Pioneering modern artists often give off the impression that they are wild, extreme, progressive and individualistic. Chu Teh-Chun, with his very gentle temperament, was a rare exception nonetheless. Born into an traditional literati family, he developed a passion in art based on an early interest in traditional Chinese paintings, which his father and uncles loved. Even after he entered the National School of Fine Art in China, and subsequently travelled to France, he never gave up studying Chinese calligraphy. Nevertheless, instead of becoming a typical Chinese painter, Chu had the grand ambition to revive Oriental art, and to fulfill his ambition, he headed to the pinnacle of the art world. He devoted his entire life to redefining Oriental art using modern art theories, whilst distilling inspirations from the essence of traditional Chinese paintings to be applied in post-war abstract art. The three Chinese artists inducted into Académie des Beaux-Arts, de l'Institut de France each had his own favourite aspects of the Chinese culture. If one were to see oracle bone scripts from Shang and Zhou dynasties as well as Qin and Han stone carvings as specialisations of Zao Wou-Ki, and to claim that Wu Guanzhong found a rich source of Eastern modernism in the art of late Ming Chinese painters who lived into the Qing dynasty period, then it is perhaps also appropriate to observe that Chu Teh-Chun had held the art of Five Dynasties and Northern Song in high esteem.
In such periods during which Chinese culture was at its utmost prime, Chu found the grandest, the most elegant and enduring presence and soul. Even during the hard times when he first tried to establish himself in Paris, the artist remained true to his original ambition; half a century later, Chu Teh-Chun became the first Chinese artist to be inducted into Académie des Beaux-Arts, de Institut de France. It was a landmark moment for Asian art in the West. Viewing in retrospect, the artist’s courage and vision seem even more impressive today. No.268 (Lot 1009) is a unique masterpiece from the 1960s amongst works by Chu Teh-Chun. At the time, his studio in Menilmontant was quite limited in space, so his paintings were normally within size no. 100 canvas (162 x 130cm). Only a few had reached size no. 120 (195 x 130cm). The present lot, being three-metre wide, is truly unique in the artist’s 1960s period, and also the largest single canvas painting out of his entire body of work. It is a demonstration of the artist’s grand ambition to integrate Eastern and Western art, and to earn an outstanding reputation in the art world. The painting used to be in the collection of Maison de la Culture, Société des Eaux, Marseille. Not only has it been included in many important publications on Chu Teh-Chun, but also it was displayed in a 2007 solo exhibition at the Ueno Royal Museum, Tokyo, as well as a major retrospective of Chu’s works at the National Museum of History in Taipei. It is arguably the most important masterpiece by Chu Teh-Chun in the prime era of post-war art movement.
Chasing Dreams: Chu Teh-Chun’s 1960s
In 1959, Chu Teh-Chun’s talent was spotted by Galerie Legendre, Paris, who signed a six-year contract with the artist and regularly hosted solo exhibitions for him. This gave Chu a real boost of confidence in his artistic adventure in the West, and consequently changed his mind about staying in the West on a temporary basis. He decided to pursue his dreams at the frontline of post-war art, thus commencing his long journey in France. In the 1960s, his wife Chu Ching-Chao gave birth to two sons. A happy family prompted the artist to become even more focused in his career. He took his works from Paris to the rest of Europe, before venturing to North and South Americas, gaining increasing recognition in the Western art world. In 1960, he participated in the Ecole de Paris hosted by Galerie Chapentier (today Sotheby’s Paris), which was located opposite from the French presidential office. Simultaneously, he responded to the Movimento Punto initiated by Hsiao Chin in Milan. In 1963, he took part in chinesische künstler der gegenwart in Milan, Italy as well as Leverkusen, Germany, before exhibiting his works at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, USA. Galleries in locations as far as Switzerland, Belgium, Greece and Israel had also exhibited his works, whilst critics such as Georges Boudaille, Gérald Gassiot-Talabot and Jean-Jacques Leveque recommended his works in various professional publications. In 1967, Chu Teh-Chun was invited to travel to Saint-Jeoire-en-Faucigny in Haute-Savoie in France. The scenic area was adjacent to the Alps in Switzerland. During this journey, the artist travelled across the snow-covered mountains on a plane and began a profound relationship with the subject. In 1968, Chu was invited to participate in the 10th Sao Paulo Art Biennial Not only did renowned art critic Hubert Juin wrote an article to introduce the artist, the organizer of the Biennale also arranged an exhibition hall especially for him. From these events, one could see that his international reputation grew from strength to strength. It was in such an important year when No.268 was completed.
