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La Forêt Blanche I (The White Forest I)

La Forêt Blanche I (The White Forest I)
signed in Chinese, signed and dated 'CHU TEH-CHUN 87' (lower right); titled and dated 'La Foret Blanche I 1987', signed in Chinese and signed 'CHU TEH-CHUN' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
130 x 195.5 cm. (51 1/8 x 77 in.)
Painted in 1987
Anon. Sale, Briest Scp. Paris, 23 November 1994, lot 41
Anon. Sale, Ravenel Taipei, 3 December 2006, lot 59
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

The authenticity of the artwork has been confirmed by Fondation Chu Teh-Chun, Geneva.
If a certificate has not already been issued, a certificate of authenticity can be requested for the successful buyer.
Shanghai Bookstore publishing House, Chu Teh-Chun, Shanghai, China, 2005 (illustrated, p. 154-155).
Pierre-Jean Remy(ed.), Editions de La Difference, Chu Teh-Chun, Paris, France, 2006 (illustrated, p. 157).
The Ueno Royal Museum & Thin Chang Corporation, Solo Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, exh. cat., Taipei, Taiwan, 2007 (illustrated, p. 201).
National Museum of History & Thin Chang Corporation, Chu Teh-Chun 88 Retrospective, exh. cat., Taipei, Taiwan, 2008 (illustrated, p. 139).
Artist Publishing, Chu Teh-Chun, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, p. 119).
Shanghai, China, Shanghai Art Museum, Exposition des oeuvres recentes de Chu Teh-Chun, October-November 2005.
Tokyo, Japan, The Ueno Royal Museum, Solo Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, June- July 2007.
Taipei, Taiwan, National Museum of History, Chu Teh-Chun: 88 Retrospective, September-November 2008.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡)

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Lot Essay

“Chu Teh-Chun’s seminal monumental painting titled The White Forest doesn’t actually depict a snowy forest. The crisscrossing strokes and elusive blocks and dots create a scene that seems to leap out in space, while the lattice of fine lines weaves a world of silvery-grey. The artist is capricious and unbounded, that’s why he could create such a complex, ethereal, and emotive painting; these are a distillation of the many woes and good fortune experienced over a lifetime, allowing us a peek behind the curtain into the saga and milestones of the artist’s long artistic career. The white dots seem neither to be flowers or dew drops, instead they push the kaleidoscope of human existence towards infinity – in the distance, it’s an endless forest and one who is confronting his own finished work, that’s when one can recognise the white forest of one’s life.” – Wu Guanzhong

Chu studied Chinese calligraphy from a young age under the tutelage of his father and was steeped in the culture of traditional calligraphic and painting forms. In 1935 he entered the China Academy of Art to study painting, at a time when then-principal Lin Fengmian encouraged his professors to teach both Chinese and Western art, inspiring Chu and his peers to combine the East with the West. In 1955, the artist moved to Paris and was deeply moved by the abstract art that was in vogue at the time, so his style also moved from realism towards abstraction. He took the brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy and the aesthetics of traditional Chinese paintings and expressed them through oil paints. At the same time, the artist brought in Western theories on colour and optics to be merged with classical eastern philosophies, to bring on a ground-breaking revolution to traditional Chinese freehand paintings. Over the course of an illustrious creative career spanning over seven decades, Chu persisted in his innovation and continually reinvented himself, so that works from his many periods have now become sought-after treasures to the world. Among them, the most distinctive, poetic, and lauded may well be his Snow Scenes series from the mid-1980s to the 1990s.

In 1985, Chu visited Geneva for an exhibition of his paintings, and happened to travel through the Alps during heavy snowfall. The magnificent scene left a strong impression on the artist and drove him to start his famous Snow Scenes series of works, which saw him
depict a number of breath-taking snowy landscapes over almost ten years. He steered away from naturalism or verisimilitude and instead used dots and lines to produce remarkable depth and layers, so that the relationship among each stroke, each dot, and each line could communicate physical space without actually depicting one. While the expression of the painting is purely abstract, the dynamism of snow falling among trees and into valleys remain abundantly clear, showing Chu’s mastery over the abstract form as well as his own experimentation and innovation on top of it as well.

