Chu Teh-Chun


Chu Teh-Chun (b. 1920, Baitu, Jiangsu, China; d. 2014, Paris, France) is renowned for his abstract oil paintings of imagined and dramatic landscapes. Although they are executed from the confines of his studio, the landscapes are inspired by his extensive travels, the forms of which he has borrowed to give countenance to his sentiments. His compositions possess a profound sense of depth, poetry and musicality, evoking a cosmic atmosphere conjured by his calligraphic liveliness. Chu began to learn calligraphy, and acquire a fundamental knowledge of Tang dynasty poetry from the age of five. Born into a wealthy family, he delighted in discovering and studying the works of Wang Xizhi (303–361) from his family art collection. Although he went on to study European watercolour and oil painting under Wu Dayu (1903–1988) at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, Chu was passionate about ancient Tang and Song dynasty poetry, calligraphy and literati painting. His lessons with modern ink master Pan Tianshou (1897–1971) allowed Chu to become familiar with the freedom and innovation of the Qing individualists, of Bada Shanren’s (1626–1705) subjective and revolutionary approach to space, and of Shitao’s (1642–1707) emphasis on the calligraphic line. After permanently moving to Paris in 1955, he initially adopted the figurative realism that he saw in the Paris Salon, earning him the Silver Medal in 1956. It was his visit to the retrospective of Nicolas de Staël at Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in the same year that encouraged him to pursue the path of abstraction. This artistic encounter had a lasting impression on Chu, and de Staël’s works inspired the iconic visual language that Chu continued to refine and develop for the rest of his life. The contemporary European enthusiasm for avant-garde non-figurative abstraction and action painting encouraged Chu to rediscover the ‘abstract’ elements within his own painting tradition.


Since the Tang dynasty, Chinese literati painting has abstracted from nature and has regarded painting, calligraphy and poetry as interwoven threads of the same fabric. Although Chu adopted the traditional European medium of oil painting, he regarded his approach to painting as being inherently Chinese. He resumed his study of calligraphy in the late 1960s, imbuing his spontaneous compositions with an increasingly practiced hand, and instilling his works with the wisdom of ancient classical texts, such as the Book of Changes. The sweeping brushstrokes of his gouache, ink and oil works carry the weight of the mythical divine origins of Chinese writing; its ideographic origins sealing the inseparable relationship between painting and calligraphy, merging the acts of visual depiction and conveyance of an idea.


Chu initially aspired to be a gymnast but, following the protestations of his father, instead enrolled at the National Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, in 1935. He befriended fellow student Zao Wou-ki (1921–2013) and later persuaded Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010) to give up engineering for painting. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 forced the academy into itinerancy, allowing Chu to see the dramatic landscapes of southern China. After teaching Architecture at the National Central University in Nanjing, and fine art at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, Taiwan, Chu moved to Paris in 1955. He would stay there the remainder of his life, eventually adopting French citizenship in 1980. Chu quickly gained international recognition, and was invited to exhibit at the São Paulo Biennale in 1969. He has been the subject of several important retrospectives at Shanghai Museum of Art (2000), André Malraux Museum, Le Havre (1982), National Museum of History of Taipei, Taiwan (2008), and the National Art Museum of China, Beijing (2010). In 1997, he became the first Chinese member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2001. His work is held in important public collections, including Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris; Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, China; Musée des beaux-arts André Malraux, Le Havre; Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris; Musée Cernuschi, Paris; National Museum of History, Taipei; Shanghai Museum of Art, Shanghai; and Taipei Fine Art Museum, Taiwan.

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