Fan Kuan has said that 'learning from nature is better than learning from man, and the human heart is an even greater source of learning than nature.' What he meant was that it is the painter who is in control, and that a concept of abstraction already existed in his time. The Chinese people just didn't use the term 'abstraction,' that's all. The artist absorbs what he sees in nature and refines it in his mind, and what is revealed on canvas is the power of the artist's imagination, his sensibility, and his inner character. This is where the concepts behind Chinese painting come together with the idea of abstraction. -Chu Teh-chun
Chu Teh-chun's comments on the 10th-Century painter Fan Kuan reveal his belief in the common aspects of Chinese art and Western abstraction; while never explicitly using the term "abstraction", Chinese artists were very much concerned with expressive style and the character and imagination of the artist. This view influenced him deeply, and traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy became a source of nourishment in his art, imbued it with an Eastern grace and vitality. In another sense these views helped distinguish him from other Chinese artists of his generation: as much of his artistic development was determined by this sense of a broad historical perspective. Chu's work embodied the quintessence of Yuan and Song dynasty landscape painters, but derived its newness from absorbing and integrating aspects of Western art, specifically its ability to express colour, light, and shadow. The result has been an entirely new style of abstract expression in which he captures subtle changes within space, natural forms, light and shade, creating from them abstract worlds of spectacular variety and majesty. Chu's evolving style, then, united the sensibilities of modern Western abstraction and impressionistic Chinese landscape painting and produced a new kind of "abstract nature painting." Chu Teh-chun's success broke new ground. He discovered a realm of new possibilities for exploration by later generations of modern Chinese artists, becoming one of the most iconic figures of Asian art in the last century.
Pa-hsien Mountain (Lot 1003) is a representative work from Chu Teh-chun's Taiwan period, produced in 1953. Stylistically it exhibits features very similar to those of Post-Impressionist painters like Paul C/aezanne. In Pa-hsien Mountain, Chu pays close attention to subtle details of colour and light effects, while also beginning to explore expressive lines with a calligraphic character. The work represents the initial period of the artist's maturity as well as a new transitional phase. During his five short years in Taiwan, from his arrival in 1949 until his move to Paris in the spring of 1955, Chu was an instructor in the Fine Arts Department of Taiwan Normal University and held a successful solo exhibition at Taipei's Zhong Shan Hall. He remained focused during this period on painting outdoors, just as he had been during his time at Hangzhou when he painted scenes of West Lake with Wu Guanzhong, following Wu Dayu's instructions to "pay attention to colour, light, and black-and-white contrasts."
"As a student of Wu Dayu, I worshipped C/aezanne. During my years of work in China, I never strayed far from what the Post-Impressionists did. But in 1952 I was painting scenes on Pa-hsien Mountain, and there on that 2000-plus meter peak, with its deep valleys, mists, and forests, I had a sudden insight. I understood the way Chinese ink-wash painting presents forms and empty spaces, and the relationship of its poetic, traditional spirit with nature. Thick mists surrounded me, criss-crossed with branches of pine and cypress. This reminded me of the styles of brushwork used in calligraphy, and also mixed in were the feelings I remembered having as I learned calligraphy and painting, and before I knew it my view of painting had changed." - Chu Teh-chun (remembering Wu Dayu)
The peak at Pa-hsien reaches into the clouds, its ancient trees towering high while mists drift around their feet, presenting vistas of grand beauty very different from the scenes of quietly rippling waves Chu Teh-chun had seen at West Lake. The different kinds of inspiration and creative opportunity it provided are reflected in Pa-hsien Mountain. Here Chu sets out a broad, open space, but one that he controls rigorously. Strong, magnificent trees tower on both sides of the painting, their ranks moving directly in toward the central point of the painting, creating a composition whose perspective makes it stable and balanced but with strongly layered depth. Colour is applied delicately and contributes to the layering, effectively capturing splashes of sunlight as they appear and disappear and the changing colours they create on tree trunks and branches. Despite its small dimensions, the painting nevertheless reveals much within its densely packed layers: a golden autumn in dense forest on marshy ground, a clear blue sky in the distance with slowly rising white clouds, branches in brown and black with occasional reddish leaves. Vivid and appealing, in a Post-Impressionist style, the painting also reflects the frank and ingenuous personality of the artist and his search for the rhythm and movement of the scene. Also worthy of notice is the pleasing way in which Chu, as he sets out the tall trees and branches, reflects the beauty of calligraphy in his brushwork, and the connection between the different shades of black in their limbs, similar to the way Chinese ink-wash artists brought out subtle shadings within the single tonality of black. Chu's beautiful handling of colour and the basic elements of form in dots, lines, and planes exemplify his deep exploration of fundamental aesthetic issues.
