Chu Teh-Chun moved to France in 1955 as an artist seeped in the Eastern scholarly tradition, with an eye towards the Western art world’s post-war boom in abstraction, which made him an expert in Eastern and Western perspectives by the mid-20th century. No. 229 was created 11 years after his arrival in France, at which point he had already developed his personal artistic language as a dialogue between Eastern and Western art, expressing qualities of the East with the medium of oil paint.
Having studied Chinese calligraphy from a young age under his father’s tutelage, Chu had extensive training in traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting techniques and works such as Niannu Jiao (Reminiscing About Antiquity at Red Cliff) offer a glimpse of his masterful control over calligraphic lines. Chu’s later training under Pan Tianshou further honed his cursive script, lending him a degree of expressiveness that was second nature. Early in his stay in France he had difficulty acquiring the rice paper needed to practice Chinese calligraphy, and it was not until 1966 that he discovered inadvertently that the wrapping paper used in butcher shops had excellent absorbency despite its thinness; he then began to buy butcher paper in bulk and practice Chinese calligraphy again. No. 229 was finished in that same year and is proof of Chu’s labour in revisiting calligraphy after his hiatus: the varying weight and shifting opacity of his lines traced through diffusion, hooks, and interweaving brushstrokes combine to create remarkably refined depth and structure. His contemporary Western Abstract artist Hans Hartung opined that lines are but geometric products of unconscious action; the artist’s poise, movement, and twists of the hand thus interact with the lines on a canvas to produce a surrealist space inside the mind. In contrast, Chu not only understood the spirit of Action Painting in the West, but he also grasped the Chinese philosophy of “calligraphy as painting, painting as calligraphy” to “write” the painting with his will, with bold strokes revealing his powerful wristwork, and flowing lines showing off his calligraphy skills.
These undulating lines that verge on the spiritual might remind one of Cy Twombly’s creations. Chu’s paintings are imbued with his inner voice, and this expression from the heart further incorporates natural imagery as well. The artist once shared that his creations from the 60s were distillations of his heartfelt reactions to travelling in nature. He took the essence of mountains and streams and poured out his heart on the canvas through abstract techniques, sketching the scenery from his heart, approaching expressionism.
Chu especially admired Fan Kuan, who wrote in Xuanhe Huapu that “the ancients painted nature by examining it with their eyes, instead of learning from them, I should learn directly from nature. Instead of learning from nature, I should learn from my heart.” Fan Kuan initially learned from people, then he learned from objects, and finally learned from his heart, or in other words shifting from the depiction of objects and learning from masters to growing through introspection. Chu understood this to mean that “‘learning from the heart’ is to focus on the artist, and is ideologically similar to Abstraction – Chinese artists merely neglected to coin the style explicitly as ‘Abstract’. Taking nature and fusing it with the artist’s heart or ideas is to show the artist’s imagination, learning, and personality on the canvas. In that way, Chinese paintings in fact converge with Abstract paintings.” No. 229 shows us how Chu melded together the expressionist spirit of Chinese landscape paintings with Western mediums to reinterpret “Abstraction”, and in doing so, the work can even be said to reach the height of Fan Kuan’s Facing River and Sitting Alone .
No. 229 has a striking presence like Li Bai described in Ode to Bid Danyouzi Farewell at the Peak of Mount Hua , “O the strength of the ridges of Mount Hua! In the distance, the Yellow River flows like silk and extends to the sky. Across tens of thousands of miles the river thunders with force that shakes the valleys ….Grand waves roar and part mountains, and jets shoot like arrows towards the Eastern sea. The trident peaks of Mount Hua stand precariously on edge, like river gods making way between the mountains.” The soaring and rolling mountain ranges in China are rendered in this work through the varying shades and swathes of yellow, tan, and black, while the sapphire, dark bronze, and greyish-green sculpt the outlines of fantastical rock formations, roaring rivers, and eccentric saplings. One cannot help but be reminded of Zhang Daqian’s Mount Emei, which bring into being a space that is out of this world and utterly articulate the artist’s poetic artistry working in concert with his heart.
No. 229 gives us a glimpse of the artist’s amalgamation of his spirit and nature, expressed through the Western medium of oil painting to revolutionise Abstract representation and bring back the imposing alps from Song Dynasty, redefining the substance of Expressionism in modern art, and fusing Chinese and Western aesthetics.