Chu Teh-Chun’s journey in exploring the brushstrokes of oil painting: From vigorous and steady to light and ethereal
Through comparing Untitled (Lot 397), 30 mars 1981 (Lot 398) and Lumières de passage (Passage Lights) (Lot 401), we see before us Chu Teh-Chun’s powerful and solid brushstrokes from the 1960s, and the unique light and ethereal brushstrokes from the 1980s after nearly three decades of exploration and consolidation. Chu painstakingly experimented to incorporate the technique of ‘cun’ (texture strokes, meaning ‘wrinkles’) in ink painting to oil painting, creating a new visual effect. He is particularly perceptive to light and hope to communicate with viewers through light, aiding the development of this new technique. Chu’s works from the 80s were not religious in content, but the graceful and airy brushstrokes permeate light and grasp the attention of viewers. They reach to the soul and cleanse the mind, transmitting peace and a dignified solemnity.
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.
The format of Chinese landscape painting became the starting point of Chu’s abstract works in the 60s. Untitled from 1963 demonstrates a structural relationship of masses similar to that of mountains in Chinese landscape painting. Examining the 12th century Emperor Ming-huang's Flight to Szechwan, we see mountains formed by contour lines and masses (Fig. 1). According to Chu’s own account, he was particularly attentive to the ideology of Post-Impressionist Cezanne in the initial stage, in which subjects were deconstructed to forms, colours and light. However, Chu’s pursuit of forms does not only come from Western art theories, it was also inherited from ink painting of Song dynasty. If we create contour lines to the brushstrokes in Untitled (Fig. 2), we would notice the intricately positioned rectangles of varying sizes, not unlike the structural masses on the abstract canvases of Nicolas de Staël. What distinguishes Chu from Western abstractionists is his speed and decisiveness. Brushstrokes form an integral and coherent movement, surging with an unending aura. The strength within the painting reminds us of the 12th century Windy Pines Among a Myriad Valleys (Fig. 3) by Li Tang. Li’s signature ‘ax-cut texture stroke’ (fupi cun) transmits the same force of impact. Cun is a special technique in Chinese landscape painting to create surface textures in a symbolic way, resulting in a unique aesthetic style. Looking at Chu’s oil brushstrokes in the 60s, it is likely that he was already experimenting with the possibility to incorporate cun into oil painting, building a mode of expression unlike any others.
Untitled (Lot 399) from 1966 and Untitled (Lot 400) from 1962 demonstrated his more dynamic and swift brushstrokes. The use of cun stroke is more apparent, expressing freely his inner feeling towards the landscape. Chu’s vigorous brushstrokes bring force to the paper, with its strength and speed rendering irresistible allure of art. It is a visual symphony of swift brushstrokes and interweaving colour.
Besides studying the aesthetics hailed from traditional Chinese painting, Chu was also deeply inspired by Western traditions with oil painting during his travels in Europe. The most notable influence was the usage of light, which became a key element in his abstraction theory. Between 1965 and 1975, Chu Teh-Chun made a number of trips to Brazil and various destinations in Europe. On one, in 1965, he glimpsed the highest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc, and in 1969, he visited the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, to see the retrospective exhibition on the 300th anniversary of Rembrandt's death. In addition, visits to various museums in Munich, Germany in 1972 would prove to have a great influence on his work.
Knowing that Chu greatly admired Goya, 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 color 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 color, 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 '70s, 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. Minimalist Dan Flavin initiated a series of intriguing light sculptures in the early 1960s (fig. 6) using tube lighting, showing that lighting - though abstract - indeed plays an important role in changing the overall atmosphere of an image.
30.03.1981 and Lumières de passage (Passage Lights) from 1989 both clearly incorporated effects of light. 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. This is without a doubt one of the most influential achievements of Chu in the 20th century abstract art. In addition, Chu was deft at creating highlights with white. In 1983, Chu traveled to Beijing, Datong, Huangshan, Xishan, Hangzhou and Nanjing. The misty mountains in gauzy clouds unique to China’s landscape inspired him. Thin and translucent paint surrounds the more dense masses, with light interlacing and reflecting. Imageries floating down, circulating, wandering around, we see through clouds the real, the fabled, the discernable and the intangible.
Although 30.03.1981 and Lumières de passage (Passage Lights) are dominated by a single colour, Chu uses intertwining colours to enlighten the canvas. In 30.03.1981, the mass of beige creates a gentle afternoon light. The artist skillfully adds on touches of feathery black and blue with a soft brush, and dapples of bold yellow green and red, which injects life onto the canvas. In Lumières de passage (Passage Lights), distinctive blue and green were applied to exhibit the complex and mutable relationship between light and shadow. Masses and lines of turquoise, mint green, navy blue and bright blue permeate into the deep earthy tone, with hints of yellow and orange lines here and around, composing a symphony of light and shadow.
Chu Teh-Chun has received worldwide recognition and acclaim. 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. In 2001, he was awarded Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Minister of Education and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French president.