Chu created Pa-hsien Mountain in response to an invitation to exhibit at Taipei's Zhong Shan Hall, and the work was shown there, along with more than 50 others, in December of 1954. That event became the subject of special reports by Taiwan's Central Times, Shin Sheng Daily News, and United Daily News, and was a major exhibition event of the year, along with the Taiyang Exhibition. All the works shown there were sold, which allowed Chu afterwards to embark on what would become his 50-year stay in France. These facts give the works from this exhibition a special place in the events of the artist's life.
Composition No. 55 (Lot 1004) from 1960, is a work from the "abstract composition" series of Chu's Paris period. The period just before and after 1960 was an important one for Chu. This was the period during which he married Tung Ching-Chao, and more importantly for his art, it marked the beginning of his abstract style. Chu had begun his abstract composition series in 1956, giving direct expression to the fundamental elements of form hidden within natural scenes in the form of dots, lines and planes, while searching for a freer, more abstract and personal artistic vocabulary. The results helped bring him to the first summit of his artistic career. He received numerous invitations to show works from this series at mainstream exhibitions, where their beauty and originality astonished the art world. In 1960 he was further invited to show his work at the prestigious Paris School Exhibition. This was a tremendous affirmation of his success, and the same year he also mounted a solo show at the Galerie Legendre, which was one of the major proponents of abstraction. Thus in 1960 he had a clearly established reputation; works ranging the gamut from representational to abstraction were garnering praise and recognition throughout the art world in France; critics introduced him to new audiences and newspapers and magazines gave him space in special features. Originally Chu had planned on a stay of only one to three years in Paris. His far longer stay was certainly not unrelated to the success he enjoyed around the year 1960 as a member of the Paris School, and Composition No. 55 is a representative Chu Teh-chun work from this period.
Composition No. 55 demonstrates how quickly and perfectly Chu Teh-chun made the transition from scenic painting to abstraction. It juxtaposes large blocks of colour, while lines reminiscent of various Chinese calligraphy strokes shuttle between them and lead the viewer's eye through the painting. A strong architectonic feel pervades the work, which seems to be a world unto itself, a purely artistic construct formed out of the primal elements of geometry, line, and colour. Entering this world, we are immediately engulfed in its vivid richness of colour. Colours emerge, then fade, blending and transforming into other hues, presenting the viewer with a harmonious yet highly dramatic visual experience. Composition No. 55 features an exciting red and other strong and infectious warm tones, highlighting the lyrical and emotionally compelling aspects of Chu Teh-chun's abstraction.
