Chu Teh-Chun with Michael Sullivan, Professor of St. Catherine College, Oxford University
Excerpt from The Art of Chu Teh-Chun by Michael Sullivan, May 1987
The year 2020 marks the centenary of the birth of Chu Teh-Chun.On this occasion, Sotheby’s presents the only pentaptych produced by the artist. Exhibited in 2010 at the Beijing National Art Museum of China on the occasion of the retrospective exhibition devoted to the artist for his 90th birthday, this work was unveiled at the opening of the exhibition.
This pentaptych entitled in Chinese by Chu: Les éléments confédérés (Lot 1014), was produced in the 80s. The artist then returned from a long trip to China, it was the first time that he found his homeland since his departure in 1949. Thus, he re-immerses himself in the landscapes that inhabit his memory and his imagination, he again marvels at the majesty and grandeur of Chinese panoramas.
Back in his workshop in Bagnolet, he chose the largest format of canvas, which could be produced in his workshop, in order to express the power of his emotions and the respect that the splendor of the landscapes inspires in him.
This emblematic painting of the artist’s work characterizes the fusion of his two cultures. The choice of a pentaptych refers to the Five Elements, essential to the constitution of nature according to the Chinese conception of the Universe, which are: wood, earth, water, metal and fire. However, this hymn to nature is also a tribute to Beethoven's symphony Nº9 that Chu Teh-Chun loved to listen to while he was painting. Indeed, "Music is also colours, tones in the musical sense as in the pictorial sense", according to the artist.
Different shades of green dominate this dynamic composition, which goes from clear to dark, thus staging a vigorous, deep, bubbling and sonorous nature.
This exceptional painting, entitled in French: Les éléments confédérés is a true tribute to nature, it perfectly translates the lyrical and poetic universe of the artist.
Madame Chu Ching-Chao, the artist's wife
President, Fondation Chu Teh-Chun
27 February 2020
Les éléments confédérés: Chu Teh-Chun’s Only Pentaptych
Asia was on the rise in the 1980s. Asian Artists who had previously lived abroad for decades returned to their home countries, motivated by a strong desire to create a uniquely Asian art and culture for their times. They brought with them their substantial achievements in the European and American post-war art scenes from the 1950s to the 1970s, while also uncovering new pathways for artistic development. The moment coincided with a golden period in Chu Teh-Chun’s art and career. In this Evening Sale, Sotheby’s is proud to offer Chu’s Les éléments confédérés, a masterwork created in 1983 to 1984. Measuring 650 cm long and 162 cm high, it is the largest Chu Teh-Chun oil painting still in private hands and the artist’s only pentaptych. The piece was painted upon the artist’s return to Asia and marked the beginning of a new chapter in his career. It reflects an abundance of artistic inspiration, as well as a passion for national revival. In 1987, National Museum of History in Taipei held a large retrospective exhibition for Chu Teh-Chun, marking his formal return after having lived abroad since 1955, a period of 32 years. Les éléments confédérés also graced the cover of the exhibition catalogue, showing its extraordinary importance. In 1990 and 1991, Chu held “Grand Formats” exhibitions at the Pyramid Pernod in Créteil, and Musée d'Art Contemporain in Dunkerque, France, and Les éléments confédérés was the focal point of the entire show. In 2010, Chu held a major retrospective at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, and Les éléments confédérés was still the most important exhibited work and the image used for the catalogue cover, showing his long-standing love for and satisfaction with this piece. On the centenary year of Chu Teh-Chun’s birth, Sotheby’s is delighted to offer this five-panel masterwork in this year’s Spring Sale, paying our respects to this epoch-defining, world-class Chinese painter.
