On March 26, the renowned abstract painter Chu Teh-Chun died in Paris at the age of 93. Following closely after the passing of his friend and fellow proponent of the Chinese Modernist movement Zao Wou-ki (1920–2013), last year, as well as Wu Guangzhong in 2010, Chu’s death marks the end of generation of Chinese painters living in Europe whose works provided distinct cross-cultural perspectives.
Born in 1920 in Baitu Zhen, Anhui Province, China, Chu trained at Hangzhou’s School of Fine Arts under the direction of Lin Fengmian, the father of modern Chinese art who espoused a synthesis of Eastern and Western styles. At the onset of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937, Chu was forced to relocate to the University of Nanking, where he was offered a teaching position upon his graduation in 1942. In 1949, he moved to Taipei to take up a professorship at the School of Industry before joining the National Taiwan Normal University to teach painting in the Western style. In 1955, Chu moved to Paris where he would spend the rest of his life. It was there that the artist encountered the evocative realms of abstraction that would come to characterize his oeuvre.
It was after attending an exhibition of Nicolas de Staël’s highly abstract landscape paintings in thick impasto that Chu was inspired to abandon figurative painting. Adopting instead a unique vocabulary of bold reams of color, often reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy strokes, in oil paint, watercolor and Chinese ink, his new works met with immediate praise. That same year Chu was honored with the Silver Medal at the Salon of French Artists.
In 1964, an exhibition of his work at the International Art Exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh propelled Chu into the ranks of international artists. Today his work graces the permanent collections of over 50 museums worldwide and has been exhibited in both private and public institutions throughout Europe, America and Asia. In 2005, a major exhibition was held at the Fine Arts Museum in Shanghai, while The National Art Museum of China in Beijing organized a further important retrospective in 2010.
Chu was one of a generation of Chinese artists who, due to the tense political situation in their country, found living abroad more suitable for their artistic expression. Though the majority of their works were produced in the West, they are credited with making some of the most important contributions to Chinese modern art. Combining Western abstraction with Eastern sensibilities, and infusing it with their own views on identity and belonging, Chu and others forged important cross-cultural alliances and generated new models of understanding at a time when notions of home and nation were increasingly in flux.
Ming Lin is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.