Details & Cataloguing

Sotheby's Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening Sale

Hong Kong

Chu Teh-Chun (Zhu Dequn)
B. 1920
signed in Chinese and Pinyin; signed in Chinese and Pinyin, titled and dated 1978 and le 19. Fév. 1979 on the reverse
oil on canvas
195 by 130.2 cm.; 76 3/4 by 51 1/4 in.
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Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 2009


Géraldine Pfeffer-Lévy, ed., Chu Teh-Chun, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2000, p. 97

Catalogue Note

Chu Teh-Chun’s resplendent landscapes Embrasement and Vu en songe

Upon re-reading works of the past, Southern Song poet Lu You once lamented, “Without the help of mountains and rivers, how could there be ink paintings? / If one hadn’t visited Xiao and Xiang rivers [of Hunan], how could there be poetry?” A millennium hence, Chu Teh-Chun also created works based on his lifelong travels and experiences, having absorbed extensive knowledge of both ancient and present while melding East and West. Art critic Gao Tianmin once defined the development of Chu’s abstract art as follows, “After the 1970s, Chu’s view of nature underwent a fundamental change. Nature gradually became abstract, enabling him to move forward, to create ‘inner images’ and ‘mental images’ that far exceed conventional ‘objective images.’” Along with the fundamental change in his thinking, Chu’s works became all the more mature and masterful. Even in face of huge canvasses, he was still able to wield his brush with a total sense of freedom, combining the essence of his wisdom and aesthetics.

After half a century, an Eastern spirit rediscovered

Although he immersed himself in the world of Western painting for more than six decades, Chu has always identified distinctly with his cultural roots, just as poet Jean-François Chabrun once praised him fittingly as “the Song dynasty painter of the 20th century.” Art scholar Michael Sullivan described his works as “employing a realistic perspective to unleash symbolisms deeply rooted in Chinese culture toward the gateway extending beyond the image.” In addition, the artist says, “If people claim they find a Chinese spirit in my painting, it is because I am Chinese. I grew up surrounded by Chinese culture, I received Chinese education. My Chinese background nurtured me deeply. When I paint, it shows through naturally.”

In some ways, Chu can be compared with Zhang Qian of the Han dynasty and Xuanzang of the Tang dynasty, each of them a cultural ambassador who embarked on a unique journey to the West. After fully grasping the essence of foreign cultural traditions, Chu brought back ideas that in turn enriched Eastern culture. His determination to traverse both halves of the world, his passion for life and creativity, and the time and experience encapsulated in his art made his output all the more radiant and soulful. Chu once bared his mind in this way: “Painters must be sincere. Only with honesty can they move others, creating resonance in their viewers.” Embrasement (Lot 18) evokes not only spirit and power, but also reflects the circumstances of Chu’s life at that time. In 1979, writer Hubert Juin published his critical tome on Chu; that same year, Chu’s teacher Lin Fengmian came to visit him in Paris, the two reuniting after three decades of being forced apart; another friend from the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Art, Liu Kaiqu, also brought a group of teachers and friends on an official visit. The joy of meeting old acquaintances and beloved teachers infused Chu’s output at that time. Vu en songe (Lot 19) took eight years to complete, a time when Chu enjoyed a string of successes: from his first Asian touring exhibition in 1997, becoming the first Chinese elected in the Académie française in 1997, to finishing the large-scale mural Revival of the Melody for the Shanghai Grand Theatre in 2003. Vu en songe is an expansive work that marked this remarkable decade.

A fiery artist igniting a poetic universe

The painting Embrasement totally befits its title. A canvas dominated by eye-catching reds, it immediately grabs the viewer’s attention, hurtling them into the artist’s imaginary world. Jean-Clarence Lambert described Chu as “a painter of fire—of air and fire, with, besides, something incomprehensible pertaining to the particular mystery, such personal magic power makes him a unique figure within the School of Paris.” These words capture this canvas perfectly: like the fire of life or the rising sun, images contained therein constitute the mystery of the Way as at the origin of the universe described in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. The artist uses angular brushstrokes dividing the canvas into brighter and darker halves intertwining in the middle, yet his spirit roams freely amidst the ample space, sometimes at a leisurely pace, sometimes with much urgency, opening up the canvas that shows not only tremendous depth but enormous heights encompassing Heaven and Earth, where everything seems to awake with dawn after a long, dark night.

Embrasement is filled with the innate rhythm of calligraphy, its background filled with delicate, fine brushstrokes combining the “dry brush” technique of traditional ink painting and half impasto in oil painting, in turn emphasizing the calligraphic effect of cursive script. Although the multiple hues do not necessarily show on the canvas, they are embedded deep below the surface, melding naturally with the process. Brushstrokes in the foreground are applied with wide, flat brushes, transforming the colour grids from his earlier period, overlapping layer upon layer in a semblance of order as if they are large, solid pieces of stone that make up the foreground. The combination of the two, however, creates a beautiful texture on the canvas. Through these textures, spiritual yet ephemeral abstractions emerge, making the work almost like a flight of fancy. Red is a colour that symbolizes good luck, virility, power and fertility. This colour not only dominates the composition, but also affects shapes within the painting and the rhythm of the composition, spawning an energetic, ever-changing but infinite space.

