As understood and interpreted by Chu Teh-Chun, the two aesthetic traditions of modern Western abstraction and lyrical, impressionistic Chinese landscape painting could be united. Thereby, he developed an entirely new expressive form so called 'abstracted nature,' and his success in that style cleared a path for later generations of modern Chinese artists. He revealed a new creative direction to replete with possibility and became one of the finest exemplars to represent the development of Asian art during the past century.
The period just before and after 1960 was crucial to Chu Teh-Chun's creative development. During that period, he married Dong Jingzhao, and more importantly, he found the beginnings of his abstractionism in that period. No. 51 —Mille vies se cachent dans le bois (Lot 26) is an outstanding work that represents the very peak of this stage. In 1960, Chu had held a solo show at the Galerie Henriette Legendre, and was invited to represent the Eastern members of L'école de Paris. His experienced and innovative abstractionist skills made him a standout in the European art world, and various distinct honors accrued to him to suggest his first peak in his artistic career.
In 1956, Chu had attended a retrospective exhibition of the Russian-born artist Nicolas de Staël at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris. The bold, free aura of the works he saw there (Fig.1) provided a rich visual experience and aroused a response in Chu Teh-Chun’s mind, after which he began to work on the non-figurative works he had been pondering for a while. In just four short years, Chu's talent as a painter were incisively revealed in his bold experiments with abstraction, and were met with great acclaim in the Parisian art world.
"Chu Teh-Chun's expression of space in his paintings is not traditional; we could say he employs multiple spaces. In the midst of his curving, he interjects elements with bending brushstrokes that produce forms, elements which are typically applied in thick pigments for the effect of small blocks of colour....His inspiration usually derives from landscapes or from the lines of a poem."
- M. Maurice Panier, 1959
In No. 51—Mille vies se cachent dans le bois, Chu employs colours and modeling of forms that derive from nature yet they transcend the actual hues and images of the natural world; echoing concepts used by Cezanne to express nature's structures and masses (Fig. 2). Chu employs a method in which he fragments the external images of objects, separates the component elements of his colours, uses discontinuous proportions, and breaks down the structures of his colour blocks, and ultimately substitutes his reinterpretation for the original image of the object. Beyond this rationally-based approach, Chu delves deeply into the visual elements of natural scenery with an intensely experimental frame of mind, separating out the elements beneath the surface of a natural scene or still life to find their simplest, purest expression. Injecting some of the freehand expression of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy into his painting, Chu Teh-Chun's approach to deconstructing nature here yields a beautifully flowing, lyrical, and philosophical work.
Lines and blocks of colour are the wellspring of abstract painting, and in No. 51—Mille vies se cachent dans le bois, Chu Teh-Chun makes use of them to move from complexity to simplicity. During this period, Chu borrowed the monochromatic aesthetic of the Song Dynasty for the background of this painting. His monochromatic blue-green tones evoke the 'forests' ('le bois') of the title, in a lively and beautiful way. The endless variations of blue, blue-green, green, and deeper green colours set within the strong, vigorous lines in black, signify the contrasts between yin and yang, of solid form and empty space, as well as the harmonious balance of all things in the natural world. At the same time, Chu's composition evokes the worldview of Daoist philosophy, in which 'The Dao produced One, One produced Two, Two produced Three, and Three produced All things.' The crystalline clarity of Chu's blocks of colour, and the weak glimmer they emit, all suggest the simplicity and naturalness of the porcelain drum from the kilns at Lushan during the Tang Dynasty.
Chu Teh-Chun's free exploration of calligraphy, and the application of calligraphy into painting had helped him to create an abstract style that was deeply informed with an Eastern spirit. Painters such as Franz Kline were strongly influenced by the philosophy of Chinese calligraphy (Fig. 4), but Chu Teh-Chun went further and fused the art of calligraphy with the linear aesthetics of his paintings. His lines vary from dancing lightly and linking together in chains of movement, to exerting a powerful pull in short, vigorous bursts, displaying all the breadth and profundity of the art of Chinese writing. There is a finely judged balance between thick and thin vertical lines in this work, yet those lines impede and cut off the viewer's vision, seemingly cutting apart and destroying the planar depth of the pictorial space (Fig. 5). But whether constructive or deconstructive, this is a composition that breathes with its exceptional rhythmic movement, and incisively and immediately evokes the ambience of its subject. As Chu Teh-Chun often presented his art through connecting traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, his works therefore exhibit the harmonious energy associated with Eastern art and a deep sense of its Chinese cultural origins.
"In memory, Qiantang [Hangzhou] is not of our human world, but of divine provenance. A thousand lives are hidden in its forests, and you hear the rushing of the streams at every turn. I placed different flowers before the windows in different seasons; entering and leaving I would see them clearly against the screen. The weeping willows there have seen many autumns since I departed. I only wonder on what day I will see them again."
-Memory of Hangzhou, from the collection Fountain of Wine by Northern Song poet Pan Lang
The place 'Qiantang' in the poem is found today in Hangzhou. The title of this Chu Teh-Chun work, in English, A Thousand Lives Hidden in the Forest, is a pithy reflection on Chu's own beautiful memories of his homeland. Whether heavenly or earthly, its beautiful scenes remain fixed in his heart, and its rich land has harbored the people of that region for generations (Fig. 6), and Chu Teh-Chun, even in distant Paris, retained impressions of its sparkling lights. The lively freedom of his lines, the bright colours of the large and small 'squares' in this work, all vivid and fresh, certainly evoke the atmosphere of a multitude of lives and households in peaceful coexistence. Chu Teh-Chun's artistic intent was, after all, to explore the beauty of nature and the magnanimous spirit of the universe. Unlike the West's exploration of artistic abstraction in itself, Chu Teh-Chun began with the expressions of his heart, while moving with ease between the systems of thought behind both Western abstractionism and the more impressionistic styles of Chinese painting and calligraphy. In No. 51—Mille vies se cachent dans le bois, we see Chu's emotional identification with landscape, transformed into an abstract work, revealing both the scope and breadth of his spirit and his determination as an artist.