Chu Teh-Chun - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

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  • The Inception of Chu’s Lyrical Abstraction 


    The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of French-Chinese abstract artist Chu Teh-Chun, who was born in 1920 in the province of Jiangsu, an area well-known for its majestic scenery of lakes, canals and hills. Both doctors, Chu’s grandfather and father were collectors or traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink paintings, which afforded Chu with a unique exposure to artistic representation from a young age. Recognising his talent, it was Chu’s father who persuaded his young son to study at the National School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou under the tutelage of the late Fongmein, a legend of modern Chinese art who espoused a visionary synthesis of Eastern and Western aesthetics. With access to Western art magazines their professors brought back from Paris, students were introduced to works by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, as well as Cézanne, whose oeuvre Chu has cited as a notable influence. Here, Chu became close with artists Zao Wou-Ki and Wu Guanzhong, and although Chu was the first ethnic Chinese artist to be elected to the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Zao and Wu too, were later appointed as members. Revered for their influential practices that were celebrated throughout the East and West, the trio affectionately came to be known as the ‘Three Musketeers’ of Modern Chinese Art. 



    Paul Cézanne, The Lac d’Annecy, 1896. Collection of the Courtauld Gallery, London


    “The gardens south of the Yangtze River are always in the heart; The beauty of the green spring is more than can be drawn.” — Chu Teh-Chun

    When the Sino-Japanese War was declared in 1937, Chu’s class embarked upon a 4,000 kilometre exodus inland lasting two years across five provinces, where at each stage of the extraordinary journey, students were encouraged to explore the changing countryside. With misty mountaintops, hazy rivers and wooded plains around him, of radiant colours which changed as one season turned to the next, Chu marveled at the grandeur of these Chinese panoramas which would come to profoundly inhabit his memory and imagination. 


    “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

    An Enriched Artistic Talent


    In 1951, two years before his first solo exhibition, Chu started working as a professor at the National Taiwan Normal Univeristy where he fell in love with Tung Ching-Chao, whom later became Chu’s second wife. Although Chu was already an accomplished artist by this time, he dreamed of travelling to Paris with wonderlust inherited from his professors who had fondly shared stories of their time abroad, and so in 1955, Chu and Ting Ching-Chao voyaged to the French capital to settle. Upon arrival in Paris, Chu encountered the work of Abstract Expressionist Nicolas de Staël. 



    Nicolas de Staël, Yellow and Green Rectangles, 1951. Collection of the Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan


    Chu immediately likened the controlled spontaneity of the works to that of caoshu, a form of calligraphy in which the characters are executed in one uninterrupted stroke, recalling: ‘It was a real revelation of the freedom of expression to me. From now on I freed myself from my twenty years of figurative work to follow my path in non-figurative painting. I slowly turned towards the inspiring thinking of traditional Chinese painting. I discovered the poetry in it and its way of observing nature which is close to Western neo-impressionist painting and particularly to abstract art. Working unconsciously on a synthesis of the two cultures, I suppressed emotion as the driving force and prolonged it through pictorial expression’i. Following his first solo exhibition at Galerie du haut-Pavé in 1958, Chu’s work became increasingly expressive. Painted two years later in 1960, a time considered the apex of Chu’s production following his transformation from the representational to the abstract, Composition No. 65 is a visually stunning early work from Chu’s most defining period that immerses the viewer into exceptional artistic mastery. 


