Chu Teh-Chun (Zhu Dequn)
- Chu Teh-Chun (Zhu Dequn)
- No. 20
- signed in Chinese and Pinyin; signed in Chinese and Pinyin, titled and dated 1959 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 116 by 81 cm.; 45 5/8 by 31 7/8 in.
Private European Collection
Contemporary Chinese painter Chu Teh-Chun graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, later serving as part of the faculty in the Fine Arts department at the National Taiwan Normal University. With the pulse of Chinese culture beating in his veins, Chu was a master at wielding the techniques of both traditional Chinese painting and Western realist painting with exquisite precision. But after arriving in Paris in 1955, the artist was carried away by the surge of Lyrical Abstraction that was sweeping across the postwar European art world. After attending an exhibit by Franco-Russian artist, Nicolas de Staël, Chu resolved to be released from the shackles of Western figurative painting and the restrictions of form. He wanted to express his emotions, unfettered, on the canvas in search of spiritual and stylistic freedom.
In 1958, Chu had his first solo exhibition since arriving in Paris. It was held at the then-celebrated Galerie du Haut-Pavé. The artist’s distinctive, refreshing style earned nods of approval from other galleries, and within the same year, the highly-influential Galerie Henriette Legendre signed Chu for six years. This contract afforded Chu, who was then still a newcomer to Paris, freedom from financial worries and the luxury of concentrating solely on his work. Later, the gallery invited the artist to include his work in the Peinture de l’Ecole de Paris Exhibition, which solidly established his footing in the art capital of the world. Chu, a true outsider from the Eastern world, had successfully joined the ranks of Paris’ Lyrical Abstraction movement. Rich with poetic sensibility, No. 20 （Lot 1010）was created in 1959 with its abstract composition and full and robust Chinese calligraphic brushstrokes. This painting is a clear representative of a vital turning point in the artist’s career, setting the stage for Chu as an important figure in the art world in the half-century that was to come, as the artist traversed from East to West.
Raised in a cultivated family of doctors, Chu has a deep understanding of the principles of traditional Chinese calligraphy. In No. 20, these techniques are on full display; the artist has imbued the piece with basic Chinese painting treatises – such as “black ink has five colors” and “the brush moves in eight ways” – as well as the cursive calligraphic techniques that the artist had practiced with rigor as a youth. Among the numerous masters of ancient Chinese art, Chu particularly admired Fan Kuan from the Song dynasty. Although Chu does not explicitly express the meaning contained in this piece, any careful viewer will see that the intertwining, criss-crossing ribbons of color in No. 20 evokes all of the magnificence and might of a Song dynasty landscape scroll painting.
In this painting, thick swathes of ink – from large to small – are created with vigorous and free-style brushstrokes, appearing as rugged mountain peaks and jutting rocks. Lying quietly behind the simple patches of black ink is the vital finishing touch: a few strokes of pale blue, evoking the image of a cascading waterfall flying through the steep mountain ranges. Throughout the painting are winding, crisscrossing brushstrokes, thin and black, which are at times subtle and delicate and at times robust and wild. These appear to the viewer as small paths concealed within layers of dense forest, which stand in contrast to the painting’s dominant tone of boldness and majesty. This dynamic juxtaposition echoes the words of Chu’s friend and contemporary Chinese painter Wu Guanzhong, who once described Chu’s work as such: “Grand chords of violent, pelting rain with quiet, murmuring strings.” The interaction of the powerful, thick brushstrokes and the simple, delicate lines gives rise to a rhythmic pulse, leaping gracefully across the canvas with extraordinary form, filling the space of the composition with tension and bestowing the painting with the melody and movement of notes, rising and falling, as they dance across the canvas.
Europe in the 1950s was a period of postwar recovery, and during this time, Eastern calligraphy shook the Western art world. Calligraphy’s profound depth and boundless variation as an artistic medium heavily influenced the works of artists such as German-French painter Hans Hartung, French painter Pierre Soulages, and American painter Franz Kline. Chinese calligraphy soon became a regular companion to the abstract artists of that time. When we view Soulages’ Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959, the bold, dark tones and coarse brushstrokes point to a similar artistic sensibility between Soulages and Chu. Yet in No. 20, Chu, who remained deeply faithful to Chinese calligraphy after rigorous training as a youth, displays a virtuosic control of the brush, which at times is bold and unrestrained, but also meticulous and elegant. It is a mastery that the Western artists could not attain. This is one of the dominant reasons that Chu’s works have retained a unique style among the many Western schools of art.
In 1999, at his inauguration into the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Chu summed up his artistic ideals, saying: “When in nature, I listen to the universe, I listen to people, I listen to the East, I listen to the West, and therein lies my source of inspiration, which is filled with poetic emotion and poetic meaning. Creating is a purely spontaneous act. It’s simply, as the Chinese Taoists said, “releasing what’s already in the heart.’” It is precisely because the artist’s use of ink, which draws from his disciplined training and wealth of academic knowledge. That does not overpower his artistic concept he is able to project in his own mood onto the canvas. Therefore creating an integration of nature with his own soul and a scene of exquisite balance, successfully expressing the infinite layers and faces of the beautiful natural landscape onto the constraints of the canvas. The image of the painting leaves a mark on the viewer’s soul and lingers in the mind. By successfully taking the integration of Chinese calligraphy and Western media another step further, Chu has given us a language that belongs to a specific era, and to the world.
No. 20 has been kept in a collection in Europe since the artist finished it over half-century ago. Its auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong is an exceptional opportunity for collectors to acquire a rarely-before-seen masterpiece, left to the world by Chinese abstract painter Chu Teh-Chun.