“All true painting is no more than a memory. Chu Teh-Chun’s work captures in an elusive yet profound way the dazzling recollections that his eye has left him.”
-Pierre Cabanne, ‘Chu Teh-Chun’, Cercle d’art.
Chu Teh-Chun was born in 1920 in Xuzhou city of Jiangsu province. He entered the prominent Hangzhou Art Academy in 1935. Lin Fengmian, who was the principle at that time, had a deep appreciation for French modern art. Therefore, students were able to learn from both Chinese and Western art theory and techniques. In 1955, Chu left Taiwan for France. From a young age, he learned Chinese painting. Not only was he knowledgeable and experienced in Chinese painting, he also had a profound interest in Chinese poetry. This cultivation of literati culture is apparent in his oil paintings.
In Poussée Cristalline (Lot 34) Chu's large washes of colour and sweeping, striated brushstrokes demonstrate the immense skill he has honed since his early works. His use of colour has become richer and more brilliant as he sweeps the canvas with highintensity hues. Dark browns and blues make up the basic palette in an imposing and magnificent composition, built up through layering and tonal juxtaposition. Blocks of colour ascend, floating across the surface in tandem with dotted pigments that traverse the horizontal plane. The composition’s verticality is emphasized by monumental descending brushstrokes, a pattern recurrent in his compositions, that we can trace back to the early Parisian compositions inspired by his discovery of the French city and the abstraction of Nicolas de Staël (Fig. 1).
Looking at Poussée Cristalline one grasps the implications of 19th Century French artist Eugène Delacroix’s expression “the silent power of painting”. Chu often refers to his paintings as the visual translation of music, where the notes translate into a farandole of small colourful dots intertwined onto a grand background of wind instruments. His composition epitomizes the silencing of the music through painting as it expresses its noble emotions in a fluid movement where the pleasure of the sound becomes visual. The process symbolizes the interpenetration of artistic forms, evocative of a Western reflection called the "Gesamtkunstwerk", the synthesis of the arts, with the ambition to use a plurality of artistic forms.
Knowing that Chu greatly admired Goya (Fig. 2), El Greco and Rembrandt, it is not difficult to understand his pursuit of visual dramatics through his mastery of light and shadow. Chu once said, 'The colour and lines in my images are never random results, but are put together harmoniously for one common purpose: to activate light sources and call forth images and rhythms.' It becomes clear that colour, lines, and light were important tools that allowed Chu to achieve the harmonious rhythms of his paintings.
A study of the contrasts of light and shadow occupied Chu since the 1970s, and in fact, they have been a subject of study throughout the history of art, from the chiaroscuro of the Renaissance to the Impressionist focus on depicting the play of light and shadow.
In order to capture the fast-changing and fluid light, Chu created a translucent paint that rendered an ethereal brushstroke. Oil paint has never before been so feathery and impalpable. Coloured masses are light and tender, almost as if they were washes of ink on rice paper, dancing along the rhythm created by refractions of light. Thin and translucent paint surrounds the more dense masses, with light interlacing and reflecting, in a rendering close to Yuan Dynasty painter Qian Xuan (Fig. 3). Imageries floating down, circulating, wandering around, we see through clouds the real, the fabled, the discernible and the intangible.
Chu created a series of artworks in the 1990s that explored shadows and light, forms and colours, as he began to shift towards inner explorations, which the artist described as "roaming among my memories." Spiritually he travelled far and wide, freely portraying the inner scenery he envisioned, and thus produced this series of works. The painting presented here, is a large-scale work from the series that epitomizes the artist's fluidity with light and masterful use of colours. French art critic Jean-Francois Chabrun once described Chu as a "20th century Sung Dynasty painter", praising him for integrating creative spirits of Western abstract art with traditional Chinese landscape compositions and poetic portrayals of time and space.
With the same origin and education at the Hangzhou academy, Wu Guanzhong remains a close friend to Chu Teh-Chun all along their lives even though the former returned to China in 1950 after three years in France. Their artistic path mirror each other in their ambition to bring the tradition of Chinese landscape painting into modernity. About the nature inspiration Wu said "Whenever I am at an impasse, I turn to natural scenery. In nature I can reveal my true feelings to the mountains and rivers: my depth of feelings toward the motherland and my love toward my people. I set off from my own native village and Lu Xun’s native soil. "For both artists nature is the theatre of emotions (Fig. 4). While in that sense they respect a position similar to the Chinese literati master in nature, Wu and Chu each challenge the traditional form in their distinctive style with the freedom of abstraction, thus participating in the new Chapter of Chinese modern painting.
The 1980s marked the renewal of Chu Teh-Chun's ties with his homeland. He first travelled back to China in 1983 after 28 years abroad, when he was invited by The Chinese Union of Artists. He went to Taiwan four years later for his first major Asian retrospective at the Taipei national History Museum, and afterwards in regular trips. This context deeply influenced the already mature artist, who spoke of the renewal of the Chinese influence on his work, saying that "our ancestors left us with an inexhaustible cultural heritage, and as I've grown older, I can feel this 'China' coming out in me more than ever before”.
The 1990s also come as the years of maturity and international recognition for Chu who started exhibiting regularly in Asia since his first important retrospective in 1987 in Taiwan. On 17th December 1997, he was elected as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, becoming the first ethnic Chinese member of this prominent French art institution.
At the threshold between Western abstract art and the poeticism of Chinese painting and calligraphy, extracting essence from both and integrating them into his personal style, Chu's Poussée Cristalline skilfully draws upon a universe of philosophies and ancient Chinese concepts to create sustained, turbulent imagery that mirrors one's most unsettling inner conflicts. The poet and art critic Jean- Clarence Lambert once described Chu's compositions as "unlimited space[s] filled with vitality and unceasing change, a space that is alive." To look at Poussée Cristalline is to take a step into the artist's psyche-we see his hand pulling the brush through the paint across the canvas's surface, we admire his defiance of the confines of tradition, and above all else, we can still feel Chu Teh- Chun's undeniable exuberance in the moment he created the work, even now more than half a century later.