A guide to the Chinese artist who was a peer and friend of Wu Guanzhong and Zao Wou-Ki, and is widely celebrated for his elegiac paintings that reconfigured Western abstraction
1. Chu Teh-Chun’s unique form of Oriental abstraction
Wu Guanzhong, who studied alongside
Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014), described his friend’s art
as appearing ‘like Western paintings when looking from afar,
but when examined closely, they look like Chinese paintings.’
The colour blocks and geometrical lines of Chu’s work do indeed recall Abstract Expressionism, but the monumental mountains
and rivers evoke the style of the Chinese Northern Song dynasty.
’The artist absorbs what he sees in nature and refines it in his mind,’ said Chu, ‘and it is the power of the artist’s imagination, his sensibility, and his inner character that are revealed on the canvas. This is where the concepts behind Chinese painting and abstract painting very neatly come together.’
2. Chu Teh-Chun’s paintings evoke the rugged landscape of his childhood
Chu Teh-Chun grew up in Xiao County in the eastern province
of Anhui, a region stretching hundreds of miles north of
the Yangtze River, and home to the famous Yellow Mountain.
Its conifers clinging to jagged, near vertical cliffs and
cloudy peaks were the subject of many classical paintings
His grandfather collected art and poetry, and it was through
the family’s extensive art collection that Chu educated himself
in the history of traditional calligraphy and ink painting.
3. Chu reconciled traditional Chinese art with Western Modernism
Recognising his talent for painting, Chu’s father persuaded him
out of becoming a gymnast and towards studying
at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. The school’s
Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), a visionary artist with an
expansionist Pan-Asian aesthetic who wanted to reconcile
Chinese traditional art with Western Modernism. It was here
that Chu also met the artists
Wu Guanzhong and
Zao Wou-Ki, and together they would advance Lin’s desire
for a Chinese modernism.
4. Chu’s formative training in calligraphy inspired his later move to abstraction
As a teenager Chu Teh-Chun studied with the modern ink master
Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), learning to perfect the exacting
craft of caoshu, a form of calligraphy in which the characters
are written in one uninterrupted stroke. In later years he
likened the controlled spontaneity of the medium to Abstract
5. His posters and murals protested against the Japanese invasion
In 1937, with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, the Academy
was forced to relocate to Nanjing, where Chu became active
in the country’s resistance movement, designing propaganda
posters and murals protesting against the Japanese invasion.
He became professor of Architecture at the National Central
University in Nanjing in 1945 before resigning his post three years later. In 1949, he began teaching architecture at the National China Normal University in Taipei, Taiwan.
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6. After moving to Paris, he painted the ‘Mona Lisa of the East’
Since listening to his teacher Lin Fengmian describing his student
days in Paris, Chu had wanted to study in the French capital.
In 1955, after several years as a successful figurative artist
in Taipei, he got his wish. He did not take long to make his mark: in 1956, Chu was awarded
the silver medal in the Spring Salon for a painting of his
wife, Tang Teh-Chun. The picture was nicknamed the ‘Mona Lisa
of the East’.
7. He saw links between Abstract Expressionism and calligraphy
After seeing a 1956 retrospective of the Abstract painter
Nicolas de Staël at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, Chu made the extraordinary decision to reject figurative
painting and start all over again.
Formative abstracts like
Untitled (1963), above, sought
to reflect the natural world. To Chu, Abstract Expressionism
represented freedom, and it echoed some of the techniques
of Chinese calligraphy, which had to be executed quickly
and in the moment. ‘Paper allows for no mistakes,’ he once said.
8. The elemental forces of nature inspired Chu’s greatest works
In the 1980s, after witnessing a snowstorm from his train window
when crossing the Swiss Alps, Chu created a series of emotive
paintings — including Evocation Hivernale A (1988), below — which reflected
the exhilarating, yet terrifying might of the natural world.
It was around this time that the poet and art critic
Jean-Clarence Lambert likened him to ‘one of the great
cosmic dreamers in ancient Greece’.
9. Poetry remained his first love
‘I love Chinese poetry,’ Chu said. ‘It blends naturally into
my painting. It is not a coincidence that Western art critics
see my work as poetically inspired abstractions.’
The convergence of landscape painting and poetry began in China
as early as the Wei and Jin dynasties (from 220 AD). Wang Wei’s
groundbreaking landscape poetry and ink paintings during the
Tang dynasty (618-907) deepened the tradition, which reached
its peak during the Song dynasty (960-1279), when Su Shi and Mi Fu advocated a union of poetry and painting. From
this point on it became a part of China’s intellectual heritage.
Chu Teh-Chun believed poetry and painting followed ‘the same
rules and rhythms’, and throughout his life continued to
practice calligraphy, illustrating the works of many famous
Chinese poets, in particular those who evoked the pain of
10. Chu and the five categories of ink
Chu took an oriental theory known as the five categories of
ink and applied it to oil paint. The categories are thickness,
thinness, dryness, wetness and black, and the results were
transformational. In a painting such as No. 313 (1969), surfaces
of rich colour, loaded with depth, reconfigure Western Abstraction. ‘His bold lines are like downpours, while
his thin ones are like whispers,’ Wu Gaunzhong wrote of Chu’s paintings.
Major retrospectives of Chu’s work have been held both at the National Museum of History in Taipei and the Taiwan Arts Museum in Taichung in 1987. In 1997, he was honoured by l’Academie des Beaux-Arts de France and elected as a member of the institute. In 2001, the artist was awarded Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2001.
Chu Teh-Chun died in Paris in March 2014, aged 93. His death
closely followed those of his friends Wu Guanzhong
(2010) and Zao Wou-Ki (2013).