Artistic sentiment as portrayed by mountains and cliffs

Chu Teh-Chun’s artistic sentiment can be likened to those great literati of the Tang and Song dynasties. Embrasement is a composition that is at once dynamic and comprehensive, perfectly in line with Ma Yuan’s renowned work Spring and Dancing. The arrangement of grids and how they overlap seem to imitate mountains and cliffs of ancient landscapes, while Chu adds vibrant colours in place of the mists and fogs of the Jiangnan landscape. No matter in spirit and in sentiment, this work emphasizes modernism and the painter’s unique character. Such rich and refined Eastern aura extends beyond the imitation of images, but is a type of homecoming for the artist on a spiritual level. After two to three decades of constant search, the artist found substance from the beguiling beauty and stunning awe of Paris. In assessing nature and himself, he distills the essence of Chinese culture in the Taoist belief of “Matter and I are but One.” As with Tang dynasty literatus Liu Zongyuan’s similar experience, “With my mind in stillness, form dissipates, fusing with everything into one. Then I discovered all my previous travels were not travels. True travel starts from here.” When the spirit is released, the true experience of travel commences, which is exactly the universe the artist wishes to share with his viewers.

Exploring the West, enriching abstract language

In the early 1970s, Chu attended a retrospective of works by Rembrandt in Amsterdam, followed by travels to Germany to appreciate expressionist masterpieces. Both of these experiences in turn enriched his creativity. Embrasement uses Eastern spirit as foundation, while Chu’s own artistic expression reveals the deep heritage of Western oil painting in the treatment of light, colour and space. The many hues of red not only are finely gradated from light to dark but also incorporate such supplementary shades as yellow, green and black, creating together a strong emotional imprint that hints at Expressionism. “Light” is Chu’s signature, and here it is further developed, creating a space that expands in both depth and height comparable with Rembrandt’s masterpieces. Artists extract abstract elements out of realism, personalizing them into their work, elevating them onto an even higher plateau.

A brave spirit that still thrives, masterworks in the artist’s prime

Many modern masters have enjoyed long and fruitful lives. Compared with earlier centuries, what constitutes an artist’s prime has also been significantly prolonged. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso continued their artistic breakthroughs into their eighties, and Chu continued to conquer the canvas even into the 1990s. Pierre Cabanne recalled that starting point at the birth of Vu en songe in 1995: “Chu Teh-Chun is no stranger to large canvasses. When he paints an entire canvas, he never makes revisions, nor does he rework any area. He uses a chair equipped with wheels and modified forklift to work. In this way, he can view his creative process while moving about. Everything is done without advanced planning; there are no sketches or outlines. The artist’s movement is controlled by his passion and motivation as he makes art. On the one hand he is methodical, on the other he improvises on the spot. He is partial to certain colours, such as jade and orchard green, sky blue or azure, golden yellow, autumn brown and whitish grey. Sometimes he fuses these colours, at other times he uses them to contrast each other. He breaks through form, letting the light shimmer before us, while deliberately blurring their contrasts. As the painting approaches completion, the work develops unexpected emotions, with subtle transformations in colour, movement and light.Vu en songe’s light source radiates in all four directions, its motion comparable to the sea depicted by William Turner, yet there is no underlying tug-of-war between Heaven and Man. In essence, Chu’s paintings are more akin to the thousand miles of winding rivers and rolling mountains typical of Song dynasty scrolls, where human dwellings were barely visible in the context of nature. It is a spirit of losing both oneself and the material world in a beautiful reverie.

Brushstrokes akin to ink painting, a spirit close to oil painting

The closer and clearer his understanding of Taoist thoughts, the more flexible and agile is Chu’s technique. The artist is keen to explore brush technique, and he once confidently stated, “Chinese brushes are rounded. As we apply brush on paper in writing Chinese characters,  whether the stroke is rounded, slanted toward one side, or stresses the middle, it’s clearly evident to us but not to foreigners. Because people from the West normally write with pencil both to write and to draw, their drawings are much less distinguishable from the actual motions [of wielding the brush]. Chinese painting is different.” In Vu en songe, the large canvas does not affect the fine brushwork, although Chu did use a paintbrush with an extra-long handle. Even in the application of paint, you can see the varying brushstrokes betraying calligraphic techniques of dot, hook, slant and horizontal strokes, perfectly fusing with Western painterly touches of point, line, surface and body.

Maurice Panier—who knew Chu early in his career and who organized the artist’s first solo show—once said, “Chu Teh-Chun’s space has nothing to do with classical perspectives. His is a multi-dimensional space. His clever choice of colours and his composition of grids make colours change subtly, shining through light sources. Painting is both space and structure…” This special characteristic became all the more refined and enriched during the artist’s career. In the early 1990s, Chu travelled to Venice and found much resonance in the colours and techniques of Titian and Tintoretto. In Vu en songe, thin paints enabled layers to pile on each other easily, creating a dazzling portrait where light and colour burst forth. Not only can this technique be traced to Chinese ink painting, but there is also the ancient European technique of glazing, where artists apply large amounts of linseed oil or turpentine in order to create a translucent sheen out of the pigments, applying them and waiting for them to dry, repeating the process layer upon layer. Chu embarked his artistic journey from the Eastern spirit, ultimately reaching the goal and principle of Western abstraction. Gao Tianmin captured the process in words: “Using Chinese wisdom to constantly reform his eyes emanating from the West; at the same time using the eyes of the West to constantly enrich his Chinese wisdom; from there Chu Teh-Chun creates his unique artistic universe.”


Sotheby's Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening Sale

Hong Kong