“Paris, in fact, has made him more Chinese than he was, by leaving him unrelated to the contemporary dilemma: figuration or abstraction. As a tachist Song painter, he has succeeded in handing us the emotional message contained in natural harmonies, and thus gradually has become the only star giving life to the firmament…he found again the cosmic impulsions rooted in his memory of the Chinese visual culture. ”
Pierre Restany was among the most renowned art critics in the post WWII period. In his later years, he served as President of Palais de Tokyo and Honorary Chairman of Musée du Montparnasse. The passage above was extracted from an important critique he wrote about Chu Teh-Chun in 2000, Le Pays Chu. In No. 268, the artist displayed his spiritual responses and enlightenment subsequent to his expansive tour around the French Alps. Influenced by the abstractionist movement at the time, he named most of his works with numbers instead of titles. Nevertheless, the poetry and sensibility within his works clearly inherited the legacy of the elegant and graceful Tang and Song aesthetics. The aristocrats and literati of ancient China did not have a taste for the flamboyant and flashy. Instead they valued subtlety, honesty and rustic purity. The the present piece’s colour scheme, like the spirit of jade, is the elegant, subtle colour of the poems by Lu Guimeng of Tang Dynasty; it is the legendary Ru glaze on the ceramics bearing the imperial inscriptions of Song emperor Huizong, it is an external embodiment of Daoist philosophy. The transformation of light and colours symbolises the formation of the universe, whilst lighting up the picture to allow the viewer to see the marvels of nature, the yin and yang, the dust and dawn, to see how energy rises to become the sun and the stars, weaving the landscape with thick, heavy lines of ink recalling the pimacun (“hemp-fiber” texture strokes) Chinese painting technique, powerfully, with long, curved lines, portraying the movements of the mountains and water; ethereal feibai (“flying white” technique) floats upwards, twirling and elevating to meet the wind and the clouds, dancing a picturesque dance together. Such a spirit and presence were once achieved in the Northern Song dynasty Mi style clouds and landscape paintings, which although poetic, were slightly lacking in dramatic tension. Chu Teh-Chun took the essence of the exceptional scenery he saw, and used oil painting elements to enhance the visual expressiveness of Eastern art. He integrated the colour blocks composition of Nicolas de Staël, from whom he entered the world of abstractionism, and introduced the chiaroscuro technique which gave Western oil paintings their brilliance over numerous generations, and through post-war abstractionism, the dazzling Tang and Song classics were presented to the world once again.
Jade as Mountain, Ink as Snow: an Alpine Legend
By reviewing the process through which No. 268 was created, one could see that the scenery of the Alps had served as an important source of inspirations. Among Chinese masters from the same era, Zhang Daqian also gained artistic inspirations from snow mountains in Switzerland, successfully integrating traditional green landscape and post-war abstract expressionism, creating a drastic new face for the works in his later years. By viewing No. 268 in conjunction with Zhang’s paintings from the same era, one would realize the fascinating artistic connection between the two: Zhang employed Western art to improve on traditional Chinese paintings, creating Chinese landscape paintings infused with abstractionist approaches. Chu, on the other hand, introduced Chinese painting elements into oil paintings, creating abstract art imbued with the spirit of abstractionism. Although the outcomes may be different, the spirits are indeed the same. On the other hand, the present piece also reveals the origins of Chu Teh-Chun’s renowned snowy landscape series, which was created between 1985 and 1990, whilst when the artist created No. 268 between 1967 and 1968, he had already formed a special affinity to the Alps. From that point onwards, the artist continued to create new works that drew inspirations from snowy mountains, with Ce qui se passe (Lot 1008) created between 1981 and 1982 being another important example. Chu Teh-Chun’s early snowy mountains works mainly employed green and blue colours, like the colours of unpolished jade, to depict the mountains and the white space left between ink brushstrokes to depict snow. Such an early approach transformed into the more well-known approach in depicting snowy mountains in 1985, as seen in Chu’s Evocation B (Lot 1024). “The benevolent delight in mountains; the wise delight in water” (The Analects). The snowy mountains enjoy the benefits of both. The artist’s passion in depicting such a subject is perhaps a reflection of his temperament and talents, as well as his dedication to the continual betterment of oneself.
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