Borrowing the Old to Create the New: A Gorgeous Manifestation of Nature
In Western painting theory Chu Teh-Chun found a means of extending the aesthetic forms and concepts of traditional Chinese ink painting, found in its use of points, lines, and planes. In so doing, he evolved an incisive style of presentation which would become an important and exciting milestone during the crucial period of the mid-20th Century when Chinese modern art met Western art, a period of collision and turmoil between them that ultimately produced a fusion and birth of new forms and styles. Chu's introduction to Chinese painting came during his student days at the Hangzhou Academy of Art. As he studied the techniques of classical Western art, he also studied with great painters working in the traditional ink-wash style such as Pan Tianshou, Zhang Guang, and Li Kuchan, and began to form the concept of "borrowing from the past to create the new." Chu hewed to the idea in traditional Chinese freestyle painting that "conveying the spirit is more important than painting the form," and he traveled an exploratory route that led him from realism to morphed imagery, and finally to complete abstraction. One figure who exerted a particularly far-reaching influence on Chu Teh-Chun, deepening his understanding of Chinese painting, was Pan Tianshou, who held high the Daoist notions of "releasing the transcendent nature within you." Along with the Daoist concept of non-action in line with nature, these were the criteria for painting to which Chu adhered throughout his lifetime. When training his students in traditional painting, Pan urged them to copy famous works of the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and for that reason, Chu Teh-Chun, along with his fellow students Wu Guanzhong and Zao Wou-Ki were thoroughly familiar with the work of such artists as Shi Tao, Ba-Da Shan-Ren, and Wu Changshuo. Thus, as he set these artists on their way toward creating a new vocabulary for modern art, Pan Tianshou also provided them with a solid cultural outlook and a strong foundation in traditional aesthetics.
Imaginary Landscapes Drawn from Nature
In 1965, Chu Teh-Chun received an invitation from Dr. Paul Gay to attend a local art fair in the Haute-Savoie region of France. During his stay with Dr. Gay, they visited Chamonix and climbed Mont Blanc where they looked down upon a strikingly beautiful scene of misty, snow-covered mountains. The vision of the majestic nature impressed Chu deeply and continued to linger in his mind. Later, in 1985, he encountered the Alps once again when traveling for his exhibition in Geneva. This time, the impact was so great that his initial memories, which had fermented over a 20 year period, poured out in a burst of creative work that marked the beginning of his renowned series of paintings on snow scene. His wife, Mrs. Dong Jingzhao, commented that every year when the snow started to fall, Chu would be seized with an excitement in reminiscence of his first sight of the beautiful snowy landscape back in 1965. In Chu's Snowscape Series, the artist applied all his insight and mastery, bringing together the finest concepts and techniques of both East and West; the result was a highly distinctive series that would stand as one of the great peaks of his career. According to current publications and catalogues on Chu, this series comprises merely six large-scale diptychs. The painting presented here, La forêt blanche II (Lot 11), furthermore stands out as a rare and valuable work within the series by being one of its few large-scale diptychs.
In La forêt blanche II, Chu Teh-Chu deliberately eschews a detailed depiction of the forest, instead using dripped, splashed, and flowing pigments, in slightly unsettled forms and colours, to capture this fleeting, instantaneous impression of a snowy forest. The dynamic beauty of this scene and its swirling snowflakes is dramatically different in character from the static, immobile visions of winter forests so often portrayed in traditional Chinese landscape paintings. Chu depicts in the work a dynamic charm and a translucent aura of the falling, swirling snow. These gracefully moving and floating lines, set in the midst of a woven flurry of snowflakes, seem to become distant mountains floating in the haze. While the painting displays a direct outpouring of feeling inspired by Western Abstract Expressionism (Fig. 1), it is one whose essential Chinese elements can also be strongly sensed. The snow scene that sweeps so freely across Chu's canvas has far transcended any deliberately accurate portrayal of the scene he once saw in the Alps over 20 years ago. Chu has reshaped the scenic image in his mind by years of reviewing, sifting, and restructuring his own memories. At a spiritual level, the viewer transcends the barriers of space and time to connect with Chu's own experience and to share with him the moment of wonder and emotion at the scene he once glimpsed. The work testifies to the concept once set out by Wang Wei in his treatise on paintings, which is that the artist should "begin from the nature's essence and complete the work of creation." Since ancient times, the Chinese have passed down from generation to generation a tradition in which nature is not necessarily painted directly from life, in other words, en plein air ; instead, the ideal of learning from nature has been taken to mean allowing one's impressions of the natural world to accumulate, to internalize the concrete physical sensations of hearing, seeing and breathing in the midst of nature, and to sublimate and transform into a more intangible and meditative experience. Then, getting close to the canvas in the confines of your own studio, the grandest scenes of nature will pour out if you follow your feelings and let them flow naturally from your brush. Philosophically, in La forêt blanche II , Chu hews very closely indeed to the spiritual ideals of the literati painters of ancient China, in the sense that the imagery in mind he presents is a creation that alludes to and recalls nature, yet remains unfettered by the need to give strict, realistic shape to its forms. An analogy can perhaps be found in the way Monet's lyrical brushwork captured impressions of floating light and skimming shadows in his Water Lilies paintings (Fig. 2). French critic Pierre Cabanne echoed this outlook when he concluded, after a viewing of Chu Teh-Chun's work, that "the most truthful painting comes from memory."
