Chu Teh-Chun - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips
  • Introduction


    Created at a pivitol time in his acclaimed career, the year after his election into the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1997 as the first French artist of Chinese origin to be bestowed with the honour, Chu Teh-Chun’s Nuances de l'aube is a magical example of his ability to synthesise traditional Chinese painting styles with Western abstraction. One of the leading Chinese abstract artists of the 20th Century, Chu’s work continues to have an abiding influence on the artists of subsequent generations. He is considered amongst the greats of Chinese modern art, affectionately referred to as one of the ‘Three Musketeers’ of Chinese modernism along with his old friends and classmates from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, Wu Guangzhong and Zao Wou-Ki.


    Nuances de l'aube situates itself amongst Chu’s refined, luminous works of the 1990s and early 2000s that explore light at specific times of day and natural phenomena, such as Serin (1990), which conjures a cascading waterfall crashing into stillness, offered by Phillips Hong Kong in Association with Poly Auction, in the 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in December 2020, which surpassed its original estimates. Such works employ similar motifs, including misty planes, dynamic clashing brushstrokes and spheres of phosphorescent light, depicted with an overall lightness and delicacy of hand, which are distinctive of his later works.


    Chu Teh-Chun, Serin, 1990
     Sold at Phillips Hong Kong 4 December 2020 Sale for HK$6,300,000


    “Shades of Dawn”


    In Nuances de l’aube, the title of which translates to “shades of dawn”, Chu masterfully captures the breaking light of dawn, piercing through the depths of darkness with flaming yellow and orange hues. As the sky slowly awakens from its slumber, orbs of luminous greens and blues puncture through the misty atmosphere, bright pigments clashing with the dark blacks and fighting for dominance at this early time of day. The sky is alive with twinkling, kaleidoscopic lights, seemingly emanating from the horizontal flash of luminescence that splits the composition in two with a dazzling clarity that contrasts with the surrounding feathery haze of black and blue oil wash.


    Although Chu removes a distinct horizon line, we sense the rising sun in the obscure distance, perforating the palpable mist that engulfs the landscape of Chu’s imagination, which in turn threatens to submerge the viewer who is situated in the midst of the painting. Further, there is a discernible reflection in the composition of Nuances de l’aube, with the bottom of the canvas almost mirroring the upper half, suggestive of the sun rising over a body of water, perhaps a river, reflecting and refracting the streams of light on its shadowy, glass-like surface.

     “Chu Teh-Chun paints movements, clashes amalgams and, in so doing, he prolongs the breathlessness of time and sometimes precedes it. He swells the rhythms, shakes them up, varies them, and gashes them with signs like paths running through space at a gentle misty dawn or in the flaming colours of a sunset. But there are always in his paintings these sky blues or turquoise, soft pinks, golden yellows, and bursts of white which, skillfully distributed, fight dark forces and express the freshness and beauty of the world in the middle of the night.” 
    — Pierre Cabanne

    Chu is almost unsurpassed in his exquisite handling of light, and evocation of a specific time of day. Indeed, we can almost feel the early morning dew on our skin, smell the freshness of the crisp air and hear the first chirps of birdsong. The eye is drawn from the outer edge of the canvas to its middle, from coldness to warmth, from isolation to comfort. Chu excellently achieves the effect of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark, having been struck by the work of Rembrandt after attending a commemorative exhibition for the famous Dutch artist in the Netherlands in 1970. This prompted a change in Chu’s abstract works, embracing the polarities of brightness and shade, and producing an incandescent glow that radiates from his canvas works. Light and shadow become the yin and yang of his oeuvre, opposite yet strong complementary forces. 




    Rembrandt van Rijn, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633



    “The artist absorbs what he sees in nature and refines it in his mind, and it is the power of the artist’s imagination, his sensibility, and his inner character that are revealed on the canvas. This is where the concepts behind Chinese painting and abstract painting very neatly come together.” 
    — Chu Teh-Chun

    Chu is able to capture the magnificence of nature in his works, his rapid ascending and descending brushstrokes evoking the essence of jagged mountains and recalling the lyrical ink paintings of the Chinese Northern Song Dynasty. The artist paints real and imagined landscapes, typically executed in his studio but inspired by his extensive travels, dating back to his extraordinary 4,000 kilometre exodus in-land after the declaration of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Looking at Nuances de l’aube, the viewer can feel the artist’s harmonious communion with nature, reflecting the spirit of China’s meandering rivers, cascading waterfalls, dramatic mists and mountainous landscapes, from the steep and rugged beauty of the Chongqing countryside where he taught from 1941, to the rolling hills of the Taiwanese landscape, where he was a professor at the National Taiwan Normal University from 1948 until his departure to Paris in 1955. 




    Morning fog engulfs the mountains of Nanchuan district in Chongqing province, an example of the sublime, mystical beauty of the Chinese landscape that inhabited Chu Teh-Chun’s imagination throughout his lifetime



    Discovering the highly abstract landscape paintings of Nicolas de Staël in 1956 at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Chu reached a pivotal turning point in his career, turning towards lyrical abstraction and use of colour as means to represent the divine essence of nature and the landscapes that he had, and was yet to encounter. Nuances de l’aube is the culmination of decades of artistic development, no longer as heavily impastoed as his early abstract landscapes of the 1960s and 1970s, but an iridescent synthesis of the landscapes and techniques that consumed his mind. 

