In 1947, Chu Teh-chun was sailing on the Yangtze River, back to the National School of Fine Arts where he was studying, when a fierce rainstorm threw his life’s work overboard. The loss broke his heart – but he never bothered to document all of those ruined paintings. It was only when collectors asked to look at his past works in the 1950s that he began to vigourously recreate them, meticulously reproducing miniature versions of his paintings, noting down everything from the year they were made to the exact dimensions of the original.
When the artist passed away in 2014, he left behind more than 2,500 oil paintings, works of calligraphy, ink art and ceramics. All of this is now part of the Chu Teh Chun Foundation, an organisation founded in Geneva by Chu’s wife, Thérèse Tung Ching-chao, and their son Yvon, who serves as director of the Foundation.
Born in 1920 in Jiangsu, Chu grew up in a scholarly family. His grandfather collected art and poetry and his father, a doctor, encouraged him to learn calligraphy when he was a boy. He studied at the avant-garde Hangzhou Academy of Art under the legendary Lin Feng-min, where he practiced both Chinese and Western-style painting – and was equally adept at both.
As he studied, a desire to visit Paris germinated in Chu. “In those days, contact with Western paintings was limited to printed copies, so you can imagine how I longed to see the original,” he later said. “All instructors that taught me Western art had once been in France. All these moulded by fantasy into shape, and so ever since my student days I had longed to go to France.”
Chu wasn’t the only one to harbour that desire. Paris was the “metropolis of the art world,” Li Lin-tsan, Chu’s classmate at the academy, once said, and many of the young artists of their generation longed to make the journey to the French capital. Their friend and classmate Wu Guanzhong beat them to it, having studied in Paris before returning to China in 1950. Together with another friend and classmate, Zao Wou-ki, the three artists came to be known as the “Three Musketeers” of Chinese art – three artists who synthesised the aesthetic philosophies of Chinese and Western art in the 20th century.
What Chu didn’t expect, perhaps, was that the trip to “see the originals” in Paris would become a permanent move. He arrived in the city after having left mainland China for Taiwan, where he taught at the National University in Taipei from 1949 to 1955. When he first arrived in Paris, he dabbled in figurative nudes – the life drawing sessions in Paris was “eye-opening,” he once said. But the turning point was his encounter with the works of French painter Nicolas de Staël, whose non-geometric abstracts freed him from a dependence on figurative art. Seeing those works for the first time in 1956 was a transformative moment, as Chu began experimenting with the abstract landscapes that would become his legacy. Since then, Chu has held abstractionism in high regard – in freeing objects from the restraints of form, he thought, abstractionism gives painters more room to express themselves. For him, painting wasn’t just about gaining mastery over technique. “In painting, thought is of the essence,” he said.
There’s an argument to be made that, if not de Staël, it would have been someone else who had nudged Chu to evolve his style – if he hadn’t found his own way to. In an interview with Ming Pao Monthly art critic T’ien Dan, he said that “abstractionism is the inevitable continuation—heir—to Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism.” filmmaker Christophe Fonseca, whose documentary on Chu is set for a Hong Kong debut later this month, thinks the artist was set in his path. “I think he knew where he was going. It just took time,” he says.
Trying to describe Chu’s art is a mug’s game. You can talk about the swirls of powdered snow, or the brilliant beams of light peeping out from sumptuous pools of turquoise and orange – a technique he started experimenting with after visiting a 1969 exhibition of Rembrandt, whose masterful use of chiaroscuro added depth and complexity to his subjects. You can note how Chu was inspired by nature while also transcending it, conjuring cosmic visions that evoked mankind’s existential turmoils. But the artist resisted talking about his work, once saying, “I’m no good at analysing my work. What I want to say comes out in my own painting.”
As much as Chu was influenced by Western abstractionism, his art was also rooted in his Chinese heritage. He drew upon the Chinese calligraphy lessons he took in China, and he admired Song Dynasty (960-1279) artists such as Fan Kuan and Li Tang, who painted monumental landscapes. He once told art historian Michael Sullivan, “When I say my painting has Chinese feeling in it, that’s because I’m Chinese. It was in my parents; it’s in my blood, it is so deep in my background and upbringing that I can’t help oozing out naturally.”
