The Dawn of Abstract Oil Paintings "Composed" in the Structure of a Still Life
Chu Teh-Chun acknowledged that early in his artistic career, he paid special attention to the compositional concepts of the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne. Following the French artist's footsteps, he achieved the ideal of letting the landscape yield to the trinity of compositional elements: forms, colors, and light. His mentor at the Hangzhou Academy of Art, Wu Dayu, introduced Cezanne's art to him, which would later become an important inspiration.
Chu was working in a figurative style while still teaching at the Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, at which time his subjects included natural scenery (fig. 1), still lifes, and portraits. Currently available documentation indicates that Chu complete 14 figurative paintings during the years between 1951 and 1954. The Still Life with Apples (Lot 103) presently offered here was completed in 1951, one of the very few early works from Chu's period in Taiwan. From Cézanne, Chu Teh-Chun gained a valuable understanding of composition and the visual elements that compose the objects we see (fig. 2). Still lifes allow an artist to choose their own level of freedom in depiction as well as the arrangement of their parts, while also challenging the artist's ability to arrange space on the canvas. Still Life with Apples shows Chu Teh-Chun's careful layout of his composition. On the round tabletop he stands a round plate upright, along with teapot, towel, five tangerines, a table knife, and near the table's edge, a cup, all spaced so as to give the work a pleasing and distinct rhythm. Chu's sensitivity to blocks of color and their arrangement is seen in the small squares that form the towel's pattern. It creates a more relaxed area in the painting that contrasts with the weight and density of the reddish black teapot and helps add rhythm to the entire work. This theory of structure in painting pushed Chu to continue thinking, deconstructing the elements beneath the surface of what we see in scenic paintings and still lifes, searching for a simpler and purer mode of expression. He continued to move step by step toward the points, lines, and planes obtained by reducing objects to their geometric components - and it is those which structured his abstract paintings of the late '50s, whose titles are derived from their compositions.
Rhythm in Quick Movements of the Brush
Between 1965 and 1975, Chu Teh-Chun made a number of trips to Brazil and various destinations in Europe. On one, in 1965, he glimpsed the highest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc, and in 1969, he visited the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, to see the retrospective exhibition on the 300th anniversary of Rembrandt's death. In addition, visits to various museums in Munich, Germany in 1972 would prove to have a great influence on his work. Chu's No. 467 (Lot 104), Untitled (Lot 106), 21.2.1978 (Lot 101), and 10.5.1979 (Lot 102) each exhibit the features of his style and the exciting changes in his work in the 1970s. Chu's 1972 visit to Munich deepened his understanding of German Expressionism, and his No. 467 was completed that same year. No. 467 bears certain resemblances to Hubert Roestenburg's abstract depiction of natural scenery in Autumn near London (fig. 3). In Roestenberg's work, scenic objects and small buildings intermingle in overlapping brushstrokes; in Chu's No. 467, mountains inhabit the distance, and the whitish tones of his background seem to recreate the snows atop Mont Blanc. The lithe, gracefully floating lines in the background of Chu's work echo those of Northern Song painter Guo Xi in his Early Spring, who condenses his mountaintop skyline into sketchy outlines. The quick, decisive brushwork in Chu's No. 467 seems to have been completed in a single motion: as Chu's brushstrokes float down, flow, and turn, they make clear his future artistic direction, in which visual rhythms would be generated through the interweaving of colors. Chus No. 467 thus establishes the foundation for his painting style during the '70s.
Dramatic and Infectious
Chu's Untitled (1976), 21.2.1978, and 10.5.1979 are variations on this main direction, but with the added elements of light, shadow, and calligraphic line. Chu once said, 'The color 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.' It becomes clear that color, lines, and light were important tools that allowed Chu to achieve the harmonious rhythms of his paintings. If we take an analytical view towards Chu Teh-Chun's reverence for the painters Goya, El Greco, and Rembrandt, we can infer that his goal was to use light and shadow to achieve the same kind of infectious, dramatic qualities. Each of those three artists-Rembrandt, Goya in The Shootings of May Third, 1808 (fig. 4), and El Greco in View of Toledo (fig. 5)-depicted their subjects with brilliant contrasts of light and shadow. A study of the contrasts of light and shadow occupied Chu during the '70s, and in fact, they have been a subject of study throughout the history of art, from the chiaroscuro of the Renaissance to the Impressionist focus on depicting the play of light and shadow. Minimalist Dan Flavin initiated a series of intriguing light sculptures in the early 1960s (fig. 6) using tube lighting, showing that lighting - though abstract - indeed plays an important role in changing the overall atmosphere of an image.
Clear light sources are apparent in both 21.2.1978 and 10.5.1979, and light which emerges from within and behind the lines of the paintings. Chu discreetly handles the points of high illumination and deeper shadow; their strong contrasts give these works an infectious and mysterious quality that is striking and dramatic. The strength and sureness of Chu's lines recalls more than a little bit the cursive script (or grass script) style of calligraphy, in which written characters convey great lyrical feeling in addition to their literal message (fig. 7). In a 1962 watercolor work, Composition No. 4, Chu dispenses with color altogether, highlighting even further the powerful expressive capabilities of line as an element of abstract painting. In 1976, Chu spent even more time writing characters with his calligraphy brush, a fact reflected in his Untitled from that same year. Its background consists of flat areas of creamy white pigments; with a soft brush and a flexible wrist, Chu 'wrote out' light and delicate lines with the fine tip of his brush. A variety of green shades-jade green, Persian green, mantis, myrtle green, dark moss green, and rifle green - is employed in capturing the complex shifts of light and shadow. The addition of more starkly contrasting reds and yellows further enriches the variety of light and shadow in the work. The waving, fluttering, and circling lines seem again to recall the soaring peak of Mont Blanc, and prefigure Chu's later series of snow scenes based on that subject in the '80s and 90s.
Elegant, Graceful Illusions in Light and Shadow
After establishing a direction in the 1970s, the 1980s saw Chu Teh-Chun gain an even firmer grasp over the technical elements of his painting. In 1983 he traveled to Beijing, Datong, Huangshan, Xishan, Hangzhou, and Nanjing; the unique grace and charm of the floating clouds and drifting mists in China's landscapes are reflected in his 1986 Untitled (Lot 105) and the 1988 Atmosphere Bleu III (Lot 107). Both employ a variety of colors combined with a central blue tonality, as well as a semi-transparent quality that the artist deliberately sought. This produces spreading halo effects in the pastel blues and greens, similar to the effect of inks spreading across xuan paper or the pleasing cascade of colors revealed in refracted light. Thinly applied layers of transparent oils surround more densely applied blocks of color, and light here seems to bend, tautly in some places and more relaxed in others, and darker at some points dark while lighter at others. This results in a fine mutual balance, as in these paintings we seem to gaze at the changing face of the physical world among the floating clouds and drifting mists of the mountains.
(1) In 1955, shortly after arriving in Europe, Chu saw the Goya works collected at the Prado Museum in Madrid and El Greco's home.