Limited Colours, Unlimited Vistas
"In the Tao of painting, ink-wash surpasses all; it begins with the essence of nature and completes the work of creation." So said Tang Dynasty artist and poet Wang Wei in his essay, "On Landscape Paintings," pointing out the importance of ink in Chinese aesthetics. Because the tonality of traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings was primarily centred on black, Chinese painters for generations engaged deeply in the study of its structures and combinations, and derived from black its "six variations"-black, white, thick, thin, dry, and wet. These became the fundamental elements of ink-wash paintings, which allowed the painters, despite the limitations of colour, to create impressions of deep and vast landscapes. A visit to the 1956 Nicolas de Staël exhibition at the Musee du Petit- Palais was a watershed event for Chu Teh-Chun shortly after his arrival in Paris. The exhibition greatly inspired him to shake off the restrictions of realistic depiction and set out on a brand new path of infinite exploration. While devoted to the modernist approach of Western abstraction, Chu's work remained closely attached to the metaphysical connotation from the Eastern landscape and ink-wash expressions.
No. 81 (Lot 12) is an early Chu Teh-Chun work from 1961. Its surging, criss-crossing black lines, some heavy and dense, others slender and graceful, bring together the sophisticated layers and expansive splash of oil in this exuberant work. Chu's handling of the brush reveals signs of strong pressure that flattens the brush against the painting's surface. In each turn of the brush, in the uptake, continuation, turning, and completion of each stroke, Chu reveals the solid calligraphy skills he began acquiring in childhood (Fig. 1). The profusion of powerful, energetic lines in inky black, running both vertically and horizontally across the pictorial space, guides the viewer's eye through a composition whose visual focus runs along several different axes. The result is a work that from a modern perspective, in the medium of oil, recreates anew the vast and majestic space of Song Dynasty landscapes. With each assured brushstroke, Chu builds up forms and spaces that blend and converge, floating in an ambience where they seem on the verge of disappearing at any moment-not unlike Guo Xi's Landscape in Early Spring (Fig. 2), whose rocks and mountains rise proudly in the midst of vast and hazy spaces.
In a rare departure from his generally more ebullient use of colour, Chu's palette here is dominated by browns and reddish-browns in addition to its fundamental black tones. The deliberate choice to limit himself to such a basic palette is one sign of the artist's deep affinity with Chinese ink painting and calligraphy and his outstanding skills with those forms. From a Western point of view, Chu's brushstrokes certainly exhibit the stylistic rendition of Abstract Expressionism (Lot 12, Fig. 3). However, his choice of the pure simplicity of a limited colour palette shows how close he comes, in both concept and vocabulary, to the approach of Minimalism and its decision to abjure any representative images. From this point of view, Chu was able to find a kind of sustenance in returning to his cultural roots that placed him well above the fray in the contentious battle between "hot" and "cold" abstraction, and allowed him to find a very finely judged point of balance and harmony between the two.
Calligraphic Lines and the Harmonious Rhythms of Landscape
The two 1961 works by Chu Teh-Chun offered in the Evening Sale fully embrace the distinct looks of ancient Chinese landscapes hidden under the abstract aesthetics. At the same time, both works present the exceptional characteristics of the calligraphic lines that build up their visual space. The rugged lines that sweep across Chu's canvases reveal the artist's ambition to express, with the oil medium, the grace and harmony of the brushwork in Chinese calligraphy. Painted at the beginning of the 1960s, as Chu was leaving figurative paintings behind to explore abstraction, Chu's No. 81 shows him wielding a brush loaded with brown-black pigments in bold swaths across the canvas. Sometimes the sweeping, inky black lines, broad or fine, merge and transform into a deeply saturated mass. In No. 96 (Lot 09), Chu presents the multipleperspective composition as commonly seen in Chinese inkwash landscapes. He artfully constructs the pictorial plane with his vigorous upward and downward sweeps of lines, outlining in broad strokes the same kind of rocky, craggy mountain peaks and gnarled limbs that might appear in a painting such as Li Tang's Whispering Pines Among the Gorges (Fig. 4). The gaps between Chu's overlapping blocks of black and brown are like the fissures in a cliff wall with mysterious light shooting out. They remind us of the mountains enshrouded in mist (Fig. 5) painted by Lang Shi-Ning (the Chinese name taken by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit priest who served as court painter in the Imperial Palace), who adopted Western theories of use of light in his ink-wash paintings. No. 96 is a work deeply informed by the sense of such reflections on the distant past.
The strong, fine lines of oil pigment that Chu Teh-Chun spreads across his canvas exude a calligraphic feel that is strongly Eastern in spirit. The tip of Chu's brush swirls and flows through various calligraphic reverse, hook, and skipping strokes; the way they resonate together recalls the turns and spirals in the scroll, Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru, by Huang Tingjian (Fig. 6). The profound power of Chu's brushwork provides strong visual focus and direction, while the sheer vitality of the lines gives these works musical and melodic sensations. The artist's wrist movements translate into lines with great freedom and ease. They sweep upward and shoot downward, weaving complex, echoing layers in the pictorial space, while the patches of white or deep blue perfectly complement the variations in the pace and weight of the brushstrokes. These areas of lighter colour help create the misty, hazy feel on top of traditional coloured-ink landscapes and add texture to the dense mountain ranges, dividing its peaks and chasms with deep contrast. Upon the immediate impression of layers and layers of craggy peaks climbing heavenward, Chu carefully adds white fog and bluish mist that peek out from underneath. The scene thus unfolds with a natural balance of contrast between density and openness, between dream and reality.
In the Evening Sale, Christie's proudly presents two important and valuable works by Chu Teh-Chun from 1961. In them we can witness that, early in his career, Chu has already developed a deep attachment for the many different aspects traditional Chinese aesthetics. Each of those aspects is explored by Chu to the full extent, whether in the depth and flowing quality of his inky black tones, or the combination of strength and spontaneity of the "wild" cursive calligraphy style. In addition, Chu finds the ineffable poetry of the brush and ink techniques handed down through generations, and transforms it, in the Western medium of oil, into works of great freedom and vividness-works that stand side by side with the best produced by Western practitioners of abstract art forms in the 20th Century (Fig. 7). The difference, however, is that Chu Teh-Chun's abstract exploration roots from years of sophisticated skills in calligraphy, combined with a greater sense of cultural depth and aesthetic meaning. In these respects the art of Chu Teh-Chun has enhanced the essential spirit of abstract art in both the East and the West, opening it up to entirely new dimensions.