Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki moved to Paris after the Second World War. It enabled the pair to fuse Chinese techniques with western practise, says Helen Ho
With careers spanning over six decades, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki are two of the most important living Chinese artists, and their works are found in the collections of more than 50 museums worldwide. Coincidentally, both artists have contradicted the adage that the best work of an artist is from the early period of their career. It is the late works of Chu and Zao that sealed their place in history.
For their part in revitalising and expanding Chinese artistic traditions, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki have built a bridge between its past and future. For 60 years, their lives and careers have followed a remarkably similar path despite having little personal contact, since they were, as Chu once noted, "indirectly competitors".
Born only a year apart into erudite families, Chu and Zao both studied calligraphy in their formative years. The two artists went to the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou from 1941-1942, where the liberated teaching style of distinguished artists such as Lin Fengmian, Pan Tianshou and Wu Dayu provided them with a foundation in modern western and traditional Chinese painting techniques.
Upon arrival in Paris (Zao in 1948; Chu in 1955), their first stop was the Louvre to see for themselves the masterpieces they knew only from postcards. Although both were already proficient painters, in order to fully assimilate western art practises, they took lessons at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an art school that was reputedly the cheapest in Paris. It provided little teaching, but ensured there was a model for life class and a warm studio during the winter.In the 1950s, the art world went through a shift: abstraction came to the forefront. This was a particularly opportune moment for the two artists since abstraction has long existed within the Chinese artistic vocabulary. The idea of expressing the spirit of nature can be traced to landscape paintings of the Tang Dynasty. This, together with Paris' vibrant art scene, inspired the pair to experiment beyond their cultural boundaries. Quite independently, Chu and Zao developed an artistic language that reconciles Chinese and European aesthetics. As Zao said in 1961, "Paris undeniably was an influence on my transformation into an artist, but I have to point out that as my artistic personality gradually took shape, I was also gradually rediscovering China."
Zao's first solo exhibition in Paris took place in 1949 at Galerie Creuze. This was followed by shows at the Salon des Tuileries and the Salon d'Automne. He learnt lithography in Edmond Desjobert's renowned workshop, and his first set of prints was exhibited in 1950. His work in this medium proved a turning point. In Switzerland, Zao came across the works of Paul Klee, whose colour palette and delicate brushwork revealed the influence of Chinese watercolours and an oriental philosophy of art. Lithography also led to a lifelong friendship with Henri Michaux, a poet who was inspired to write poems that accompanied Zao's lithographs.
Poetry has a vital role in the works of Chu and Zao, who drew parallels between the two art forms: "What I like most in poetry is the feeling of freedom when every word finds its own place as part of an ordered whole; when we pause at some point in our reading, that moment is a moment of peace and beauty, just like spaces in a painting."
This sentiment is equally present in Chu's paintings where the viewer is drawn by his vigorous calligraphic brushwork and intense colour palette into a dynamic space filled with spiritual energy. It is reminiscent of the grand landscape paintings and poetry of the Tang and Song dynasties.
Chu's move towards non-figurative painting started in 1956 when he first encountered the work of Nicolas de Staël. In 1984, he remembered the effect of first seeing the works. "It was a real revelation of the freedom of expression to me. I slowly turned towards traditional Chinese painting. I discovered the poetry in it and its way of observing nature which is close to abstract art."
Following his first solo exhibition at Galerie du Haut-Pavé in 1958, Chu's work would become increasingly expressive. He drew inspiration from Chinese calligraphy and ink wash paintings, the chiaroscuro effects of Rembrandt, as well Rothko's hypnotic colour fields. In 1986, the artist returned to Taiwan and saw for himself the works of the Song Dynasty shanshui painters, the very masters he had long revered.
Described as "a symphony of colour, a celebration of cosmic music", Chu's oeuvre is a reinterpretation of Chinese landscape painting that combines western oil medium with the rhythmical lines found in ink brush painting.
Helen Ho is an Asian art consultant. Her most recent book is The DSL Collection: A Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art.
Sale: Fifteen Paintings by Chu Teh-Chun &
Zao Wou-Ki and Twelve Chinese Treasures
Hong Kong, 27 May at 7pm
Enquiries: Benedetta Ghione-Webb
+44 (0) 20 7468 5864