10 things to know about poet and painter Chu Teh-Chun

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 and poems.

Chu Teh-Chun, Sombre Horizontal, painted in 1989. 130.2 x 195.2 cm (51 14 x 76 78 in). Estimate HK$12,000,000–16,000,000, Offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 24 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

Chu Teh-Chun, Sombre Horizontal, painted in 1989. 130.2 x 195.2 cm (51 1/4 x 76 7/8 in). Estimate HK$12,000,000–16,000,000, Offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 24 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

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 principle was 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.

Chu Teh-Chun photographed in his Paris in 2010. In 2001 the artist was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur © Jerome HufferParis Match

Chu Teh-Chun photographed in his Paris in 2010. In 2001 the artist was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur © Jerome Huffer/Paris Match

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 Expressionism.

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.

Chu Teh-Chun, Untitled, painted in 1963. Overall 195 x 243.5  cm (76¾ x 95⅞  in). Estimate on request. Offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 24 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Chu Teh-Chun, Untitled, painted in 1963. Overall: 195 x 243.5 cm (76¾ x 95⅞ in). Estimate on request. Offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 24 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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’.

Chu Teh-Chun, Evocation Hivernale A, painted in 1988. 100 x 73  cm. Sold for HK$14,440,000 on 23 November 2013 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Chu Teh-Chun, Evocation Hivernale A, painted in 1988. 100 x 73 cm. Sold for HK$14,440,000 on 23 November 2013 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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 exile.

Chu Teh-Chun, No. 313, painted in 1969. 260 x 195 cm. Estimate on request. Offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 24 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Chu Teh-Chun, No. 313, painted in 1969. 260 x 195 cm. Estimate on request. Offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 24 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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).