Abstract Expressionism

Chu Teh-Chun: Between Chinese Landscape Painting and Abstract Expressionism

Carlotta Mazzoli 3 June 2024 min Read

From Chinese traditions to Abstract Expressionism, Chu Teh-Chun’s work is a bridge between cultures, and his captivating style continues to be admired and studied today.

The 20th century was dominated by significant geopolitical events, many of which also had unexpected consequences on the art world. Among these, the Cultural Revolution in China can be identified as the spark that ignited Chu Teh-Chun’s (1920-2014)  career. The Sino-French artist is nowadays remembered primarily for his abstract landscapes painted after 1955 when he fled China and moved to Paris. But if the Revolution was the spark, his work had much deeper influences, that he prepared and nurtured long before moving to Europe. His artistic journey, in fact, transcended geographical boundaries, blending the rich traditions of Chinese art with the dynamism of Western abstraction. Ultimately, this fusion resulted in a captivating style that continues to inspire and provoke. 

Chu Teh-Chun: Chu Teh-Chun in front of Notre Dame, Paris, France, 1955. Photo courtesy of the Fondation CHU Teh-Chun.

Chu Teh-Chun in front of Notre Dame, Paris, France, 1955. Photo courtesy of the Fondation CHU Teh-Chun.

From China to France: A Turning Point

Born in 1920 in the Anhui province of China, Chu Teh-Chun was surrounded by art from a young age. He grew up in a family of collectors and began practicing art and calligraphy under the guidance of his father, copying the works of Chinese traditional masters. His family’s collection instilled in him a deep appreciation for the meticulous brushwork and subtle ink washes that characterize this art form, laying the foundation for his artistic sensibilities.

He was later admitted to the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1935, where he studied with Chinese artists who were coincidentally also trained in Europe. In particular, he was influenced by Lin Fengmian, the director of the Academy, who had returned from France bringing examples of French contemporary art, from Impressionism to Matisse and Picasso.

Chu Teh-Chun: Chu Teh-Chun, Sans titre, 1955, oil on canvas, 41 x 27 cm | © Adagp 2023 © Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

Chu Teh-Chun, Sans titre, 1955, oil on canvas, 41 x 27 cm | © Adagp 2023 © Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

Forced to leave his hometown in 1937 due to the Second Sino-Japanese War, Chu continued his apprenticeship as a nomad, visiting the inner regions of China, before becoming a professor of art at Chongqing University in 1941. During these trips, he had the chance to explore the breathtaking landscapes of different regions, which he would portray in his work. Unfortunately, all the paintings and works on paper he realized during this period were later lost, but these formative years and the landscapes he had the opportunity to portray would make a lasting impression on his imagination and continued to inspire him long after he left China.

After briefly moving to Taiwan in 1948, to escape the Cultural Revolution, Chu finally decided to settle in Paris in 1955 with his wife, a decision that would profoundly shape his artistic vision. Immersed in the vibrant cultural milieu of post-war Europe, Chu found himself drawn to the works of the Abstract Expressionists and the School of Paris. Their radical departure from representational art resonated deeply with Chu, inspiring him to forge his own path within the realm of abstraction.

Chu Teh-Chun: Chu Teh-Chun, Composition 228, 1966, oil on canvas, 195 x 130 cm | © Adagp 2023  Coll. Musée d’art moderne, Paris © Paris Musées / Musée d’Art moderne

Chu Teh-Chun, Composition 228, 1966, oil on canvas, 195 x 130 cm | © Adagp 2023  Coll. Musée d’art moderne, Paris © Paris Musées / Musée d’Art moderne

Embracing Abstraction: A Bridge Between East and West

In Paris, Chu Teh-Chun finally had the stability to properly work on his painting, developing his style and studio practice. At first, the artist found himself isolated from the French artistic community, not speaking the language and unable to properly communicate. Nonetheless, he resorted to galleries and museums to find the inspiration he was seeking and there he first got introduced to Abstract Expressionism. The first paintings Chu completed in Europe were still very much influenced by figurativism, an inheritance of his formative years in China. But soon after moving to Europe, he started a progressive path towards abstraction and simplification that eventually led him to his signature style. 

However, although deeply influenced by Western artists, he never abandoned his native heritageand he proceeded to blend both of these influences. On the one hand, he looked up to artists such as Hans Hartung and Helen Frankenthaler, whose dynamic works greatly inspired a whole generation of painters, or the subtle spirituality and sublimity that emanated from Mark Rothko’s large-scale canvases. At the same time, on the other hand, he started to dilute his oil painting, almost transforming it into watercolor, which he would then apply in thin layers, to create a sfumato effect that strongly resembled ink painting and traditional Chinese techniques. 

Chu Teh-Chun: Chu Teh-Chun, Le 8 juillet 1976, 1976, oil on canvas, 162 x 128 cm | © Adagp 2023 © Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

Chu Teh-Chun, Le 8 juillet 1976, 1976, oil on canvas, 162 x 128 cm | © Adagp 2023 © Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

This unique blend was further developed through the subject he would choose for his paintings. Looking primarily at landscape painting, he chose to depict the very same landscapes he saw first-hand while exiled in the inner regions of China, and that he admired so much.

In doing so, Chu’s technique developed into a captivating blend of Eastern and Western influences. He adopted the gestural approach of abstract expressionism, where energetic brushstrokes dance across the canvas, creating a sense of movement and dynamism. But at the same time, he retained the meticulous control and precision honed through his study of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, mixing this with the landscapes of his native country. This resulted in works that were both powerful and serene, captivating viewers with their complex interplay of form, color, and texture.

