“Neither line nor color can embody a landscape; they merely reveal its intrinsic strength. The painter frees them from the abounding imagination of the cosmos and, in so doing, marries the body with the mind. Territories of tranquility and clamor appear in painting after painting, all of which Chu Teh-Chun gave the name Composition. The series, whose name encompasses imagination, implication, lyricism, and congeniality, gave rise to another world of expression and passion — this is the world of painting, where painting is thinking.” — Pierre Cabanne in Chu Teh-Chun
Chu was a master of using his profound skills in calligraphy and his magnificent poeticism, which he inherited from the aesthetics of Zhuangzi’s poetry, to reconstruct landscape imagery in his abstract oil paintings. It is apparent that towards the end of the 1960s, the artist reached the pinnacle of his career. Perusing the published catalogs of Chu’s works, one sees that there are very few large-scale pieces from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. However, his large-scale work, No. 312 (Lot 32), created in 1969, is a manifestation of his skill and confidence. Not only is it the most brilliant and ambitious work of his entire creative career, it can be said to be the work that marks the beginning of his artistic maturity. Lively and uninhibited, his brushstrokes traverse the canvas, evoking the humbling power of nature, as if contained within a storm. It is vigorous in spirit and gentle in appearance, and its refined elegance is not lost amidst its guileless simplicity. As though trying to encompass the boundless expanse of the cosmos with his brush, the artist illustrates the mysteries of destiny’s vicissitude with subtle layers of cool colors. The flowing lines of ink and the lyricism that is at one with nature emit a rich charm of Eastern artistry.
Chu gave himself to nature and all its majesty, as did the 19th century master of landscape painting, J.M.W. Turner. Turner was obsessed with the pursuit of light and the sublime experience and often painted using storms as his subject. With his wildly swirling compositions and nearly abstract brushstrokes, Turner transcended the legacies of classical landscape paintings left by artists such as Nicolas Poussin. Poussin’s famous work, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (Fig. 1), depicts an epic drama of romanticism, conveying nature’s imposing presence and absolute control over mankind. In comparison, in No. 312, one can almost see the mighty ocean rippling with gleaming moonlight. The painting’s unparalleled magnificence is boundless and evokes the mellifluous poem by Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Ruoxu: “The spring river extends as far as the ocean, where a bright moon is born amidst surging tides. Gleaming ripples travel thousands of miles, and nowhere on the water is the moon’s light not reflected.” However, what Chu’s painting wishes to express is the vastness of the expanse between heaven and earth. He need not use words, for with abstract lines he illustrates the infinitely vital energy of nature. He sheds the forms and shapes of the landscape without ever straying away from nature, which corresponds with the ancient aesthetics of landscape paintings of the Northern Song Dynasty (Fig. 2). In the unhurried rhythm of his painting, one can faintly discern the silhouette of the mountain, wavy and never confined to borders, above which the wind blows, clouds tumble, and the moonlight shines through. Yet simultaneously, all belongs to the imagination and grasp of the free spirit, which perfectly reflects the ancient saying of “Heaven and earth hold great beauty but do not speak of it.”
Chu painted No. 312 using only heavy hues of midnight blue, sky blue, and russet gray hues that vary in richness. At the center and on the left side of the painting, he added washes of light colors that portray leaping light and bring the painting to life. Few as the colors may be, Chu is able to demonstrate a great depth in space by weaving together dots, lines, and planes. These planes of colors, painted with bold strokes, induce a hazy and misty ambiance. The winding, tumbling curves and his unhindered control over the potency of his brush display a powerful and dynamic rhythm. The fine dots of colors break through the two-dimensional composition by congregating and scattering at will, creating a dynamic tension in their stillness. These three elements form an experience in the space of a painting that transcends visuality. British philosopher R.G. Collingwood once argued that, after Cézanne, perspective disappeared from modern paintings. Painting no longer belonged to visuality, for they were tactile in the sense that they allowed the audience to feel distance, space, and movement; at the same time, it involved expression and imagination. Still, these seemingly tactile oil paintings are the results of the encounters of materials. However, in Chu’s hands they were transformed into a poetic space in which one may stay or wander. For Chu, a native Chinese artist, there was no difference between Western landscape and abstract paintings; through intuitive perception, he was able to combine them. Ancient masters of landscape painting, such as Fan Kuan, were concerned with expressing the entirety and essence of nature, and held that an artist’s spontaneous creativity would be refined within it; thus, Fan once said, “Rather than learning from matter it is better to learn from the heart.”
In No. 312, the momentum of Chu’s brush and the culmination of his lyricism evolves so dramatically, it seems as if the painter absorbs the wild cursive script of Zhang Xu, and thereby reveals his profound sentiments regarding life. In this work, abstract painting and the aesthetics of calligraphy reaches a pinnacle of amalgamation that not only transcends the barriers of the East and the West, but also surpasses time. His style had gone through several phases, from early landscapes influenced by Cézanne, to the abstract transformation inspired by Nicolas de Staël, then to the vivid application of calligraphy brushstrokes on canvas. During the decade between the late 1950s and the 1960s, Chu gradually overcame the challenges of form and style while striving for spiritual expression, upon which a brand new dimension of Chinese painting began to unfold.