Sombre Horizontal

Sombre Horizontal
signed in Chinese, signed and dated ‘CHU TEH-CHUN 89’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
130.2 x 195.2 cm. (51 1/4 x 76 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1989
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 25 May 2013, Lot 8
Private Collection, Asia (Acquired from the above sale by the present owner)
The authenticity of this artwork has been confirmed by the Fondation Chu Teh-Chun, Geneva.
The Ueno Royal Museum & Thin Chang Corporation, Solo Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, Taipei, Taiwan, 2007 (illustrated, p. 216).
National Museum of History & Thin Chang Corporation, Chu Teh-Chun 88 Retrospective, Taipei, Taiwan, 2008 (illustrated, p. 141).
Tokyo, Japan, The Ueno Royal Museum, Solo Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, 23 June- 10 July 2007
Taipei, Taiwan, National Museum of History & Thin Chang Corporation, Chu Teh-Chun 88 Retrospective, 19 September -23 November 2008.

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Lot Essay

"We can 'read' his gestures with the brush as mountains or clouds, as waves, as the cosmic swirl of Chaos at the beginning of the world—visionary forms, forever appearing and dissolving before our eyes."

- Michael Sullivan

In his over half-century long artistic career, Chu Teh- Chun was profoundly influenced by two Western artists: Nicolas de Staël and Rembrandt van Rijn. After seeing an exhibition of paintings by de Staël, Chu began to shift from figurative painting to expressive abstract painting. His works from the late 1950s to late 1960s resound with a tremendous momentum, and “an intense feeling of movement resembling the wild cursive script, as the colours and lines surge like waves.” In 1970, Chu Teh-chun boarded the train to Amsterdam to see a retrospective commemorating the 300th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth. The painter’s work had an immense impact on Chu, particularly in the use of light. Chu’s works from that point onwards convey an everricher sense of rhythm and transparency in colour and brushstroke, emphasizing the relationship between light and the composition of a three-dimensional space. His painting from 1989, Sombre Horizontal (Lot 22), is the seminal work from this period.


Chu Teh-chun said: “I didn’t voyage into abstraction because I’d accepted some kind of theory…Abstract painting seeks to portray those grand and shifting images that lurk in the ambivalence of one’s memory. I felt that was the unknown territory I had to explore.” As the title of the painting suggests, the artist employed abstract symbols such as dot, line and plane to depict the space and structure of nature. Light and shadow are natural phenomena that move and change with the passage of time, while "horizontal" alludes to an ambiguous space, leaving an infinite and imaginative realm that is open to the viewer’s interpretation. While this painting is entirely abstract, it evokes vivid landscapes in its colours. The broad strokes of black and dark brown that feature predominantly in the composition, the translucent white bursting from the centre, and the vibrant orange, yellow, and peacock green bring to mind the sun shining on a summer day, or monumental waves crashing on the rocks.


Chu was well-versed in Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. While he focused on abstract painting in his later career, his works often carry the expressive touches of the Chinese calligraphic brush. Yet his art differs from traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. For instance, Tang dynasty calligrapher Huai Su created a keen sense of rhythm in Autobiography with a crisp, swinging cursive script; in Pure and Remote View of Streams and Mountains , Song dynasty painter Xia Gui employed the dry brush to trace the contours of the cliffs, and he used ink strokes of varying gradations and large blanks to instill a sense of texture into the space and the contrast of light and dark. In contrast, Chu drew on the fluidity of oil paint and different stroke strengths, and used broad strokes to paint ink brown colour blocks that evoke striking mountains and cliffs. The swift lines and flying white strokes create varying textures between light and shade, revealing a magnificent natural landscape in which the illusory is masked in the real. With the portrayal of light in a three-dimensional space, the light and dark contrast is illuminated as it comes to life on the canvas, unveiling a rich and dramatic visual effect.


Chu Teh-chun mentioned many times that music was an important source of inspiration for him: “Admiring a painting is like listening to music.” “Strumming like the pouring rain, or stirring like whispers” is how Wu Guanzhong described the boundless sense of rhythm in the chaos of Chu’s visuals, and his transforming colours and brushstrokes into notes on a pentatonic scale. The Expressionist painter Emil Nolde employed distinct colours to evoke the morning sun and waves. In a similar vein, Chu used the contrasting colours of dark brown and cream white as the main colours, and accentuated them with dashing colour blocks to bring a pulsating sense of rhythm to the visuals. Chu painted heavy yet moving lines in broad and powerful brushstrokes, and instilled into them touches of ink painting in places. The spatial breadth of Chinese landscape painting lies hidden in Chu’s expression of abstract aesthetics. Beyond the boldness of Chu’s oil painting, the work illustrates the artist’s quest to expand the possibilities of Chinese ink and brushwork in Western media.

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