Chu Teh-Chun: Chu Teh-Chun, Le point du jour, 1988-1989, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm | © Adagp 2023 © Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

Chu Teh-Chun, Le point du jour, 1988-1989, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm | © Adagp 2023 © Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

A Legacy of Innovation and Inspiration

Nowadays Chu Teh-Chun’s impact on the art world is undeniable and his legacy as an artist is far-reaching. It encompasses both his profound influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism and his role as a cultural ambassador bridging the East and West. But his fortune only really started in the 1980s, when his figure started gaining the recognition it deserved. 

In the past few decades, nonetheless, his work has been showcased both in France and internationally, and it is now held in the collections of leading museums and institutions worldwide, a testament to the enduring impact of his artistic vision.

For this reason, on the occasion of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the Cini Foundation features a major retrospective titled “Chu Teh-Chun In Nebula,” solidifying his position as a pivotal figure in the history of contemporary art. This exhibition serves as a fitting tribute to his legacy, showcasing the captivating works that continue to inspire and challenge us to see the world through a lens of artistic fusion. We talked to the curator, Matthieu Poirier, to better delve into the figure, work, and legacy of this extraordinary artist. 

Carlotta Mazzoli: Chu Teh-Chun’s career can be divided into two parts. How did his relocation to Europe in 1955 influence his artistic trajectory, particularly in terms of stylistic evolution and thematic exploration? And how does the exhibition navigate these distinct phases of his career, considering we have basically no examples of his work pre-1955?

Matthieu Poirier: His career could be divided into two parts, but not in two equal halves, as the first part in Asia only lasted 10-15 years, and could be considered more like an extended training (but also teaching) period; while the second part, from 1955 in Paris, saw his career and personal style develop over 54 years (until 2009). But the first part was essential indeed, as Chu was trained at the Hangzhou Academy by the best artists of the time. They were knowledgeable of traditional Chinese art, also did their studies in Paris, and were keen on reporting the Occidental avant-garde activities. It means that when Chu came to Paris and encountered the local avant-garde painting trends like Lyrical Abstraction or Informal Art, he was already prepared for his shift towards abstraction – partly thanks to Cézanne, which made him question the validity of realism in painting. Luckily, within the exhibition at the Fondazione Cini, we’ll see a wonderful and unique painting, a seashore that he painted in 1951, which is a perfect transitional work.

Chu Teh-Chun: Chu Teh-Chun In Nebula – Installation shot at Fondazione Cini (Venice, Italy), 2024 | Photo Saywho – Jean Picon – Courtesy Fondazione Cini and Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

Chu Teh-Chun In Nebula – Installation shot at Fondazione Cini (Venice, Italy), 2024 | Photo Saywho – Jean Picon – Courtesy Fondazione Cini and Fondation CHU Teh-Chun

CM: As you clearly explain in the exhibition catalog, the work of Chu Teh-Chun is influenced by several different sources, ranging from his study of Chinese calligraphy to his immersion in the Post-War Parisian art scene. Within the exhibition context, how does the curatorial approach address the diverse influences on Chu Teh-Chun’s artistic practice? Can you provide examples of artworks or thematic threads that illustrate these influences and how the exhibition challenges established interpretations of his work?

MP: In the book, I sure can explore wider historical or contextual aspects of the career, and make comparisons in order to understand Chu’s logic. In the exhibition, I focused on some of his most important paintings from 1951 to 2008, which for most of them, haven’t been shown for a very long time. Thanks to a lot of incredible loans. Echoing the publication, some videos and texts will accompany the visit, and propose a few concise angles to apprehend the works. But the essential, in order to appreciate its complexity and singularity, is to come and see the works “in the flesh, meaning in real time and space, to be able to project ourselves into those atmospheric abstractions, to abandon our usual boundaries and habits within an exhibition. All this only thanks to some oil brushed on canvases.

CM: Exploring the artist’s production, we notice how his canvases grew in size over time, reaching monumental dimensions. In this regard, the exhibition’s layout, beginning with these recent large-scale works and progressing in reverse chronological order, suggests a deliberate curatorial strategy. Could you explain why this approach was chosen and how it enhances the visitor’s understanding of Chu’s artistic evolution?

MP: It’s very common to consider an artist’s evolution as linear, but we can also apprehend it as circular, meaning he’ll abandon a logic to come back to it. The important is the connection between all the works. Starting the presentation with the late works and finishing with the earlier ones follows the introspective angle, from the leaves to the roots. Chu’s exhibition space at the Fondazione Cini is its historical emptied swimming pool, i.e. a very unconventional space, far from a classic museum. We thought about ways to build elements that would echo spatial aspects of the paintings. This might have been the moment that I particularly thought of the wandering of the gaze within the painted chromatic clouds and abstract landscapes. It goes from the mountains-like or even dragons-like irregular dividers walls that we built to the pathway through the totally open, arena-like space. We walk along three different levels, from ground 0 to minus 2, then on stairs or on wooden platforms, through a large number of viewpoints onto the paintings. Then we’ll end in the depths of the pool, to the origins.

CM: Lastly, considering Chu Teh-Chun’s thematic preoccupations with the sublime and memory, notably evident in his abstract landscapes from the 1970s onwards, alongside the monumental scale of his canvases, what correlations can be drawn between the size of his works, the themes explored, and the artist’s personal experiences? How does the exhibition elucidate these interconnections within the broader context of Chu’s artistic journey?

MP: The exhibition will allow a survey of the career by focusing on the gestural, sublime, immersive, and atmospheric aspects of the work. Like Matisse, Chu lived a quiet life from 1995 until he stopped painting in 2009, meanwhile, his paintings were everything but quiet: they were fed by ancient dramas, from losing almost dramatically his parents, his works, his archives, his country of birth. For Chun, art is not a report or a document of what just happened, a photograph. It’s everything but that.  

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