Creating large-scale oil paintings, especially multi-panel works, often tests an artist’s limits. Claude Monet’s eight Water Lilies (1920-1926) at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, Mark Rothko’s fourteen huge abstract oil paintings (including three triptychs) (1964-1967) for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and even Zao Wou-ki’s massive 1985 triptych Juin-Octobre 1985, painted for the Raffles Hotel in Singapore at the invitation of I. M. Pei, were landmark events in these painters’ careers. Chu Teh-Chun’s 6.5-meter Les éléments confédérés, painted a year or two before Zao’s piece, showed his immense self-confidence. However, creating a work this large was no easy feat. Based on Chu’s key publications and auction records, he created forty-five diptychs, ten triptychs, and four quadriptychs over the course of his lifetime. Les éléments confédérés is the only pentatych. The work’s sheer size makes it the standout of his exactly 60 multi-panel paintings, and perhaps the crowning work of his entire career. Noted French critic Pierre Cabanne had known Chu Teh-Chun for years and edited many of his catalogues. In Chu Teh-Chun (1993), he noted the unique qualities of Les éléments confédérés, the largest of Chu’s multi-panel works:
“From 1980 his works were on a monumental scale; before he had a large studio, space and transport problems forced him to work on separate panels which he then joined. He has sometimes undertaken a large work using the same method - the longest one is over six metres long - and then reworked each of the five panels which made it up; and in so doing, multiplied each fragment of space.
The diptychs, triptychs and so on, have another particular characteristic, they articulate like mirrors reflecting the artist’s movements. Rhythms and colours spread from one canvas to the next, balancing or unbalancing each other; the brush explodes the contours of the sections and severs the elements of light, plotting long effusions with sharp immense gulfs that spread and propagate. Or sometimes flow like water.”
Multi-panel oil paintings have been an important art form in Europe since the Middle Ages, and their origins can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but they were only revived in the twelfth century CE. The most famous pentaptych in European art history is Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432) by Jan van Eyck and his brothers. This cultural jewel is housed in the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Groups of figures are presented over a total of four panels, two on each side, around a central panel that depicts the adoration of the lamb, a symbol of Christ with a holy, mysterious, and sublime power. In Chinese art, pentaptychs were often placed behind the emperor’s throne, which similarly presented an impressive symbol of power. The five panels also equal the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, which is particularly fitting as Chu’s work is related to the grandeur of the universe.
Dualities are the essence of Chu Teh-Chun’s abstract paintings. In 1956, he was inspired by a retrospective for abstract painter Nicolas de Staël at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, and he began engaging with Lyrical Abstraction. The foundation of his abstract language has always been two opposing yet coexistent forces within mediated, mixed, and regenerated paintings. In the mid-1950s to late 1960s, Chu’s work—such as Evening Sale highlight Terre du Nan-King (Lot 1015)—was characterized by thick, rough calligraphic black lines, which collide fiercely with strong, jewel-like patches of oil paint. The surfaces were very tense abstract compositions. In 1970, Chu Teh-Chun went to Amsterdam to view an exhibition commemorating Rembrandt on the 300th anniversary of his death. The show was immensely inspiring for Chu, and it prompted a major change in his abstract style in the 1970s. Antagonism between two forces shifted toward reconciliation and harmony, and he was particularly influenced by Rembrandt’s classic chiaroscuro, which gradually led to the appearance of complementary dark and light colors with symbiotic power in his own work. Beginning in the 1980s, and with the artist’s further study of philosophy, the I-Ching and Daoism further refined and inspired the transformation of physical effects of light and shadow into abstract compositions. Contrasts of light and shadow became the dual forces of yin and yang in his work, shaping all things in an abstract world. In Les éléments confédérés, the viewer discovers an abstract world laid out by the artist, one which differs markedly from the fierce competition between elements in his early work.
“As a Chinese, yin and yang, two infinitely changing elements in the philosophies of the I-Ching, have fundamental yet complementary aspects: yang is warm and bright, and yin is dark and moist. This duality produces the infinite universe, but this duality also blends with the bright colors of Western European painting and the free forms inspired by abstract painting.”