A Landscape in Points, Lines, and Planes
To create visual depth and layering, Western painting typically relies on the relative thickness of pigments and the layering of colour, but in traditional Chinese landscapes, what is most decisive is the skill of the artist who wields the brush and ink and the moment when they meet the paper. Because simple washes of monochrome ink spreading across paper would never be effective or communicative, the artists of ancient times put deep thought into developing various kinds of cun fa, or textured strokes, which enabled them to convey on paper the textures of mountains and rocks by combining and interweaving different shades of strokes. The techniques they developed parallel the layering that creates texture in Western oils, and help create the visual effects of spatial planes that appear in ink-wash paintings.
In La forêt blanche II, Chu Teh-Chun gives masterful expression to the legacy of Chinese painting within the Western creative medium of oils. His bending and curving lines weave tightly together as their free and unconstrained energy surges through the pictorial space, creating a canvas with a richly layered feel. Chu's brushwork here is reminiscent of the Autobiography ("Zi Xu Tie") handscroll of Tang Dynasty calligrapher Huai Su (Fig. 3), who was known for his "wild" cursive style with free rhythms and unbroken strokes and his disregard for established styles. With forthright energy and ease, Chu applies black pigments from his brush tip to produce lines with urgent strength and a sense of rhythm, which dance nimbly and radiate outward in all directions. The lines shoot between and among each other, weaving a net-like pattern that spreads like tree branches across the canvas, setting off the fall of white snow in the foreground for a beautifully spirited and deeply felt snowy forest scene. Behind the snow's misty veil lie a series of broad, wandering brushstrokes in an ink-wash style that imbues the work with harmonious rhythm and living energy. The lines in Huai Su's calligraphy were described as "a rushing snake on the run, a snake powerful in its seat...a galloping brush, rapid ink, and waves of rushing horses." Similarly, the lines in Chu's diptych pull the viewer's eyes along their rising and falling course so that, along with the artist, our eyes sweep across the dry branches and gaunt trunks strewn along the breadth of this wintry forest scene. Through the novel and subtle arrangement of lines in La forêt blanche II, Chu gives perfect expression to the combination of speed, harmonious motion, and facility that characterizes the cursive script in Chinese calligraphy, and transforms them with precision into a remarkable expression in painted form. Thus, in Chu Teh-Chun's series of snow-scenes he has given us works of astonishing visual beauty, but to study in details the meticulous and ingenious brushwork of these large-scale works is to realize to what an extent this artist is also an accomplished calligrapher.
While a hazy mist of flying snow covers the forest, a certain deeper sense of lingering grace and longing is concealed within the dynamic motion of the painting, and together with it create overall the mood of this desolate, snowy forest. Chu Teh-Chun also embellishes La forêt blanche II with glimpses of colour, spots of natural blue-green, red, and yellow that hint at the life still hidden within what would otherwise be a chilly and deserted scene. The pictorial plane is further enriched by the various inky shades of black, grey, and white in which the dots of flying snowflakes are rendered. Worth noting also is the way in which the spots of colour sprinkled across the canvas, in addition to their fine portrayal of the snowy forest scene, also add completeness to the work through their decorative effect in a manner often seen in the paintings of Wu Guanzhong. Like Chu Teh-Chun's La forêt blanche II, Wu's way of utilizing and interpreting points and lines in his Cypresses from 1983 (Fig. 4) makes it clear that both artists were developing in the direction of pure abstraction.
Chu Teh-Chun once said, "There has never been anything random about the colours or lines in my paintings. Between them they harmoniously strive toward the same goal: a source of light that activates the paintings and galvanizes their images and rhythms."
A viewer's initial impression may be that both Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong have arranged their splashed dots of colour in line with the central concepts of the Abstract Expressionists - automatism and spontaneous writing. Yet in fact the expressive techniques employed by the two artists are quite different. In Wu Guanzhong's Cypresses, the dripping and flowing lines are driven by chance and spontaneity. In Chu's La forêt blanche II, the spots of flying snow sprayed across the canvas certainly seem to be the equal of Wu's in terms of freespirited expression, and his technique exhibits a natural and spontaneous inclination. However, it was only rigorous training and careful thoughts that allowed him to refine his technique and achieve this master degree of control, which eventually produced the sense of ease that this canvas exudes.
Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong are artists with a profound feeling towards nature. The points and lines in their paintings, half real and half abstract, falling somewhere between the tangible and the intangible, allude to the literary depictions of floating snowflakes and fallen flowers created by ancient Chinese poets. Or, perhaps, they are the reincarnation of willows and pines. Looking from an aesthetics point of view, the use of these dots of colour once again reveals the inseparable link between Chu Teh-Chun's abstract explorations and the Chinese traditions of painting and calligraphy.