    Brushstrokes akin to ink painting rendered with an oil painting spirit 


    Composition No. 65 was unveiled during Chu’s first solo exhibition held at Galerie Legendre in 1960, which alongside the Parisian Galerie du Haut-Pave, was one of the first galleries drawn to Chu’s paintings. Managed by Maurice Panier, a pioneering gallerist who discovered a cohort of exceptional artists including Nicolas de Staël, Alberto Magnelli and Wassily Kandinsky, all of whom had numerous successful exhibitions at the Galerie Legendre space, Chu was recognised for his treatment of light and chromatic hues. As Panier noted:


    “Chu Teh-Chun’s choices and applications of colours are acute and meticulous. He distribute[s] small squares that reflect, transform and illuminate the canvas. Light transmits from the illuminator that forms the space and structure of the image. This is his major unique characteristic.” – Maurice Panier

    Although the abstractionist movement at the time, which was also taking shape in Asia with Gutai in Japan, influenced Chu’s practice beyond the decision to name his works with numbers instead of titles, his works retain a poetic sensibility which is undeniably reminiscent of the grand landscapes and poetry of the Tang and Song Dynasties. Indeed, the spiritual world constructed in the present painting is composed of precise blocks of rich colour that intersect and overlap with brushstrokes rendered in a more vigorous manner, imbuing the work with fluidity and atmosphere. Shades of elegant emerald and jade – the colours of prosperity and growth - dance around strips of lilac and radiant off-white situated at the centre of the work, forming organic shapes that bring to mind constellations of stirring gravity and depth. Mimicking chance moments in nature and harkening back to the vistas seen on his travels, the spontaneous energy from the artist’s hand holding the brush flows to the work in rich layers, creating a captivating tension that is caught between the areas of shadow and luminous interjections of light. 



    Ma Yuan, Singing and Dancing, Southern Song Dynasty. Collection of Beijing Palace Museum (©Palace Museum, Beijing)

    At almost one and a half metres tall, the verticality of Composition No. 65 further speaks to Chinese scroll ink paintings. Drawing from the theory of the “Five Categories of Ink” (Thickness, Thinness, Dryness, Wetness and Black), Chu applies areas of opaque black using a large brush with controlled speed that is a prerequisite for only the best Chinese calligraphies. Marrying the delicateness of traditional ink with techniques of Western abstract art, however, Chu masterfully paints his composition through the manipulation of oil to forge a unique form of abstraction, disproving the notion of oil paint being too pigment-intense and viscous a medium to allow for such technical variation. 


    “His bold lines are like downpours, while his thin ones are like whispers.” – Wu Guanzhong


    Detail of the present work

    Closely following the death of his friends Wu Guanzhong (2010) and Zao Wou-Ki (2013), Chu Teh-Chun passed away in Paris in March 2014 at the age of 93. His determination to roam two halves of the world coupled with his passion for life and unparalleled creativity infused his artmaking with powerful soul, and as a renowned master of abstract painting, his works have been presented in major retrospectives and have found their place in many prestigious public collections. This includes, but is not limited to, Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; National History Museum and the Taipei Fine Art Museum,Taiwan; Musée des beaux-arts André Malraux, Le Havre; and Shanghai Museum of Art, Shanghai, amongst numerous others. A major retrospective exhibition commemorating the centenary of the artist’s birth in 1920, originally scheduled for April 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic, will take place at the National Museum of China in Beijing in the spring of 2021, and will travel to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States. 



    i Chu Teh-Chun quoted in ‘Interview with Gérard Xuriguera’, Les Années 50, Arted, 1984


    • Provenance

      Galerie Legendre, Paris
      Private Collection
      Christie's, Hong Kong, 29 May 2005, lot 305
      Private Collection, Asia
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Legendre, 1960
      Tokyo, The Ueno Royal Museum, Chu Teh-Chun, 23 June - 10 July 2007, p. 113

Property from a Distinguished French Collection


Composition No. 65

signed 'CHU TEH-CHUN [in Chinese and Pinyin]' lower left; further signed, titled, and dated 'CHU TEH-CHUN [in Pinyin and Chinese] 1960' "No.65."' on the reverse
oil on canvas
145.4 x 89.2 cm. (57 1/4 x 35 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1960, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist's wife, Chu Ching-Chao dated 13 March 2019. 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$15,000,000 - 20,000,000 

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 3 December 2020