It is an abyss, it is the gasping of time, it is a dynamic poem, its form appears to come from a highly focused spirit, determined to meet the viewer directly in the eyes […] In Chu Teh-chun’s painting, depth floats onto the surface and the contrary moves towards unity.
The Cosmic Dreamer
The entrancing Traversée des espaces is an exquisite specimen from Chu Teh-chun’s pioneering lyrical abstraction that amalgamated Chinese aesthetics with Western sensibilities. Exhibiting agile brushwork, superlative composition, a gently whimsical palette and sublime mastery of light, the painting exudes the supreme confidence and poise of the Chinese abstract master at the mature height of his powers almost five decades after his arrival in France. Framed by a meteoric explosion of white and turquoise light, a gaping tunnel of broad yet nimble swathes of dark blue, cobalt and burnt umber cuts diagonally through the expanse of the canvas – from which sharp bursts of bright colour pierce through, bringing with them a dazzling kaleidoscopic symphony of floating cosmic forms. Chu’s dexterous brushstrokes erupt in varying translucencies and luminosities and gush forth from the deep abyss; manifesting precisely the words of French critic Pierre Cabanne, who observed that Chu Teh-chun’s paintings resembled “an abyss, [or a] gasping of time [in which] depth floats onto the surface and the contrary moves towards unity”.
Born in 1920, Chu entered the Hangzhou National Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) in 1935 and graduated in 1941. During this time, Chu was mentored by the great Chinese painter Pan Tianshou as well as Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu, who had studied in Europe before the war; under their tutelage, Chu was exposed to the works of Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso at this early age. Following training of the highest levels in classical Chinese painting and calligraphy in his homeland, Chu ventured to Paris in 1955 and was spellbound upon encountering first-hand European use of light – by how the Impressionists flooded their works with colour and how their forms seemed to lift off out of the canvas in resplendent visions. One of the most profound inspirations for Chu was the work of Nicholas de Staël, whose freestyle brushstrokes stimulated Chu to paint increasingly abstract works. In developing his own cross-cultural abstraction, Chu held steadfast to his roots in calligraphic brushwork as well as Eastern art and philosophy: where the French painters championed painting en plein air, focusing their image on a specific view at a specific time of the day, Chu absorbed the cosmic essences of nature in its entirety before distilling them into all-encompassing abstract compositions.
From the 1970s onwards, after encountering works by Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya and other old masters in Amsterdam, Chu Teh-chun’s paintings increasingly sublimated pure light, shape, line and colour into poetic, dream-like atmospheric compositions. His progressively complex and infinitely subtle interplays of light and shadow became markedly more advanced, displaying sophisticated dramatic tension, chiaroscuro and tonal juxtaposition via a virtuosic lightness of touch. Using diluted oil pigments and lithe calligraphic brushwork, Chu achieved in his paintings infinitely rich layers and textures that result in a wholly unique and luminous ‘inner glow’; each of his paintings emanate a gentle compelling radiance, as if eternally lit from within. Such an effect is unique to Chu Teh-chun creations and is the result of his calling forth of a universal force or energy that knows no boundaries or geographical or cultural distinctions. As the artist once declared himself: “The colour and lines in my images are never random results, but are put together harmoniously for one common purpose: to activate light sources and call forth images and rhythms”.
Chu Teh-chun’s consummate fusion of East and West achieves a supreme aesthetic that depicts neither the abstract nor the figurative, but rather distils nature into a higher state of mind. In the artist’s own words: “The only source of inspiration I follow is nature, and its preferred mode of expression is lyricism. The creation comes from pure spontaneity, which means, according to Daoist maxim, ‘to release inner emotions’”. The allure of his aesthetic owes in part to the charged dualities of Yin and Yang. According to Daoist principles, Yin is dark and damp, a negative deleterious force; in the present lot it is expressed in the ribbons of shadowy hues that dominate the background of the painting. Yang is the opposite: fiery, bright and tenacious; in the present work it surges forth from the centre of the composition in exuberant splendour. In its poetic approximations of nature, bold fusion of Eastern and Western traditions and sheer evocative potency, Traversée des espaces evidences an artist entirely fluent in his own unique visual language – one that can be said to go beyond even abstraction. In the words of poet and critic Jean-Clarence Lambert, Chu Teh-chun was a great ‘cosmic dreamer’ whose work surpassed any fixed category of abstract art, achieving instead an eternal transcendent space that is unceasingly vital and alive.