Excerpted from Chu Teh-Chun’s Introduction speech upon becoming a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, February 3, 1999
In the 1980s, Chu reached this brilliant stage owing to continuous progress in his art as well as the opportunities and relationships he cultivated during this time. In 1982, Chu Teh-Chun held a solo exhibition at the Andre Malraux Museum, which was his first solo museum presentation since arriving in France. That same year, his friend Wu Guanzhong visited Paris, in what was certainly a joyous reunion for two art school classmates who had not seen each other since the end of World War II. In 1983, Liu Kuo-Sung, who Chu had taught in the 1950s and had subsequently become a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, invited Chu to become an external examiner for his graduating class of undergraduates. That same year, Chu Teh-Chun accepted an invitation from the Beijing Artists Association and, accompanied by French abstract painter Ladislas Kijno and his wife, he traveled for three weeks in China, visiting Beijing, Datong, Xi’an, Nanjing, Huangshan, and his alma mater, the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou (called the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts at that time). For an overseas Chinese who had been abroad more than 30 years, his excitement about returning to China was irrepressible. Les éléments confédérés was painted around this time. He could not but joyfully express his surge in creativity, painting a record of one of the happiest times in his life. The large dimensions of this work reflect the artist’s spiritual perceptions while traveling all over China, fully releasing the energetic essence inherent in the landscape through this work. In 1997, Chu Teh-Chun held a solo exhibition at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts and he invited Gilbert Erouart, former resident historian of the Villa Médicis Académie de France à Rome, to write the essay, Le retour est un aveu. Erouart sensitively highlighted the connection between Les éléments confédérés and Chu’s life experience:
“Teh-Chun's paintings of the last twelve years, where, over time, you can see the need to over-size, to merge with the entire space (thus the pentatych Les éléments confédérés), responding of course, it has been said, to an individual quest: the artist’s exploration of his own soul, a journey to the deepest depths of the earth, evoking its fractures, celebrating its sources, testifying to its eternal chaos”
The main colors in Les éléments confédérés are rich layers of greens and blues, which are classic parts of Chu Teh-Chun’s color palette. In the 2007 RTHK documentary series Success Stories, Chu’s lifelong friend Wu Guanzhong said that the abstract beauty of Chu’s work was like jade just about to be cut or a bolt of fine silk, which shows the color philosophy behind Les éléments confédérés and its origins in the Chinese artistic tradition. In Chinese landscape painting, blue-green landscapes were the primary way in which artists highlighted the might of the landscape and the vastness of the nation’s territory, and this form dominated the golden era of Chinese art. This is one reason that modern Chinese artists devoted themselves to exploring the new medium of oil painting—to restore a philosophy of color to Chinese painting and recover its visual impact and expressiveness. In abstract painting, color often has a philosophical or symbolic meaning. In the Chinese philosophical tradition of yin, yang, and the five elements, green is the color of the East and wood, symbolizing the thriving growth of all things. In his late-career masterpiece Quatre nus (Lot 1033), Sanyu used the color to highlight the state of a vital society fresh out of war and the autonomy of modern women shaking off traditional constraints. Like its title suggests, Les éléments confédérés expresses the living beauty of natural harmony that the artist perceived. These blue and green tones interplay with red, yellow, and purple, reflecting the philosophical significance of color in Chu’s abstract works. In his 1985 essay Chu Teh-Chun et le paysage anterieur, Raoul-Jean Moulin, former President of the International Association of Art Critics, noted the connection between Chu’s use of color and natural elements:
Chu plays knowingly with the rich colours of western paintng and the sensuous brilliance of its subject matter, mastering its technique mainly through his experience of Chinese tradition, according to which the act of painting and the act of writing emanate from the same poectic impulse. In his hand the brush rediscovers the dark sheen of its surface and illuminates it with visionary highlights and blazing points of brilliance. Reconciling slowness and violance, rapidity and fluidity, the brush-line express flowing water, consuming fire, holding eath and scattering air. Its language is direct and impulsive, springing from the applied paintt itself; but the painter regulates its field of expression to pinpoint and expoit its potential.
Les éléments confédérés marks Chu Teh-Chun’s artistic peak in the 1980s. In addition to showcasing the artist’s mastery of massive spaces, the piece also marked the beginning of a series of museum exhibitions across Europe and Asia. Following the success of this work, Chu began working on a series of astonishing snowscapes in 1985. After the year 2000, he painted four quadriptychs in 2004 and 2005, and in 2003, he accepted a commission from the Shanghai Grand Theatre to create the massive wall painting Symphonie Festive, measuring 730 cm long and 430 cm high. The foundations of Symphonie Festive can be traced back to Les éléments confédérés. These two works represent the largest of Chu’s paintings in public and private collections respectively, grand visions spanning 30 years of life and art.
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