Dialectique de la Nature (Lot 1005) is a work Chu produced in 1991 and belongs to a series of large-scale abstract paintings he began in the 1980s. This was the period in which Chu also produced his snow scene Vertige Neigeux, in which both works are of exceptional scale that express powerful energies. The ample spaces of Chu's works in this period allowed him to produce compositions of correspondingly greater tension. The colours of Dialectique de la Nature contain an awe-inspiring energy, roiling and fermenting at the bottom of the canvas and climbing upward in shooting arcs. They nevertheless build up a deeply peaceful scene, suggesting clouds and mists in motion, and the work as a whole has a lovely, lyrical, and meditative atmosphere. Whereas in Composition No. 55 Chu uses both brush and palette knife to build up its spaces, in Dialectique de la Nature he opts instead to cover large areas with textured strokes from a very broad brush, again with the purpose of structuring its space. Dialectique de la Nature displays the kind of colour Chu began to favor in the 1990s, applied with freedom and confidence to produce a graceful feel, the kind of flowing, magnificent colour that far surpassed the other painters of Chu's generation. Visual layering develops in the shifts between dense, weighty colours and lighter or more diffuse hues across the canvas, and, as in other works of this period, Dialectique de la Nature demonstrates great subtlety and precision in the rhythms and cadences with which its strands of light and colour are interwoven. Chu's thinking about colour underwent some changes in the 1970s, when he had the opportunity to study the work of Rembrandt, and in the 1980s and later he discovered a variety of different means for producing his desired colour effects. In Dialectique de la Nature, streaks of white cascade across the surface in bright, beautiful brushstrokes that produce waterfall-like forms; like waves, dancing sunlight, or drifting haze above water, these magnificent effects capture the imagination and draw us into the world of the painting. Chu's dexterous brushwork seems capable of suggesting movement in any direction, left or right, up or down, or leading more deeply into the painting; the light inside the painting seems alive with vibration, expanding and evolving into new and fantastic visual impressions along with the rise and fall of the colours in their wavelike motion through the canvas.
Abstraction became one of the central aesthetic developments of the 20th century. It overturned the concern of the Impressionist masters with light and shadow, and abandoned realistic depiction of forms and compositions with clear three-point perspective. Instead, abstraction was concerned with the purest and most abstract forms of expression. Western Abstract Expressionists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) displayed a rather straightforward and rational character: where lines stretched out with perfectly straightness and their colours were often pure, a manifestation reminiscent of J.M. W. Turner (Fig. 2), primary tones; they expressed mechanistically-oriented aesthetics or a kind of rhythmic musicality. This art was well-tuned to western industrial society and the cultural spirit that accompanied the process and progress of modernization. The works of Chu Teh-chun likewise employ blocks of colour, geometric shapes, and lines as their basic structural elements, but their colours are more closely aligned with the subtle tones of Chinese ink-wash painting, and their line reflects the flexible movement of Chinese cursive calligraphy script. The broad movement of Chu's textural strokes and their spreading hues add layers of changing tints to his blocks of colour. Through them Chu creates a meditative realm where sensed forms and empty spaces blend and intermix, the result of effects very similar to the spreading haloes and the contrasts in density or dampness of inks on paper. Chu's line is also strongly connected to Chinese calligraphy, his application of both brush and palette knife yielding flowing but energetic lines like those of the famous 8th century calligrapher Zhang Xu. These nimble, dexterous lines intersect and break through Chu's blocks and planes of colour, suggesting vast stretches of space filled with rhythmic, harmonious movement and giving voice to the broad vision of the artist and his bold and open spirit.
Among the second generation of modern Chinese artists for whom abstraction was the focus of creativity, Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun and Wu Guanzhong have achieved the greatest success. It seems hardly coincidental that each of them once studied with earlier masters of the first generation, in particular Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu, and thus became successors to the artistic tradition of the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts. Zao Wou-ki was an earlier graduate, and Wu Guanzhong a later graduate than Chu Teh-chun, while all three lived and studied in France and showed other similarities in their artistic development. Zao Wou-ki was known, among other aspects of his art, for introducing the feeling of oracle bone and bronze inscriptions into his oil paintings; Wu Guanzhong achieved a perfect balance in his work between representational scenic elements and the beauty of abstract form. Chu Teh-chun's art exhibits three special features: the dexterous application of lines with a calligraphic feel, closely-knit, architectonic compositions, and rich layering effects in the colours and sources of light within his paintings. Dialectique de la Nature presents each of these to a great degree in a work that brings together many of the finest elements of Chu Teh-chun's style.