I listen to the universe, to the people, to the East and to the West among nature, [that is where] I got my inspirations and poetic forms from. The creation process is purely self-initiated, as what Chinese Taoist philosophy believes, 'To let out the graceful air from within.' - Chu Teh-Chun
Learning calligraphy at an early age under his father’s tutelage, Chu Teh-Chun had deep understandings of traditional calligraphy and ink painting. His admission to the National Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, then headed by the acclaimed artist, Lin Feng-Men, in 1935, is what inspired his ambition of adopting the best from both Chinese and Western paintings. It is only after his travel in France in 1955 that he started to explore the visual language of oil painting, changing his style from one that is figurative to abstract. Chu then became the first to successfully imbued the monumental landscape aesthetics of the Song dynasty and calligraphy brushworks into oil painting, he also brought revolutionary changes to the literati aesthetics of Chinese art history. Throughout his illustrious career, the most poetic, idiosyncratic and symbolic works are undoubtedly his series on snow-white landscape.
On his way back to France from Switzerland in 1985, Chu was deeply moved by the hailstorm he witnessed on the Swiss Alps, the following years saw the completion of a series of sublime snow scene. Vertige Neigeux (Lot 2508) is a celebration of the beauty of landscape in snow. Imbued with the rich energy of the nature, this monumental work was done in ten years’ time from 1990 to 1999. Visually compelling, this is an unparalleled work in the artist’s oeuvre. Unlike the earlier works of the series, in which emphasis on ink and landscape composition are stressed, Vertige Neigeux charted new height by opting for a more abstract and pure form of expression. Departing from figurative depiction, the interconnections between each brushstroke, dot and line replace the physical space, rendering a momentous field of energy. Instead of a descriptive brushstroke, dots and lines are used to advocate depth, resulting in a vivid re-enactment of the nature, showing the high level of maturity Chu attained in his exploration and innovation in the organic abstract forms.
Wu Guanzhong’s Cypresses done in 1983 is a fine example of using the spontaneity of dots to push figurative landscape towards the abstract, and ingenuously reconstructed physical space through the connections between dots and lines. The abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock’s method of drip painting, which repeatedly splash paint on the canvas, resembles in form the method of Wu and Chu. However, the spontaneous writing idea on which Pollock based on, is a mechanical expression of the physical energy. Chu, in his pursuit of natural energy and rhythm, expresses instead a commanding understanding of the use of ink and spatial composition, what looks like careless spontaneity is in fact highly complex. Vertige Neigeux is a work with wondrous panoramic composition, the rhythm created by the alternation between the depicted and the void, together with its nostalgic colours that suggest the pristineness of the ink painting, achieving a variation in quietude that evokes the feelings of In Clear View of Streams and Mountains when one admires the painting from afar. The suggested temporality and multiple perspectives in Chinese landscape handscrolls are most suitable in presenting the naturalism and the artist’s inner spirit. Monet’s The Water Lilies - The Clouds shows the artist understanding and adoption of this oriental aesthetics.
Artistically, in Vertige Neigeux, Chu first uses splash colours as the base tone to create a sense of unison, the pale wash of paint creates an illusionistic depth, rendering the wide expanse of the landscape. The traces of paint in place of figurative depictions look free and spontaneous, yet is done meticulously with precision, guiding viewers to the admiration of the hazy distant landscape. The snow on the surface looks untrammelled and as if dancing in the wind, evoking a poetically imagery in the viewer’s mind, creating a delightful contract with the density and texture of oil paint. Snow in Chu’s painting is not simply a dot, but building on the infinite possibility of ‘moss dots’ in Song paintings, having variation in size, density and opacity, representing the constant changing of forms in nature. Water vapours, clouds, hail and frost are all rendered among the snow. Through the representational power of the dots, Chu created an ultimate expression of the nature. At the same time, just as the Ming artist Wen Zhengming painted with brushstrokes of cursive calligraphy, Chu’s calligraphic lines guided the direction of movement on the canvas, enhancing the momentum with swift and brittle textual strokes. The changing thickness of the lines, enriching the multiple dimensions through the intersection of the lines. These forceful marks also suggest the temporality of the writing process, as the viewer directs his gaze, the cadence and correlations between each detail converges into a majestically orchestrated work that celebrates the compelling poetic beauty of the snow.
“When I departed in the past, the willows were young; Now that I am returning, snow is falling on me incessantly. The travel is slow, I am thirsty and hungry. I am forlorn, with no one knowing.” - The last stanza of 'Caiwei' from the Lesser Ya chapter of the Book of Songs.
The title in Chinese evokes the memory of the snow in the last stanza of the ‘Caiwei’ poem from the Book of Songs. The poem itself correlates much to Chu’s own life. The poem’s subject is on war, the first three stanzas talk about the soldiers who spent their life in border garrison and their longing for their hometowns in such hardship. Chu himself experienced war from seventeen to twenty-five years old. Losing his parents, his paintings done before twenty-five years old were also destroyed during the war. He once said, ‘The turmoil both internal and external from 1935 to 1949 left me with a void in my artistic career.’ After the war, Chu moved to Taiwan, in other word, Chu had a life of uncertainties before arriving in Paris when he was thirty-five years old. The last two stanzas of the poem show how the soldiers, despite their longing for the hometown, shows heroism in face of impending national crisis, as the soldiers in the poem, who ‘stayed not in permanence, achieving victory thrice a month!’ Chu, with his talent and diligence, striving for excellence in a foreign land for fifty years, gaining international acclaim by his mastery of both Chinese and Western art and prestigiously recognized as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of France.
Chu illustrated the Chinese poet Su Shi’s idea of the unison between poetry and painting, Chu once said, ‘I love Chinese poetry […] it naturally merged into my paintings. Western critics thought my works are poetic abstract painting, this is an apt observation.” His words suggested a creative spirit that is distinctively oriental, in the complementing relationship between poetry and painting, an reflective experience towards the nature and emotion is shown. Vertige Neigeux is not only a work that shows Chu’s mastery of poetry, calligraphy and painting, it is also a miniature of Chu’s artistic career and life, pouring his feelings onto the painting, using a modern abstract form to perpetuate classical Chinese humanism, it is a fine expression of oriental abstract aesthetics. From present records, Chu did not further worked on any snow scene after 1991. Vertige Neigeux is thus a perfect consummation of his snow scene series, showing clearly how Chu imbued classical Chinese aesthetics into his pursuit of western abstract, successfully using a revolutionary perspective in changing the aesthetics, leaving a monumental milestone on the history of art.