Chinese member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of France since its establishment in 1816, marking his weighty artistic contributions. His paintings are honoured and collected by museums and private collectors including entrepreneurs and celebrities. Today, the record high for one of the artist’s paintings sold comes in at more than US$ 11 million.

I n this special centenary, we invite you to join us to commemorate and experience Chu Teh-Chun’s journey through his work and masterpieces, all a testament to his ethos, spirit, and legend.

It may be difficult for us to imagine that this artistic giant originally showed promise of becoming a professional basketball player, as Chu also stood at a physically imposing height. It was Chu’s father, a doctor of medicine and a connoisseur of ink painting, who encouraged Chu to study art.

Chu’s artistic journey began in 1935 when he was admitted to the Hangzhou Fine Art School. Although his interest leaned toward ink painting, the school integrated Chinese ink painting and Western oil painting into one programme under the visionary leadership of Lin Fengmian. Thus, Chu mastered both mediums, learning from his teachers Pan Tianshou, Wu Dayu, and Lin Fengmian.

In 1955, fourteen years after graduation, Chu set his heart on moving to Paris and establishing himself as professional artist internationally. His newfound community fostered Chu’s creative energy, and by 1957, he already developed his own abstract style, which was well received within art circles at that time. He befriended art critics Hubert Juin and Pierre Cabanne, as well as sculptor Albert Féraud, and painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Chu became good friends with artist Ladislas Kijno, and together they visited China in 1980. Chu was also close to other Chinese artists in Paris at that time, including Pan Yuliang and Hsiung Ping-ming.

Three years following his extensive tours in China, Chu began to create Les éléments confédérés in 1983, the largest oil painting in private collection and the only pentaptych by the artist. On the centenary year of the artist and paying tribute to his work, Sotheby’s is delighted to present this masterpiece in the upcoming Evening Sale in July.


Les éléments confédérés undoubtedly marks a breakthrough of Chu’s career, while also unveiling the unprecedented Snow Landscape series which began in 1985. It was a decade of boundless creativity for the artist who was at the time in his 60s.

CHU TEH-CHUN, Les éléments confédérés, oil on canvas (pentaptych), 1983-1984, 162 by 650 cm; 63 ¾ by 256 in. Estimate upon Request ( Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale | 8 July 2020 )

According to Madame Chu Ching-Chao, the choice of a pentaptych refers to the Five Elements, essential to the constitution of nature according to the Chinese conception of the Universe. The title of this work was named by the artist himself as a tribute to Beethoven's symphony Nº9.

The feathery brushstrokes in Les éléments confédérés is a unique development for Chu during the 1980’s, which contrasts with the aggressive and solid brushstrokes he favoured two decades earlier. This evolved from an exploration Chinese ink painting and the ways to integrate its essentials into the oil medium, thus creating an entirely new plane of abstract oil painting.

Chu Teh-Chun, No. 268, oil on canvas, 1967-1968, 150 x 300.5 cm. Sold For 75,706,000 HKD in Sotheby's Hong Kong on 30 September, 2018. The 2nd highest auction price of the artist.

“Oil painting is brush by brush; ink painting is not.”
Chu Teh-Chun
Chu Teh-Chun, Rouge lourd et vert leger. oil on canvas. 1959-1968, 87 x 116 cm. Sold For 61,554,500 HKD in Sotheby's Hong Kong on 31 March, 2018. The 4th highest auction price of the artist.

“The uncontainable nature of ink allows surprising ‘uncanny result’ with ‘superlative craftsmanship.’ While practising ink painting, I wondered why don’t I integrate this ‘superlative craftsmanship’ into oil painting? Going through numerous challenges and experiments, I discovered ‘another world lies beyond.’” Chu Teh-Chun said of his art.

Chinese calligraphy and ink painting had been a constant in Chu’s daily practice throughout his career and training. As a student in Hangzhou Fine Art School, Chu seized the early morning hours to work on ink painting before sessions of oil painting training every day. During his early stay in Paris where xuan paper could not be found, Chu temporarily reused the butcher paper obtained to continue his calligraphy practice. Thankfully, Chu later managed to source xuan paper, allowing sufficient material for him to extend his practice ink painting and calligraphy in the long hours of night, following an entire day oil painting in the daytime. In this manner, Chu refined his ink and oil techniques, concurrently and day by day for decades.

Chu Teh-Chun, La Lune, ink on paper, 1998, 40 by 120 cm; 15 ¾ by 47 ¼ in. Estimates: HKD 300,000 - 600,000 ( Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale | 8 July 2020 ) Sold to benefit Han Hong Love Charity Foundation.

Chu’s distinctive gossamer brushstrokes of oil show subtle colour change, colour transparency and illumination like the rendering effect when ink touches paper. The effect is complete when combined with calligraphic colour lines.

“It looks like Western painting from distance, and Chinese painting when looking up-close.”
Wu Guanzhong, prominent modern Chinese artist, COMMENTED THIS UNPRECEDENTED STYLE OF CHU

Throughout six decades, Chu successfully harmonized French lyrical abstract style with a Chinese philosophical approach, evidencing the connection between the most significant cultural and artistic influences in his life. Chu’s rich oeuvre will forever remind us that 24 October of the lunar calendar marks the birth of this legendary figure in modern Chinese art history.

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