Twelve years and more than 5,000 miles separated the births of Chu Teh-Chun and Gerhard Richter. The former was born in a village in Jiangsu province, China, in 1920; the latter in the German city of Dresden in 1932.
They would go on to become two of the world’s premier post-war artists, working in fertile terrain within — and also between — figuration and abstraction.
On December 1, a painting by each is being paired in the 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale: Worlds in a Hand at Christie’s in Hong Kong, Chu’s Embrasement (A Blazing Area) and Richter’s Abstraktes Bild 747-1, tracing the flights of passage between East and West with eternal glory.
Chu’s father was a doctor, whose cultivated tastes extended to collecting Chinese painting and having his son taught calligraphy by a tutor. Aged 15, Chu enrolled at the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where he counted Lin Fengmian among his professors.
Lin had studied painting at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and now created an impulse in the young man to visit the city himself — which duly happened in 1955. (It ended up being a prolonged visit, indeed: Chu settled in the French capital for the remaining 59 years of his life.)
Among the works he enjoyed most impressed most on arrival in Paris were the lyrical abstractions of Nicolas de Staël, which influenced a move in his own art away from figuration.
On a trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam the following decade, Chu would also fall in love with the paintings of Rembrandt.
By the late-1970s, the time he executed Embrasement (A Blazing Area), it’s fair to say that Chu had absorbed his many influences and was at the peak of his powers.
The burning light at the top of this picture, contrasting with the darker region below, calls to mind the chiaroscuro in Rembrandt works such as Belshazzar’s Feast.
In turn, the host of individual brushstrokes dancing gloriously across the canvas call to mind the lines of Chinese calligraphy.
What is the picture of, though? It’s by no means obvious, but the title offers a clue: ‘embrasement’ being the French word for conflagration or blaze. The reddish-orange colour that dominates the image seems to represent flaming hot lava exploding from a volcanic mountain. The flow of previously expelled lava, its gradual cooling and eventual pooling are depicted as one’s eye moves progressively down the picture.
Chu’s command of transitioning colours — including the fusion of the reddish-orange with yellow and white, to suggest incandescence — is masterly. Like his dynamic brushwork, it illustrates the restless energies of nature.
As for Abstraktes Bild 747-1 — which was painted in 1991 and achieved a record price for a work by Richter the first time it appeared at auction, in 2007 — it ostensibly has no subject at all. The words of its title translate into English as ‘Abstract Image’.
At pretty much exactly the same time as Chu was painting Embrasement (A Blazing Area), the German was beginning his experiments with a tool which he still uses to this day — and with which he has become almost synonymous, the squeegee.
It is a rectangular sheet of Perspex, which Richter scrapes across the surface of his canvas, shortly after having applied his paint with a brush. This is a fascinatingly ambivalent practice: at once taking away, and adding to, layers of previously built up imagery.
It results in bands, striations and smears of vibrant colour, which — in works of the quality of Abstraktes Bild 747-1 — combine utterly harmoniously. This painting’s reds alone are worth mentioning, recalling Titian’s iridescent use of that colour, as well as Mark Rothko’s deeply spiritual one.
In 2011, Richter said that ‘with a brush you have control. The paint goes on the brush and you make the mark… You know exactly what will happen. With the squeegee, you lose control’. It’s a loss that the artist seems to enjoy.
It is worth adding, though, that the decision to use a squeegee in the first place is an assertion of creative control. What’s more, the angle and pressure of the tool, like the colour and type of paint used, is decided wholly by Richter. These works are very much his own.
The 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale: Worlds in a Hand will pair a number of other artists from East and West: Peter Doig and Zao Wou-ki; Adrien Ghenie and Zeng Fanzhi; Jonas Wood and Sanyu; Hurvin Anderson and Cheong Soo Pieng.
The idea is to unite figures who — through themes such as nostalgia, trauma, redemption and history — found artistically common ground, despite hailing from different sides of the globe.
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What unites Chu Teh-Chun and Richter? More specifically, what unites Embrasement (A Blazing Area) and Abstraktes Bild 747-1? One key factor is the inventive, aforementioned way that the artists respectively put paint to canvas.
Another is the fact that both works look abstract but, on close inspection, retain a hint or more of figuration.
The volcanic context of Chu Teh-Chun’s picture has already been discussed. It’s harder to find anything representational in the Richter. However, in its centre, a tall mysterious body — mainly green, but with touches of yellow and white too — does emerge tentatively from beneath the red. Is it perhaps a person or, more likely, a tree in a Germanic forest?
Richter says he understands that viewers will ‘find narratives’ in his abstractions, as the human eye is conditioned to looking at recognisable subject and objects. In that sense, he says, ‘there really is no difference between a so-called realist painting... and an abstract one’.