The European art circle ate up his art. He held 47 solo shows across the continent in the first three decades after he moved to Paris. By the late 1970s, his paintings were already going for US$10,000 apiece. In 1980, he became a French citizen, and was later awarded several of France’s highest distinctions for his contribution to the arts. In 1997, he was the first person of Chinese origin to be elected member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which traces its roots back to the 17th century.
But he remained unfettered by his success, working as hard as ever. Every day, the artist would wake up just after sunrise and start painting until night fell, recalls his son Yvon. Chu had always been a hard worker. As a professor in Taipei, he cut back on food and living expenses, using his entire salary to buy expensive oil paint. “Painting is a difficult task. Many a time, there is only cultivation with no harvest,” he once said.
Even as he grew in stature, he carved out time for his family, organising dumpling-making sessions and dropping his sons off at school. His was a close-knit family, not least because there were just the four of them, including Yi-Hwa, an older son who later passed away. Thérèse was “the cement that linked everyone together,” says Yvon. “It must have been difficult for a Chinese couple to be living in Paris in the 50s. When they arrived, they only knew a few basic French phrases.”
Chu met Thérèse on the boat that took him to France. They soon fell in love, were married, and were inseparable until Chu’s death in 2014. “When I was with Teh-chun, I always felt like a fish in water,” she says. “We had endless things to talk about. We were survivors of a eight-year-long war, and we brought that resilience all the way to Paris. We were always in the same boat.”
Yvon recalls the “special scent” from the linseed oil and paints that lined the walls of the family home, and how he was oblivious to his father’s fame until he finally attended as a child the opening of one of his exhibitions and saw Chu’s works mounted on the walls; at home they were kept on the floor. Chu never taught his son painting, believing that everyone needs to find their own vocation and work hard for it. Yvon didn’t end up following in his father’s footsteps – though he did become interested in architecture, which he came to realise was also an interest of his father’s. “He was interested in the forms and shapes of buildings. Once he showed me a sketch he did of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao,” he says.
As a parent, Chu wasn’t “the arguing type,” says Yvon. If he was cross with you, he preferred that you took the time to think about what you did wrong, rather than yelling. “He would tell you why [he was upset], then give you the silent treatment. At that point, you know he must be angry,” says Yvon.
Thérèse says Chu was an “introvert” but also a generous spirit. He hosted artist friends in the family’s Paris apartment, going out of his way to make sure visitors saw the best of the city. He never lorded his fame and fortune over others, Taiwanese artist and longtime admirer Sung Lung-fei once wrote. “He never made me feel like a young apprentice. Instead, he always addressed me modestly by my personal name, Lung-fei.”
There was a time in his life when Chu sacrificed kin for art, however. In 1955, he left his first wife, former classmate Liu Hanfu, and their daughter Kate behind in Taipei when he left for Paris. Chu didn’t see them again until 1983. It’s a chapter of the artist’s life that is examined by Foncesca’s documentary, which features an interview with Kate. “I wanted to give [her] a voice,” he says. In order to get in touch with Kate, Thérèse and Yvon suggested that Foncesca reach out to her son, actor Allen Theosky Rowe. “When we reconstructed Chu’s departure for Paris, Kate was on set. It was very emotional,” says Foncesca.
Chu’s return to Asia in 1983 gave him a chance to reconcile with a part of himself, he later said. One can only wonder if he meant his Chinese heritage, the family he walked out on, or both. In the documentary, Kate’s interview is difficult to watch, not least because Chu is such a revered figure in the art world. But perhaps that is what makes Chu human, with all his flaws, regrets and sorrows. A human who wanted to capture the universe in its splendour and chaos.
The documentary film CHU Teh-Chun will screen at:
Art Basel – Hong Kong’s Film Sector on May 22, 2021. For schedule and further information click here
Le French May Arts Festival – Film sector. Broadway Cinematheque on May 25, 2021, MOViE MOViE Pacific Place on May 31 and Tai Kwun on June 2. Click here for ticketing and more information.