  • A Harmonious Communion between East and West 


    Chu beautifully blends elements of Western abstraction with aspects of traditional Chinese literati painting in the present work, achieving a powerfully distinct visual language that has universal appeal. While adopting the traditional European medium of oil painting, Chu’s dexterity of hand and spontaneous strokes lend themselves to the method of Chinese ink painting, for which he had shown great interest since his early years at the Hangzhou Fine Art School in 1935. Under the leadership of Lin Fengmian, Chu learnt the principles of both ink painting and Western oil painting, combining these techniques years later in his experiments with lyrical abstraction. In the late 1960s, he resumed his earnest study of calligraphy, immersing himself in poetry and ancient classical texts, such as the Book of Changes


    “The uncontainable nature of ink allows surprising ‘uncanny result’ with ‘superlative craftsmanship.’ While practising ink painting, I wondered why don’t I integrate this ‘superlative craftsmanship’ into oil painting? Going through numerous challenges and experiments, I discovered ‘another world lies beyond.’” 
    — Chu Teh-Chun



    Shitao, Landscape Painting, late Ming and early Qing dynasties
     Courtesy of China Online Museum


    As seen in Nuances de l’aube, Chu skillfully manipulates oil as if ink, achieving a thin wash of paint over the canvas that produces the effect of mist or fog. His dynamic strokes that caress the canvas appear as if in continuous motion, a technique he learned from practising calligraphy. Indeed, he had learnt the art of caoshu (“rough script”) from the modern ink master, Pan Tianshou, at the National School of Fine Art, a type of cursive calligraphy in which the characters are executed in one unbroken hand movement. His fearless, assured strokes recall the bold black lines of famous traditional Chinese artists such as Shitao, whose landscape paintings arouse the magnificence of nature, while introducing revolutionary techniques for his time, including the use of white space to suggest distance. Further, the flurry of uninterrupted brushstrokes that whizz across the canvas produce a rhythmic quality that evokes Chu’s love of poetry, infusing the work with a spiritual core that is overall emblematic of the artist’s successful harmonization of abstraction and ink painting by 1998. 



    “Oil painting is brush by brush; ink painting is not.” 
    — Chu Teh-Chun

    Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913
     Collection of the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg



    The distinct spirituality and divine nature of Nuances de l’aube is also reminiscent of the work of Wassily Kandinsky, arguably the pioneer of abstract art, and his colour theories that embody his belief in the emotional and spiritual quality of each shade. Kandinsky thought ‘shades resonated with each other to produce visual ‘chords’ and had an influence on the soul’. Indeed, the lyricism of this work undoubtedly influences the soul, setting it alight and absorbing the viewer in an emotional trance, warmed by the glowing light that slowly diffuses from the canvas. As such, there are distinct parallels between the works of Kandinsky and Chu, not necessarily in the aesthetic of their works or in their techniques, but in both these artist’s ability to activate the viewer’s emotions through the sensitive handling of colour. Kandinsky famously stated, ‘Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings’.


    Collector’s Digest 


    Chu’s works are admired and highly sought after by collectors around the world, largely thanks to his sublime subject matter and visual vocabulary that is legible and understandable by all. Last year to mark the centenary of the artist’s birth, a large travelling retrospective exhibition accompanied by a new documentary film celebrating the artist’s life was initially scheduled to commence in April 2020, but will now take place this year. Starting at the National Museum of China in Beijing in spring of 2021, the exhibition will tour to major international cities, including Hong Kong, where Alisan Fine Arts will hold their fourth solo exhibition for the artist from 12 May to 10 July, as part of French May. 


    Not long after his move to Paris in 1955, Chu’s work began to garner much interest, and the 1960s witnessed his rise on the international art stage. Testament to the significance of his work, Chu was invited to exhibit at the São Paulo Biennale in 1969, and decades later in 1997, he became the first French painter of Chinese origin to be elected to the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris. Since then, Chu has been the subject of major retrospectives at Shanghai Museum of Art (2000); National Museum of History of Taipei, Taiwan (2008); and the National Art Museum of China, Beijing (2010) among others, and his work is currently held in significant international institutions, including Musée Cernuschi, Paris; National Museum of History, Taipei; Shanghai Museum of Art, Shanghai; and Taipei Fine Art Museum, Taiwan.


    In 2017, The Foundation Chu Teh-Chun was founded in Geneva by the Chu family, dedicated to the collection, exhibition and conservation of the artist’s important oeuvre. 


    i Gerard McBurney, ‘Wassily Kandinsky: the painter of sound and vision’, The Guardian, 24 June 2006, online

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, France
      Artcurial Briest Le Fur Poulain F. Tajan, Paris, 5 June 2007, lot 744
      Private Collection, Europe
      Christie’s, Hong Kong, 24 November 2013, lot 146
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner


Nuances de l'aube

signed and dated 'CHU TEH-CHUN. [in Chinese and Pinyin] 98.' lower right; further signed, titled and dated '"Nuances de l'aube" CHU TEH-CHUN [in Pinyin and Chinese] 1998' on the reverse
oil on canvas
130 x 97 cm. (51 1/8 x 38 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1998, this work will be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist's wife, Chu Ching-Chao. This work will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the work of Chu Teh-Chun, being prepared by Fondation Chu Teh-Chun. (Information provided by Fondation Chu Teh-Chun and Mrs Chu Ching Chao.)

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,800,000 - 3,800,000 

Sold for HK$5,670,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021