Modern Art | Asia

Rendezvous: Chinese Artists In Paris

By Melissa Walt

HONG KONG - The story of the School of Paris is largely one of immigrant artists coming to the art world’s capital, bring-ing with them their own strong cultural back-grounds, mixing it up with their French-born peers in the city’s fabled cafés and studios. Think of Picasso, Miró and Dalí arriving from Spain, Brancusi from Romania, Chagall from Russia or Kandinsky from Germany. Over a few short years, these foreign-born masters created revolutionary new directions, and their painting and sculpture would dominate the art world – and the market – through the 20th century.

Although many of the Chinese artists who came into this same milieu were equally accomplished, their contribution is far less known internationally. Yet theirs is an especially fascinating chapter, for the traditions they brought with them were centuries old, and they embodied a culture that was vastly different from that of the Europeans who would prove so influential on their thinking. As Sotheby’s Hong Kong prepares to auction seminal works by Sanyu, Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, Melissa Walt explores the rich mix of Eastern and Western art traditions that came together in pre-war Paris.

Zao Wou-Ki. Photography by Mohror, 1973.

Following World War I, as reform-minded Chinese debated how best to modernise their nation, Europe became an enticing destination for Chinese students – for them, Paris was the artistic and cultural centre of the Western world. Among the first Chinese artists to Europe was Lin Fengmian, who was captivated by the modernist ideas of Modigliani, Matisse and the Fauves. After returning to China, he became the founding director of the Hangzhou Art Academy, whose curriculum reflected its young director’s European experiences.

Lin hired progressive teachers who shared his views and numbering amongst their students were some of the most significant adherents of modern Chinese painting in the 20th century, including Chu Teh-chun and Zao Wou-Ki.

Zao Wou-Ki’s 30.7.64, 1964. Estimate: HK$30,000,000–50,000,000.

Not every Chinese artist who went to Paris returned home. Sanyu (1901-66), like Lin, was among the first wave of Chinese artists to France. Unlike him, however, Sanyu stayed in Paris. Trained in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, he found his spiritual and artistic home in the bohemian lifestyle of Montparnasse and the cafés of Paris. Sanyu’s first community was with other Chinese artists, including Xu Beihong, who would return to his homeland and become a leading art educator and an outspoken opponent of modernism, deriding Cézanne and Matisse for the vulgar trends he felt their works epitomised. Sanyu, on the other hand, embraced them. His early works chronicle the delights of the world in which he found himself, mostly drawings and ink-paintings of women and fellow art students merely living their Parisian lives.

Sanyu, Portrait.

By the late 1920s, Sanyu was firmly entrenched in the centre of the Parisian art world, showing at the 1928 Salon d’Automne (he would become a regular participant in the Salon des Indépendants) and his work was soon collected in depth by the legendary dealer Henri-Pierre Roché. The influential poet, artist and critic Max Jacob said of him, “Sanyu is a formidable force who works with precision and purity. And what intelligence! What technique!”

Sanyu’s Virgin Mary And The Infant Jesus, circa 1930s . Estimate: HK$15,000,000–20,000,000.

In a sign of how Paris transformed him, Sanyu turned to oils, a medium far-removed from his background in ink painting and calligraphy. Even more foreign, though, was the subject matter that comprises much of his work: the nude. His subjects—flowers, horses and animals—had some relation to traditional Chinese painting. Not the nude. Its long history in Western art has no precedent in China. Whether using Western media or Chinese ink, Sanyu found in the female nude the perfect vehicle for his brush. His nudes are, perhaps, most reminiscent of Matisse: simplified forms in a flattened space, whose exaggerated features are loosely and expressively drawn.

Among another wave of Chinese artists to flock to Paris after World War II were Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013) and Chu Teh-Chun (b. 1920). Their lives and works share much in common. Born the same year, they studied with Lin Fengmian at Hangzhou, spent the war years at the relocated Academy in Chongqing, and taught there after graduation. Their paths diverged briefly in the late 1940s: Zao sailed for Paris in early 1948, and Chu moved to Taiwan ten months later.

Chu Teh-Chun, Portrait.

Zao Wou-Ki arrived in Paris in April 1948 for a two-year adventure that lasted more than six decades. It must have seemed inevitable that Zao would go to Paris, driven by his own interests in modernism and the encouragement of his mentor Lin. Zao embraced new media and new forms on his way to becoming a master of Chinese modernist painting. His oeuvre shows him orchestrating line, space and colour, moving easily from Paul Klee to Chinese characters to total abstraction.

Zao’s engagement with European movements and Asian cultural traditions resulted in a body of work that is richly nuanced and technically astonishing. His paintings, even the most gestural, attest to his mastery of medium and technique, as brushwork and palette suggest shifting morphologies of land, water and sky. Zao admitted the important role Paris played in the development of his art, but also acknowledged that he was, ironically, indebted to Paris for his re-engagement with Chinese art. The complexity of his situation was expressed by the artist in 1972: “Everyone is bound by tradition – I, by two.” It took decades for the art market to take notice, but by the time Zao died in April 2013, at age 92, The New York Times reported in his obituary that he was considered the top-selling living Chinese artist. His record, set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2011, was $8.9 million, a triumphant price for an artist who so adroitly straddled two worlds.

Chu Teh-Chun's Vue en songes, 1995. Estimate: HK$8,000,000–12,000,000.

When Chu Teh-chun arrived in Paris in 1955, he was already an accomplished painter and teacher. Previously, he had worked in oils, in a style indebted to post-Impressionism. Within a short time all that changed, and Chu moved increasingly toward abstraction. Modernist ideas were familiar to Chu from his student days. But in Paris, he found new sources of inspiration, early on in the work of Nicolas de Staël (1914-55), whose abstract landscapes used thick, vibrantly-coloured impasto to achieve their power.

Colour and movement dominate Chu Teh-Chun’s canvases, and Abstract Expressionism surely played a role in the development of his mature style. His paintings, even the most abstract, are indebted to nature and allude to traditional Chinese painting, with suggestions of mountains and mists evoked by the expressiveness of his brush. Light suffuses Chu’s compositions. The strong contrasts between light and dark that Rembrandt favoured were a source of inspiration for Chu, and his own works strive to achieve similar dramatic effects, deepening the visual impact of his paintings.

Paris, then, transformed the works of Sanyu, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki. New media, forms, and styles have suggested avenues of creative exploration for generations of Chinese artists, each in their own way. Of equal importance, Paris allowed some of them the distance and confidence to re-evaluate their relationship to traditional Chinese painting and create bodies of work that pay homage to that past even as they speak to the present.


Melissa Walt is a scholar of modern and contemporary Chinese art. She is curating an exhibition on Zao Wou-Ki for the Colby College Museum of Art scheduled for 2015–16.

Works by Zao Wou-Ki, Sanyu, Chu The-Chun and others will be offered in the Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening sale.

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