This fall, Christie’s is proud to present The White Forest I, a large format painting from 1987 that is a core work from the artist’s Snow Scenes series. According to various publications, the artist painted fewer than twenty large format snow scenes between 1985 and 1990, which is unusual for an artist who is quite prolific in his practice. Most of these works are in permanent public institutional collections, and only ten have appeared in auctions. Towards the late 1980s, Chu’s Snow Scenes series entered its most mature and spectacular period after a few early years of development. The density and the finesse of the snow drops fill the canvas with vigour and power, evoking poet Li Bai’s grand depiction of “The land is white and the wind howls with chill, snowflakes fall in the size of one’s hand”. The White Forest I was created during this prime period and is one of two large format works titled The White Forest from the same year, with both works boasting impressive exhibition and publication histories. The White Forest II graced the stage at Christie’s Hong Kong eight years ago and sold for sixty million Hong Kong dollars, breaking a world record for the artist at the time. Today, The White Forest I re-emerges on the market after nearly fifteen years in a private collection.

When one examines The White Forest I, Su Shi’s “different far and near or high and low” invariably comes to mind. The overall scene in the painting is an imposing and majestic view of nature, with specks of wonder hiding behind sedate and muted colours, hinting at the coming sunset and dancing snow swirling around gyrating willow trees. Upon closer inspection, however, one finds a completely different sensation – with eerie quietness, scattered snowflakes, and an almost tranquil quality amid the disarray. This scenery is quite different from the motionless winter forests that are common in Chinese landscape paintings, and it also differs significantly from the reality at the Alps; however, on a spiritual level, the audience should still be able to empathise with the artist’s exhilaration and profound impact thanks to the mental image that has been imparted on to the canvas, helping us break through the limits of time and space. As critic Pierre Cabanne noted after seeing Chu’s work, “true realism in paintings can only come from memory”.

If Chu’s snow scenes are the apex of his life’s work and skills, then The White Forest I must sit at the apex of the apex, as it neatly encapsulates the artist’s homage to, and breakthrough of, eastern and western art traditions. To capture the lively blizzard and depict the energy of the flying snowflakes, he used flowing hollow strokes as well as drop and splatter paint techniques to integrate the randomness of Western abstractionism with the spirit of Eastern freehand paintings. At the same time he did not focus on the fine details of the mountains or the trees, instead using abstract brushstrokes to replace naturalistic lines; the varying lines and dots rhythmically intersect each other with great density without losing order, harkening back to the crisp and structured semi-cursive script of Song dynasty scholar Huang Tingjian. The tradition of Chinese scholarly calligraphy and paintings have evolved for over a millennium since the Song dynasty; and Chu’s ingenious approach combining calligraphy with painting, the east with the west, the abstract with the material, have given rise to the enchanting vista in The White Forest I and injected new life into the artform.

Snow is a common motif in classical Chinese literature, usually used to depict purity, freshness, and a zen-like spiritual state. The saying “bathe in snow to invigorate the spirit” perfectly sums up the association between snow and catharsis. At the same time, however, snow can also refer to a deep winter freeze and be a metaphor for harshness and difficulties, as stated in the Book of Songs that “(a)t first, when we set out, the willows were fresh and green. / Now, when we shall be returning, the snow will be falling in clouds.” Chu had a long and tumultuous life, beginning with losing his father at a young age to experiencing war and displacement, and it took him over half a century of hard work after resettling in a foreign country to achieve worldwide renown and recognition by a fellowship at the Academie Francaise. The motif of snow is in many ways a perfect reflection of his life, in that it suggests achieving transcendence and clarity after going through hardship. As Chu’s friend and fellow artist Wu Guanzhong said of this series, “(t)he crisscrossing strokes and elusive blocks and dots create a cacophonous scene… these are a distillation of the many woes and good fortune experienced over a lifetime, allowing us a peek behind the curtain into the saga and milestones of the artist’s long artistic career… (as he) recognise(s) the White Forest of one’s life.” Chu poured his life into this painting and used modern abstract forms to illustrate classical Chinese scholarly spirits, once again presenting a spectacular example of Eastern freehand aesthetics.

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