Laozi, Daodejing, Chapter 42
The heavens are black, and the earth is yellow; the universe shines with a magnificent light. In the Dao, all things are present and absent, allowing one to comprehend yin and yang, and the highest heavens. This is the spiritual world that Chu Teh-Chun constructs in No. 248 (Lot 1044). Painted in 1967, this work represents a key period in the formation of the artist’s personal style in the late 1960s. In the 1950s, Chu favoured clearly demarcated geometric compositions and imposing blocks of colour. Later, he broke with his earlier compositions of space and colour, instead constructing abstract landscapes with flowing brushstrokes. The composition of the painting is somewhat mysterious; a line between black and white divides the painting in two, very similar to the yin-yang symbol from ancient philosophy. The coexistence of yin and yang shows that all things in the universe and the physical laws of the human world are fundamentally opposed, always waxing and waning. The two energies are life forces that intersect and overlap, freely surging within a harmonious, stable realm. This measured state comes from within, representing Chu’s return to an emotional source—the essence of life—after being shaped by experiences in the first half of his life. The black and white composition has a clearly defined top and bottom, as well as colliding colours with intense contrasts; it has the ‘overwhelming vastness’ of work by his mentor Pan Tianshou, making it a rarity among Chu Teh-Chun’s masterpieces from the 1960s.
In addition to the colours and composition, this painting, at 120 x 60 cm, is the standard size of a traditional Chinese ink scroll. Elements from Northern Song landscapes are also faintly discernible. When Chu Teh-Chun painted No. 248, he attempted to draw on his early experiences copying Chinese paintings, re-interpreting the aesthetic ideas and expressive methods that underpinned the ancient view of the natural world. In the painting, a flowing, spontaneous effect reflects a chance moment in nature. The touching emotion he produces in his work conveys the eternity of frozen time. Through these Eastern elements, he depicts the interconnectedness between man and nature. Within contrasts, he finds an internal balance and integration, as well as a utopia that transcends objective nature.
The Profound Black is Truth, The Great Way is Simplicity
In addition to the overwhelming power in No. 248, Chu Teh-Chun infused subtle layers of colour. The upper portion is pitch-black, but on closer inspection the eye may find hidden within the blackness the deep greys, dark greens, violet, and other colours of depth. ‘When black is comingled with other colours, it is profound black (xuan),’ according to Shuowen Jiezi (Explaining Words and Analysing Characters), China’s first dictionary which was compiled by the Eastern Han scholar Xu Shen. The black in the painting can be considered ‘profound black’ (xuanhei), not ‘pure black’ (chunhei). In ancient bronze inscriptions, the character xuan is formed by two circles on top of one another, like an entwined silk thread. This character presents a layered view of the world in which the infinite comingling of the visible and invisible worlds creates the real world, corresponding to Daoist theories of presence and absence. In Daoist thought, ‘profound black’ is the source of all things. When used, it does not compete with the five colours; it is stable and reserved, encompassing all colours. Xuan has the extraordinary qualities of the five colours of ink, a concept in Chinese painting. Chu Teh-Chun placed his thorough understanding of ancient philosophy and his reflections on the meaning of existence for all things into this critical point between colour and its absence, offering these ideas to the viewer. The work is loaded with a reverence for the universe and a firm spirit, unmoved by outside forces, reflecting the idea that ‘the Great Way is so simple, it can be easily understood’.
The White Light of Dawn Encompasses All Things
In 1965, Paul Gay invited Chu Teh-Chun to participate in a rural art festival in Savoy, France. There, Chu saw the snow-white peaks of the Alps for the first time, and he was moved by nature’s superb workmanship. From that time onward, he began to infuse a dizzying white into his work, reliving that awe and sharing it with viewers. The large strokes of different shades of white in the lower half of No. 248 stem from this experience. With limitless white clouds above, sky blue, turquoise, emerald green, vermillion, bright orange, creamy yellow, and ink black filter outward. Dawn on the mountaintop appears to flow downward with the white, and the colours quiver, like the living spirits of all things. The richness of accumulated knowledge and revealed life appear within the quiet. Here, Chu sprinkles his brushstrokes upward, and the compositions of Northern Song landscapes from traditional ink painting are infused into this curtain of colour. The viewer is almost on a pilgrimage, reverently gazing at the magnificent sight of the vibrant growth of all things. He builds an organic, harmonious image in which the real and illusory generate one another and the static and the dynamic fuse, presenting an understanding of the laws of the earthly world, that all things, however diverse, finally return to life’s essential quiet. This painting perfectly embodies interior impressions, which are expressed in Chapter 16 of Laozi’s Daodejing, ‘The state of vacancy should be brought to the utmost degree, and that of stillness guarded with untiring vigour. All things alike go through their processes of activity, and then we see them return to their original state. When vegetal things have displayed their luxuriant growth, we see each of them return to its root. This returning to their root is what we call the state of stillness; that stillness may be called a reporting that they have fulfilled their appointed end.’ The substantial yet almost sublime sense of beauty and the unrestrained, delightful style in this painting reflect Chu Teh-Chun’s spiritual home and his understanding of life’s energy, breaking through the chaos to reveal all things.
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